Mark Scheifele

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Looking to make the leap: Kyle Connor

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Kyle Connor didn’t make “the leap” with the Winnipeg Jets last season, but he took quite a few baby steps.

He appeared in 20 regular-season games with Winnipeg in 2016-17, managing two goals and five points. The majority of his appearances came early in the campaign with one exception: an April 8 appearance where he carried over strong AHL work with a goal.

Sadly, Connor received an unfortunate “welcome to the NHL” moment already, as this boarding hit by Kyle Clifford served as an uncomfortable introduction to the physical side of the league:

That aside, Connor really was impressive with the Manitoba Moose, and he seems to be a pretty quick learner overall.

In just 52 games in the AHL, Connor scored 25 goals and 44 points. This continued the momentum from his season with Michigan in the NCAA, when he managed 35 goals and 71 points in just 38 games as he became a Hobey Baker finalist in 2015-16.

Every sign points to the 20-year-old being an impact player, right down to being a high draft pick (17th overall in 2015).

That said, Connor did suffer some growing pains – literally and figuratively – and told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell that an AHL demotion sent quite the message last season.

“You have to experience it,” Connor said. “Once I moved down [to Manitoba], it was a bit upsetting, of course, and it took a couple of games more than I wanted to adjust. But once I did, I worked with the staff really well and the stuff they wanted me to implement into my game. I thought that made a huge difference, and you could see it toward the end of my season.”

Jets fans might get to see that difference in 2017-18, especially after Winnipeg parted ways with some veterans who might have otherwise stood in the way of Connor and fellow promising forward Jack Roslovic.

(Roslovic could probably be considered the “1b” to Connor’s “1a” as far as Jets looking to make the leap.)

It should be fascinating to see how Paul Maurice might use Connor if he does indeed cement his status as an everyday NHL forward.

Will Connor still need to earn Maurice’s trust after only averaging 12:13 time on ice during his rookie looks last season? Connor could conceivably benefit if the Jets try to spread the wealth with talented forwards or possibly suffer a bit if the team instead loads up (i.e. putting Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele on the same, potent line once again).

There are a variety of ways this could turn out, with the possibilities including another AHL demotion.

Even so, it looks exceedingly likely that Connor will continue his upward trend with the Jets this coming season.

Winnipeg Jets are finally interesting

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Not only have the Winnipeg Jets been a pretty mediocre hockey team for most of their existence, they have also been a painfully dull team.

Nothing particularly exciting on the ice.

A front office that has rebuilt the team at a snails pace, seemingly refusing to make any sort of significant trade or free agent signing.

For the longest time no real difference maker of a player to build around because they were never quite bad enough to get a top-pick where a franchise player can be selected.

Slowly but surely — emphasis on slowly — that has all started to change for the Jets.

Just consider the core they have to build around now…

  • Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, just put together one of the best rookie seasons for an 18-year-old in recent NHL memory with his 36-goal in 73 games performance. He is the cornerstone player the Jets have been desperate for. They finally got the right draft pick in the right year to land that type of player.
  • Mark Scheifele, just now entering his prime years in the NHL, was a point-per-game player this past season and looks as if he has developed into a threat to score 30 goals every season. He topped that mark a year ago and almost certainly would have done it the previous year had he not missed nine games due to injury.
  • Nikolaj Ehlers, the team’s first-round pick in 2014, had a breakout season in 2016-17 that saw him top the 25-goal and 60-point marks, while also playing an exciting style and making highlight reels due to his playmaking ability and speed.

That is an exciting young trio of forwards that not only play a visually pleasing style of hockey, but are also extremely productive. It is a great young core to build around.

Along with that group also have a solid stable of veterans led by the always underrated Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. There really is a lot of talent on this team and it produced one of the best offenses in the league.

Unfortunately they also had one of the worst defensive performances in the league. If nothing else it made their games some of the highest scoring in the league, making them the team to watch if you like offense. In a league where the average game saw only 5.5 goals per game, Jets games were putting more than six goals per game on the board. That is probably not what they want to see as it isn’t always the best recipe for consistent, sustained success, but it’s at least brought some excitement to a team that that for years had none outside of whatever chants its crowd could come up with.

It’s taken a few years, but the Jets finally have enough young pieces in place that they might be able to start building something of significance. At least as it relates to their forwards.

They just need to find a way to keep the puck out of their own net.

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

McPhee, Golden Knights begin process of stockpiling talent

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The Vegas Golden Knights used the expansion draft this past week to stockpile draft picks in exchange for not selecting certain players. General manager George McPhee’s haul helped the team collect 12 draft picks for this year, including three of the top-15 picks in the first-round (No. 6 overall, No. 13 overall and No. 15 overall).

McPhee ended up keeping all three of his first-round picks and followed through on his commitment of drafting their way to success.

With those picks the Golden Knights selected a pair of centers, Cody Glass from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks at No. 6, and Nick Suzuki from the Owen Sound Attack at No. 13.

From there, they began to build up their blue line by taking Swedish blue-liner Erik Brannstrom with the 15th overall pick.

With that collection of assets it was reasonable to imagine that McPhee might try to package some of them together to move up from their own pick at No. 6 overall, perhaps even to make a run at Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick with one of the top-two picks.

McPhee made it sound like Glass was one of their primary targets and even suggested they had a deal in place (involving one of their second-round picks) to make a move for him if needed.

He did not need to.

When asked about the comparisons Glass drew to Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele, McPhee said it was a fair comparison.

In the end, keeping all three first-round picks is probably the best-case scenario for Vegas when it comes to building an organization from the ground up. Luck was not on their side in the draft lottery and they didn’t get an opportunity to get one of the elite prospects, and as tempting as it might have been to make a bold move up for one this is a team that is literally starting from scratch. It needs talent all over the ice and a lot of times the best way to find success in the draft is by giving yourself as many opportunities as possible.

McPhee certainly did that for Vegas in their first ever draft.

Cody Glass becomes Vegas’ first-ever draft pick

Cody Glass became part of history on Friday night.

Glass, the No. 6 ranked North American skater from WHL Portland, became the first-ever draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, who took him sixth overall at the United Center in Chicago.

A 6-foot-2 center that was named the Winterhawks’ MVP this season, Glass has drawn comparisons to Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. He put up a stunning 94 points in 64 games this season, and is regarded as one of the finest offensive talents in the Western League.

While Glass is the first-ever pick for the Knights, he’ll soon have some company. GM George McPhee stockpiled a pair of additional first-round picks at Wednesday’s expansion draft — No. 13 and 15 respectively — meaning Vegas could walk away from tonight with a boatload of young, enticing prospects.