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Flying under the radar: Kyle Connor’s rookie season has been quietly impressive

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Tucked away behind Blake Wheeler’s career season, Patrik Laine’s 43 goals and Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-type season is Kyle Connor’s impressive rookie campaign.

I’d be open to suggestions, but you’d be hard-pressed to show me another rookie having a more impressive season than Connor is that is also seemingly flying under the radar in the National Hockey League.

Up until about week ago, no one outside of Winnipeg was talking about the former Hobey Baker runner-up. And there’s a good reason for that given that Laine was doing things that, historically, no teenager had ever done.

“Everything goes under the radar when you play for Winnipeg,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler this past Tuesday. “He’s been one of the huge X-factors for our team. Him stepping into our lineup and contributing at the rate he’s contributed at, it’s a huge reason why we sit where we are today. He was a got that you had high hopes for coming into the year, but obviously a little bit of a question mark. You didn’t really know what you were going to get. He’s taken the opportunity that he’s got this year and done a great job.”

Connor, like he has all season, just carried on working in the shadows of others. Piling up the goals until there was no choice but to take notice at what he’s doing.

Connor’s 28 goals are just one goal back of Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead, something that Connor should surpass before the end of the season given his recent success in that department. He’s second the Jets with five game-winners.

“It’s nice to have the coach have confidence in you,” Connor said. “To be able to go out there and try to make something happen and get a chance for game-winnernner.”

Connor is picking up 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes played and his goals-per-60 is sitting at 1.3.

He also has a little streak going for himself, with two overtime goals in the Jets past two games, becoming the second rookie ever to accomplish the quirky feat.

And he’s done so by using his speed to create space for himself in open ice.

There’s not much of a case to be made for Connor and the Calder — that belongs to Mathew Barzal. But Connor should be in the conversation, if only for the recognition of what he’s done.

Unlike the Barzals, the Boesers and the Kellers and the Gourdes, Connor didn’t begin the season with the big club. Instead, the 21-year-old former Michigan Wolverine didn’t make the grade for the opening day roster out of training camp. He was just mediocre. And with a team oozing with offensive talent, mediocre wasn’t going to cut it.

Connor, banished to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, played four games for the Jets farmhand, collecting three goals and five points, before his stay across the hall at Bell MTS Place came to an abrupt end.

Injuries to Adam Lowry, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault meant the Jets needed some reinforcements, so Winnipeg recalled Connor on Oct. 16.

He hasn’t looked back since.

HockeyViz.com

Connor’s recalled came with a period spent playing with Bryan Little and Laine before he was promoted to the top line.

It hadn’t worked out with Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers on the top unit, and moving other pieces meant a cascading effect and a lot of line juggling. If Connor could fill in the void, the Jets could concentrate on getting their other three lines right.

So there was a chance and a challenge: prove he can keep up with the relentless pace of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and you’ll stay right where you’re at.

Connor obliged.

Outside of a few hiccups — dropping down to the third and fourth lines at times — Connor has become an important piece on Winnipeg’s top line — a shifty player with a knack for finding enough space in front to get a quality scoring opportunity.

“He’s awesome. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said after Connor’s game-winner on Friday. “He goes to the right spots. He battles hard in the corner, he goes to the right areas, he goes to the dirty areas. He does everything so well and obviously, his knack for scoring is top notch. He’s been really fun to play with this season. It’s exciting to see him grow like that.”

Connor has exploded for six goals in his past eight games, but it’s perhaps what he learned in an eight-game drought prior that’s played an important role in what he’s been doing lately.

“So, he’s played a lot of good games, but the game in Carolina, he doesn’t score, plays exceptionally well and I think he was really working hard all that stretch, he had that little block there where he wasn’t scoring,” Maurice said on Friday. “He seems to me that he’s relaxed a little bit when the puck is on his stick. Confidence for any player is such an important thing and can’t be given to anybody, you get one and then all the sudden you get that good feeling and then you attach that good feeling to some really good play. He’d been playing very, very well and not scoring, so he wasn’t very far off it and a little bit of confidence and away he goes.”

The only real pressure on Connor is what he puts on himself in Winnipeg. There’s enough heavy lifting happening, so Connor has had the freedom of figuring out his game and what works.

“Well, you can never be too comfortable in this league,” Connor said. “Something I learned through this year is you’ve got to bring it every day. You’ve got to prove yourself. I think I’m getting more confident every game I play but I don’t think I’m too comfortable. You come to the rink and you’ve got to prove yourself.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

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Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has a reputation of being a little tight with his wallet, but on Thursday morning he handed out a massive extension to one of his better young players.

The Senators announced that they’ve signed Thomas Chabot to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension. The 22-year-old put up 14 goals and 55 points in 70 contests last season. He also averaged over 24 minutes of ice time per game in his second NHL season.

“Thomas is an exceptional talent and an outstanding teammate, who is impactful both on and off the ice. He is the type of player that can develop into a core member of a championship-level team in the National Hockey League,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “He is an NHL all-star; an elite skater and puck-mover who plays with pace and determination. We are convinced Thomas will have a significant impact on the Ottawa Senators as we develop and grow into a highly competitive team over the coming seasons and we are extremely proud that Thomas will continue to be a key part of our team’s future success moving forward. Today is a great day for the Ottawa Senators franchise.”

Chabot still has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, so this extension will only kick in at the start of the 2020-21 season.

Per Cap Friendly, Chabot has a modified no-trade (10-team no-trade) clause in the final four years of the extension.

This is a major signing for the Sens. Not only does it keep their best player under team control for the next nine years, it also shows a commitment to keeping and paying their high-end talent. Also, the fact that Chabot is willing to commit to Ottawa and the Senators franchise for a long time.

After the Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone fiascos, the Sens couldn’t afford more bad press with their star players. So the fact that Melnyk was willing to open the vault to lock up a young player is a good sign. They already locked up Colin White to a six-year extension this summer and they will have to do the same thing with Brady Tkachuk in the next two years.

Ottawa has some good pieces on their roster, but the young talent isn’t surrounded with enough quality. After Chabot, their blue line is made up of Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin and Christian Jaros. None of those guys is worthy of being on a top pairing right now.

As good as the Chabot news is, it’s still going to be a while before the Sens become contenders again.

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Senators made quite a few moves during the off-season, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a better team than they were last year. They were also the worst team in the NHL last season, so it’s hard to argue that they’re worse. The organization is stuck in the middle of a rebuild. Expectations in Ottawa aren’t very high coming into the season and it’s easy to see why. Erik Karlsson is no longer on the team, Mark Stone is also not on the roster anymore. They added Artem Anisimov, Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis up front and Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. There’s so much parity in the NHL that many teams will compete for playoff spots, but Ottawa won’t be one of them.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Senators have some good young talent on this roster. Brady Tkachuk should take another step forward after impressing in his rookie year, Colin White just earned a six-year extension this summer and Thomas Chabot, who signed an eight-year extension on Thursday, is already starting to emerge as a stand out on the blue line. Unfortunately, those players aren’t well surrounded right now when it comes to talent. It’ll take some time, but the Senators will be good again at some point.

Weaknesses: Outside of Chabot, the defense really isn’t that good. It’s made up of Zaitsev, Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin, and Christian Jaros. You can argue that each of those players should be on a bottom-pairing. So you can see why many aren’t expecting much from this team this year. They may play hard for new head coach D.J. Smith, but winning won’t come easy to this group.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Hopefully it’s a one on 10, right now. Smith was just hired this off-season and management can’t be expecting him to get many positive results this season. The former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant has nothing to lose heading into this year. The team is expected to be bad, so if he can get anything out of them, people will be lining the streets to give him his due. But even a dysfunctional Senators organization can’t put this new head coach on the hot seat just yet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on White, Tkachuk and Chabot. Anyone who has seen them play knows what they’re capable of doing on the ice, but watching them perform during what should be a difficult season should be interesting. These are young players that will have ups and downs. They’re talented, but how will they deal with all the losing? Will they be able to put up impressive numbers despite not being surrounded with the best talent. Can they drive the play? Again, all three players have a very bright future, but tough times are ahead for them.

Playoffs or Lottery: If you haven’t figured it out yet in the first five paragraphs of this article, the Senators will very likely be a lottery team. There simply isn’t enough talent on the roster to compete with the other teams in the conference that will be competing for a Wild Card spot. Is Ottawa better than Montreal, Florida, the Rangers, the Devils or the Flyers? They’re not. All of those teams stayed the same or got better and none of them made the playoffs last season. There’s been so much chaos around the organization that they’re almost starting from scratch.

MORE:
• Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Ron Hextall’s new job; Martin Jones has to prove himself

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• All signs are pointing to a bridge deal between Tampa Bay and Brayden Point. (The Hockey News)

• Was Patrik Laine right when he complained about the way the Jets were using him? (TSN)

Carter Hart and Jakub Voracek will use sticks with designs made by kids with childhood cancer. (NHL.com)

Alex Ovechkin will receive the Wayne Gretzky International Award from USA Hockey. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Ron Hextall found himself a new job as a part-time advisor for the LA Kings. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Sharks goalie Martin Jones has to prove himself all over again after a rough season. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• For the Kings to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, Rob Blake knows his team has to do a great job of developing young talent. (LA Times)

• The Oilers and Jets could be realistic trade partners. (Oilers Nation)

Elias Pettersson continues to amaze everyone in Vancouver heading into his second year. (Sportsnet)

Kyle Okposo is ready to give the Buffalo Sabres everything he’s got. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Tanner Fritz is fighting for a playoff spot now that he’s over the blood clot. (NHL.com/Islanders)

Dominik Kubalik could be a break-out candidate for the Chicago Blackhawks. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• The Pens’ lack of room under the salary cap will affect the depth of their squad. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• How Marc Bergevin is quietly preventing a disaster from happening. (A Winning Habit)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.