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.

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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

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.