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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

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

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.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.