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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.

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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

Trade: Penguins send Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun and draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

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.

Blues parade Stanley Cup down streets of downtown St. Louis

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Rain or shine, as they say. And the rain wasn’t going to put a damper on this parade.

And while the wet stuff poured down prior to the parade proper in St. Louis on Saturday, it let up as to allow quite the sight, one a half-century in the making.

St. Louis fans lined Market Street just days after their Blues hoisted their first Cup in franchise history after defeating the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The parade route began at the intersection of 18th and Market, went down past Enterprise Center — the home of the Blues — and ended at Broadway and Market, a couple blocks from the famed Gateway Arch along the Mississippi River.

The celebrations continued as players, coaches and alumni led a ceremony under the Arch.

“This is incredible,” Craig Berube said. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of support out here today. People are excited and happy and deserving because they love the game of hockey here. The fans are unbelievable. And they finally got a championship.

Brayden Schenn called it the best day of his life. Schenn wore a firefighter hat, honoring his father who is one and was on the back of one of the fire truck floats.

Rookie sensation Jordan Binnington called the moment surreal, and hardly looked nervous as he let loose and soaked the whole experience in.

Ryan O'Reilly, meanwhile, grabbed the Cup and took it down the street near the thousands of fans lined up, allowing those close enough to touch it as he went by.

Former Blues great Brett Hull, who has two Stanley Cup wins to his name, but never with St. Louis, labelled Saturday as the greatest day in the history of the city.

Hull was one of the first people on stage. Not sober, Hull wanted to change the chant from, ‘Let’s go Blues’ to ‘We went Blues’.

“We don’t have to say, ‘Let’s go’ anymore because we already did it,” Hull said.

Of course, the Blues parade wouldn’t be complete without Laila Anderson, a part of the team’s inspiration during their run to the Cup.

Anderson was surprised with Game 7 tickets and got to watch the Blues hoist Lord Stanley. She told Fox Sports Midwest that she thought her mom was pulling a prank on her when she said she was getting to go and be part of the championship parade.

“I’m just glad I could help them,” she said. ” I don’t know what I do but I’m just glad the whole city supports me so much.

Yesterday, the Blues took the Cup to OB. Clark’s, a neighbourhood sports bar and restaurant.


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

Kings buy out Dion Phaneuf

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Dion Phaneuf‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings has come to an end.

The team announced that they were buying out the 34-year-old’s contract on Saturday afternoon, the first day of the buyout window that lasts until June 30.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

Phaneuf’s name had been circulating in buyout discussions for a while, so it’s hardly surprising that the Kings have elected to do so.

Phaneuf is a shade of the player he used to be and is on the back nine of his career. He’s got two years remaining on a deal and the Kings will save $2,833 million over the course of the buyout, including shedding over $4 million of cap space next year.

Phaneuf’s cap hit over four years will $8.375 million, with the Ottawa Senators retaining 25 percent or $2.791 million per the transaction the two teams made in 2018.

Trading Phaneuf was never likely. He had six points in 67 games last year and the Kings, who were dreadful, healthy-scratched Phaneuf down the stretch.

The Kings acquired Phaneuf prior to the trade deadline in 2018. He’d appear in 93 games over the past two seasons, recording 16 points.

Phaneuf, a first-round pick in 2003, played his 1,000th game during this past season. He’s six points shy of 500 for his NHL career.

The Kings have 10 picks in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft, including the 5th overall selection in the first round.

MORE: Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out


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

Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out

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Well, that didn’t take long.

The Philadelphia Flyers put defenseman Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out, according to the club on Saturday. The Flyers can buy MacDonald out on Sunday after he clears waivers.

Today marks the opening of the buyout window where teams can shed bad contracts (for the most part) and save a little money when it comes to the salary cap. MacDonald’s name was written on the wall on Friday, however, after the Flyers and Washington Capitals swapped Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen, a defenseman.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

MacDonald had a year remaining on his six-year-, $30 million contract he signed prior to the 2014-15 season. The Flyers will save $3.833 million next year, reducing the cap hit from $5 million to just $1.66 million.

“It was a difficult decision,” Flyers GM Cliff Fletcher said. “It was solely cap related…This guys is a constant professional. He did whatever we asked him to do…He’s just a quality person & a guy who played an effective two-way game for our team.”

MacDonald’s play has tanked in recent times and his minutes followed. He had no goals and nine assists last year in 47 games where he averaged around 16 minutes a night, six less than when he was acquired by the Flyers in 2014 from the New York Islanders.

A shortened season became commonplace for MacDonald, often through injury as well as being healthy scratched. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule in his 10-year NHL career.

MacDonald’s buyout is the first foot to fall.

There are several more candidates who could follow the same path over the next two weeks.


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