Kyle Connor Rampages Through the NCAA

For even the most optimistic of Winnipeg Jets fans, Kyle Connor tearing through the NCAA like a buzz saw has to come as a surprise.

Sure, Jets fans were ecstatic  when Connor fell into their team’s lap at the 17th overall slot in the draft, and sure, there was every indication that he was incredibly offensively gifted, but did Jets fans, even in their wildest dreams, imagine Connor would be this dominant this quickly?

For those wondering what constitutes dominant, Connor’s four point night on January 17th against Ohio State gave him 18 goals and 18 assists on the year for 36 points. His 18 goals leads not only all freshmen but is tied for the nation-wide lead, and his 36 points places him in second in the country. He’s only two points off the national lead, and with one fewer game played than NCAA leader, 22-year-old sophomore Andrew Poturalski.

In other words, Kyle Connor is doing more at age 18 than most players four years older than him. The next closest freshman to Connor in scoring, Colin White, isn’t really close at all, being eight points back of Connor with 28 on the year. Now this is not to disrespect the more-than-impressive season White has put together, especially given that he didn’t crack a point per game with the USNTDP in his draft year (17 points in 20 games), but Connor has simply been a step ahead of every other freshman this year, and several steps ahead of almost everyone else.

For Some Perspective:

If Jets fans want to peg Kyle Connor alongside a current NHL player, they don’t have very far to look for a comparable. Last season, the University of Michigan Wolverines were led by another freshman, that being Dylan Larkin. Larkin’s NHL career started early (but obviously not too early, given his Calder Trophy-worthy rookie season so far) after he put up stellar numbers as a freshman with the Wolverines. Larkin’s final statistics in his first and only season in the NCAA read 47 points in 35 games, with 15 goals on the year.

Now, Larkin and Kyle Connor are different players with different attributes, but Connor has already surpassed Larkin’s goal total, had surpassed it by game 18 in fact, and is on pace to outdo his point totals as well. In fact, Connor is on pace to do something only a bare handful of players have done for the Wolverines: score 20 goals. Heck, at this rate he could score 30.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Connor play this season, what makes him so special is hard to sum up. His explosive skating is certainly a huge part of it, and I’ll never forget watching him chase down Nikolaj Ehlers at the Jets’ prospect camp last July. Not many pros can catch Ehlers in full flight, never mind many college players, and as soon as Connor did that every fan in the rink sat further forward in their seats. All eyes were on him for the rest of the day.

Later in the scrimmage, Connor flashed the other skill of his that makes him so deadly: his release. A player who can shoot the puck as quickly and accurately as Connor needs little to no time to score, and, as his goal against Ohio State on January 16th proved, he can score from just about anywhere in the offensive zone, even with limited time and space.

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Connor’s explosive speed, combined with his lightning release and pinpoint accuracy, make him virtually impossible to defend. A player who can score off both the rush and the cycle, like Connor can, has the attention of defensemen at all times, which opens up his linemates as well.

The Jets don’t have a player as dynamic as Connor in their lineup right now, but at this rate they won’t be waiting long; Larkin turned professional after his exceptional freshman year, and while he’s physically more mature than Connor, the offensive abilities of Connor can’t be ignored. I’d be shocked if he stayed in college more than another year, especially since he’s garnering Hobey Baker consideration.

Skill and Character

Unquestionably, the NHL is a league that values character and mental toughness almost as highly as skill. As such, scouts and fans alike were eager to see how Kyle Connor would respond to his snub from Team USA’s World Junior camp, and they weren’t disappointed. If anything, they were awed.

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You almost felt bad for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, getting to face Connor when he was supremely motivated (read: ticked off) by his WJC snub. Connor put up five goals and an assist in the weekend series, including a hat trick in game one. It was an impressive display from a young player no doubt very disappointed to not be representing his country when he so clearly deserved to, and the way Connor channeled that frustration is a mark of his strong character. Jets fans and management alike had to be pleased with the youngsters mature, focussed response to a bad situation.

It’s too early to say yet what exactly the future holds for Connor. There will almost certainly be a Hobey Baker nomination at this rate. And after that? Well, that’s up to the young man, his representatives, and the Jets. Whether he’s back with the Wolverines next season or not remains to be seen, but wherever his path takes him in the near future, it’s clear that the future, both near and distant, is bright for Kyle Connor.