Kyle Connor: The Next Big Thing in Winnipeg?

If Kyle Connor turns out to be even half as good as he’s projected to be, the Winnipeg Jets and their fans owe Bruins GM Don Sweeney a beer.

For those who may have forgotten, it was Sweeney’s bizarre drafting strategy that allowed Winnipeg to select Connor 17th overall in the 2015 entry draft, in a slot far lower than he was projected to be taken. What will become of Sweeney’s picks remains to be seen (I actually liked the Zach Senyshyn pick more than I think most pundits did), but regardless of how Senyshyn, Jake DeBrusk and Jakub Zboril turn out, the Winnipeg Jets appear to have landed a gem in Connor.

The Jets were already picked by The Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup in 2019, thanks to their impressive stable of prospects and that was before they added Connor and Jack Roslovic in the first round of the most recent draft. Roslovic’s start has been impressive, but after getting Connor at the 17 slot on June 26th, adding the Miami of Ohio commit was just gravy.

Kyle Connor
Kyle Connor is the latest in a long line of top-tier Jets prospects (Photo: Dan & Margaret Hickling)

A Sizzling Start

Connor was something of a forgotten man for Jets fans in September. After all, he wasn’t part of either the Penticton rookie tournament or the Jets’ main camp; his NCAA eligibility rules prohibited him from participating in either. The last time the former Youngstown Phantom was on the ice where Jets fans could see him was at the development camp back in July, and while he was very impressive, it was hardly as exciting as watching Nik Ehlers and Nic Petan fight their way onto roster spots in September.

All the talk about Jets prospects has centered around those that have recently graduated, and perhaps rightly so, but Connor’s skill set can’t be ignored, and he gave fans a quick but poignant reminder of them in his first two games with Michigan. With three goals and four points through his first two games, which earned him Big Ten first star of the week honours, it’s safe to say Connor’s NCAA career is off to a good start. He had a chance to continue that torrid pace on Friday the 23rd against Union, and chipped in with a gorgeous assist. Such is the faith the Wolverines have in Connor, the freshman started on the top line.

The season is still young of course, but with blazing speed, a proven nose for the net, and a wicked release, there’s every indication Connor can keep on scoring. He’s considered a lock for the United States WJC team (which is likely the next time Jets fans will get a chance to see him and Roslovic play), and will be a force for a Wolverine’s team that needs his offense badly since Dylan Larkin graduated to the NHL.

How Did They Miss?

As excited as Jets fans can be about Kyle Connor, it’s odd to think his presence on the club’s prospect list was almost by accident. After all, it was never supposed to happen.

In a draft year where every piece of hyperbole was tempered with the phrase “except for McDavid and Eichel”, Connor earned a lot of praise. Who was the fastest skater in the draft (except McDavid and Eichel)? Many scouts said Kyle Connor. Who had the best hands in the draft (except for McDavid and Eichel)? Connor was certainly in contention for that one as well, with most scouts leaning towards either Connor or Toronto pick Mitch Marner.

Based on offensive talent, 16 other teams should not have passed on Kyle Connor (or rather, 14, since Boston had three picks). Connor led the USHL in scoring as an 18 year old, something that, for the most part, simply isn’t done. In a league where high individual statistics are hard to come by, Connor posted back-to-back 30 goal campaigns. He was also a point per game player for the US Under 18 team a year prior, despite playing on the third line.

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Let me put it this way: in addition to cheering for the Jets, I’m also a long time Avs fan. I’ve been cheering for them since the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. If they had selected Connor with the 10th overall pick I would have called that solid drafting. Yes, they would have had to wait for him for a year or two (more on that in a moment) but in the end he would have been worth the wait.

That Winnipeg acquired him at 17 was unexpected and, for Jets fans, fantastic. I was watching the draft at home with some friends, and let me tell you I was pumping my fist enthusiastically with an ear-to-ear grin on my face when Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff announced this pick.

ETA?

Usually, the rule of thumb with college players is you have to wait three to four years for them to develop. Michigan, however, has a proven history of developing players who graduate early. Wolverines head coach Red Berenson has proven to be an excellent nurturer of talent; from the Jets own Jacob Trouba and Andrew Copp, to, most recently, Detroit Red Wing Larkin. Larkin and Trouba spent just one year at Michigan, and while it would be unusual to see Connor follow in their footsteps and turn pro after just one season, it’s not out of the question.

The Jets can afford to be patient with the Michigan native, but they likely won’t have to be. At this rate, Connor will be yearning for a greater challenge soon enough. His speed is reminiscent of fellow Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers, as is his shot, and his size doesn’t carry the same red flags as Ehlers does. Connor’s 6’1 frame could stand some filling out, but his size isn’t likely to be a major hindrance either.

So when will Jets fans see Connor in the hometown colours? It’s too early to say for certain, but all the signs point to this: whenever it happens, it will be a good day to be a Jets fan.