On The Bright Side: Kyle Connor

So, here I am, writing about Kyle Connor again. I know, it’s getting unhealthy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Connor doesn’t deserve the praise I and others have heaped on him over the course of the season. After all, he’s on pace to do something only two people in history have ever done: win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s most outstanding player as a freshman.

One look at Connor’s otherworldly statistics is enough to give you an idea of the kind of year he’s had. His 30 goals and 61 points both lead the nation, and he did this in just 34 games. For perspective’s sake, some kid named Jack Eichel (who I hear is pretty good) took 40 games to hit 26 goals last year, and while he did manage 71 points, given another seven games it seems likely (statistically probable in fact) that Connor would equal or better Eichel’s totals.

Spread out over 40 games, Connor’s points per game would leave him just short of 72 points, but that’s not allowing for the fact that he started the year off far slower than his current torrid pace. It was only after he was left off the U.S. world junior selection camp roster that his game rose to its current Hobey Baker-worthy heights.

Connor’s recovery from the team U.S.A. snub was perhaps the most impressive thing about him this season, and that’s quite a list to choose from, with his 30-goal season, current 23-game point streak, improved defensive awareness and increased maturity. The kid could’ve taken that one on the chin and let it dampen his spirits. Even continuing at his then around a point-per-game pace would’ve been a victory. Instead he found another gear seemingly instantly. You almost felt bad for Minnesota, drawing Connor when he was in the midst of his snub-fuelled surge. He lit them up for five goals in one weekend, and the floodgates were officially open.

Could Another Freshman win the Hobey Baker?

Historically, freshman don’t usually walk away with the award, and the NCAA may be even more reluctant to give it to a first-year player than usual, given Jack Eichel’s win last year, which was the second in history and the first in over 20 years. Yet you could write an entirely different article (and indeed some people already have) making Connor’s case to be the third freshman ever to win the award.

Connor was already named among the ten finalists for the award earlier today, and given that he lead the nation in both goals and points (nine points ahead of his closest competition) and did so in fewer games than Alex Petan, Andrew Poturlaski, or Zach Lynch. While the NCAA has been historically unlikely to award the Hobey Baker to any first year player unless that player is truly exceptional, it’s not as if no precedent exists thanks to Eichel. Plus, it would be hard to argue Connor’s season has been anything less than exceptional.

What the Winnipeg Jets Have

Showcased in that clip are some of Connor’s most important skills: his patience, his decision making, his speed, and most of all his lightning-quick release. The Winnipeg Jets don’t have a player in their lineup right now who can shoot the puck like that. Yes, even Mark Scheifele, whose wrist shot is exceptional, could learn something from the way Connor shoots off the rush.

Couple that with blazing speed, fast hands and a faster mind, and it’s easy to see why Connor has terrorized college hockey so badly all season long. To the immense relief of goalies in the B1G conference, Connor may well be a one-and-done player like certain other former Michigan Wolverines, namely Jacob Trouba and Dylan Larkin.

While size may be a concern for the Michigan native (he still needs to fill out his 6’1 frame) speed and skill are not, and the Jets are not so deep at forward that they can turn their nose up at such skill if Connor elects to leave college early. I still remember seeing him catch Nikolaj Ehlers from behind in the scrimmage at the July prospects camp, something many pros couldn’t do to the speedy Ehlers. That kind of speed, along with Connor’s release and cleverness, mean he’s likely capable of contributing to an NHL-calibre offense next season.

The fact is, the Jets are likely going to get a high draft pick this season. Whether that’s Auston Matthews or not, whoever the Jets take is going to be in the NHL very soon. The thought of Connor, Ehlers, and one of Matthews, Laine, or Puljujärvi anchoring the Jets offense for years to come, along with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, is enough to make Jets fans smile in a season that has been largely devoid of smile-worthy moments.

Look to the future, Jets fans. It’s bright enough to be blinding, and that’s all the bright side a hockey fan can ask for.