ColoradoAvalanche.com is profiling draft-eligible prospects leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft in Florida on June 26-27. Kyle Connor is the No. 13-ranked North American skater in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings. The Avalanche has the 10th overall selection at the draft.
He’s fast, has always been able to produce on the offensive side of the rink and is making strides toward becoming a better player defensively. Kyle Connor, NHL Central Scouting’s No. 13-ranked North American skater, has the potential to make a name for himself in the NHL one day.
"He's a solid two-way player and plays hard in both zones,” Greg Rajanen of NHL Central Scouting told NHL.com. “Nice stride and quickness and good in tight with the puck.”
Connor played for the Youngstown Phantoms in United States Hockey League for the past three seasons, and in his rookie year was able to collect 41 points (17 goals and 24 assists) in 62 games as a 15-year-old.
During the 2013-14 campaign, he was able to elevate his game, garnering an impressive 31 goals and 43 assists in 56 games and breaking the franchise record for most points in a season.
This past year, the young forward was able to build on his breakout success, collecting a league-high 80 points (34 goals and 46 assists) in 56 games while leading Youngstown to the best overall record in the regular season. In the playoffs, Connor collected three more goals and an assist before the Phantoms fell to the Muskegon Lumberjacks in four games in the first round.
The league named Connor the USHL Player of the Year and the Forward of the Year after he led all players in regular-season scoring.
"Being named both player and forward of the year is a great honor," Connor told the Phantoms’ official website. "It all goes back to my teammates and coaches this year always challenging and pushing me to be better. After the season we had two years ago we wanted to come back strong and they pushed me every day on the ice and in the weight room."
Phantoms general manager and head coach Anthony Noreen said that Connor is a special player on the offensive end of the rink, but he also acknowledges the improvements the young forward has made on the opposite side of the puck over the past few years.
"He's not one of those guys that as a coach you have to continually keep preaching about the defensive side," Noreen said to NHL.com. "'I want you to keep scoring but you got to get better defensively.' He wants to be better defensively. I think as an elite offensive player you'd be doing him a disservice if you didn't let him do things offensively … [but] he wants to be a complete player. He wants to be better defensively.”
The 6-foot-1 left wing’s role on his own end of the ice increased in a number of ways in the past season, and he certainly did not disappoint.
"Last two years Kyle never took penalty kills and he is now,” said Noreen. “We have one of the best penalty kills in the league and he's a big part of that. He was a guy who never played in the last minute of one-goal games when we were up a goal and he does now. I think that's a tribute to how much he's gotten better defensively. He's able to use his speed to close gaps on guys. I think he's gotten stronger, which can allow him to win some battles. And I think he's a lot simpler defensively with the puck and in his decision-making.”
Both Connor and his coach agree that his quickness is one of the main reasons why he has been able to excel in the USHL.
"I like to use my speed to my advantage," Connor told NHL.com. "I think that's one of my assets. Use my speed, my playmaking to make the players around me better and just produce offensively and be held accountable in the defensive zone."
"The thing about Kyle is he's just as fast with the puck as he is without it," Noreen said. "If you give him an inch, he's going to beat you. And once he beats you you're not going to catch him."
The forward is appreciative of his time in the USHL and feels ready to take the next step in his career as he heads off to the University of Michigan to play under respected head coach Red Berenson.
"This is definitely the best junior league in all of North America and any team can win on any night," Connor said of the USHL. "This league is a tough league but it does an excellent job of developing players and getting them ready for the next level.
"It was one of my dreams growing up," Connor said of playing for Michigan. "Being from the Michigan area I was always a Michigan football fan, all the sports. They offered me [a scholarship] for hockey and I was ready to go."
Connor’s absence will be felt on the team that saw him grow into a two-way threat.
"It was a special year for Kyle and he took tremendous strides as a 200-foot player while also being the most productive offensive player in the League. He will certainly be missed in Youngstown because of the way he played on the ice and how he carried himself."