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A nose for the net

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

The question had to be asked.

You’ve thought it, I’ve thought it and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Kevin Connauton had revealed he had pondered it once or twice himself.

Is Connauton a power forward stuck in a defenceman’s role?

“I don’t think so, back in PeeWee I might have been,” laughed the 20-year-old Canucks prospect.

When Vancouver selected Connauton, an Edmonton native, in the third round, 83rd overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, he came off the board as a defenceman. In his first season in the WHL he patrolled the blueline like a defenceman, but there was no mistaking his natural nose for the net.

For as much as the 6-foot-1, 185-pound brute holds his ground in his own end, he’s equally as shifty on offence, which has transformed him into a can’t-miss Canucks prospect.

The average person will spend two weeks of their lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change. Time’s a wastin’. Connauton wasted little of it transitioning from the NCAA’s Western Michigan Broncos to the Vancouver Giants, despite the weight of playing in the same city that had just drafted him.

He took it all in stride. Baby steps. A goal and an assist in his first game. A pair of assists in his third outing. A goal in game 4 and an assist in game 6. Six points in six games. He made it look easy, even though it wasn’t.

“I was given a great opportunity by the Giants and I just had to make the most of it. I came in there with a lot of confidence; I was excited for the experience and excited to play in a city like Vancouver.

“They just wanted me to play my game, but at the same time they wanted to develop me into an all-round d-man. I was trying to learn more of the defensive game while still making sure to do what I do best, which is the offensive game.”

There’s no question Connauton made big strides on defence as the Giants, a team that was tops in the WHL in goals against in 2008-09, were expected to tumble in that category, but instead allowed the sixth lowest goals against. Without goalie Tyson Sexsmith to shoulder the load, d-men like Connauton had to pick up the slack to keep the puck out of the Vancouver goal.

There’s no question Connauton made big strides on offence, as well, as he cocooned from casual scorer to a point-a-game man, helping the Giants become the fifth highest scoring team in the league. Connauton set new team records in goals with 19 and points with 72, he was also named WHL Player of the Week once and was a member of the WHL’s West First All-Star Team.

“The first couple of games were a struggle coming to a new coach with new system and stuff, but after I got out of that little hump there, I think I did a pretty good job.

“I was a bit surprised with how it all came together, but at the same time I know what I’m capable of doing and I know that that’s a big part of my game. I think I just took full advantage of the opportunity I was given. It was a learning game though, you’ve got to work hard at practice and just take it day by day. Nothing is going to come to you overnight, so it was kind of just a process all season.

“When I look at myself at the end of the year opposed to the beginning of the year, I’m really happy with the way I developed.”

The Canucks brass was pleased as well and the only thing that may keep Connauton from having an extended stay at training camp this September is that Vancouver’s defence is packed fuller than a clown car.

Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Shane O’Brien, Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts, Keith Ballard, Sami Salo, Nolan Baumgartner and prospect Evan Oberg are all on Vancouver’s current roster. As many as 12 other defencemen, including Connauton, are in the system and will be trying to impress at camp. The numbers don’t add up, but Connauton isn’t concerned about that.

“I’m just really hoping to have a good camp and I’ll let the guys upstairs decide where I belong next year.

“I’m feeling really good, I’m really confident, I feel like I’m in great shape and I feel like the experience I’ve gotten has helped me a lot. I’m really excited.”

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