There's certainly a lot to like about defenseman Kevin Connauton, who is coming off an impressive first professional season and now is trying to raise eyebrows at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C.
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks after his freshman season at Western Michigan University, Connauton wasn't always considered NHL material by scouts; in fact he was passed over in his first draft-eligible season after putting up strong numbers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Spruce Grove Saints (45 points in 56 games in 2007-08).
After getting passed over once, and brought into college a year earlier than originally planned (WMU was scrambling to fill a hole on the blue line), Connauton wasn't sure he would get picked at all at the 2009 Entry Draft.
"It was definitely a bit of a surprise," said the 21-year-old. "I had heard anywhere from the second round to not getting drafted at all, so I just went into it with an open mind, and when I got my name called, it was pretty a cool experience."
After the draft, he moved to the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League for the 2009-10 season, where he says he fell in love with the city of Vancouver -- a place he'd relish an NHL career.
"I've grown to just love the city," Connauton, a native of Edmonton, said. "I've lived here for that year of junior, and a couple weeks every summer. It's a pretty unbelievable place; one of the best places in Canada, hands down. If I ever get an opportunity to play in the NHL here, it would be a surreal experience."
Connauton had a record-setting campaign for the Giants, setting franchise records for goals (24) and points (72) by a defenseman.
The 2010-11 season saw him earn a spot with the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate, and in his first pro season had 11 goals despite being the youngest defenseman on the squad.
Vancouver Canucks Director of Player Development Dave Gagner, who has watched Connauton’s progression closely, was more impressed with his commitment to better his game last season.
"Last year it was a transition to pro," Gagner said. "He had to work a lot on his game without the puck and he's going to continue to work on those kinds of things, but his specialty is his offensive ability and the way he can get pucks through to the net. He's good on the power play because of his shot and his puck skills. As he gets older and continues to improve without the puck, he could be a big addition to our blue line down the road."
The emphasis on play away from the puck isn't lost on the player himself.
"I think I'd be labeled an offensive defenseman,” Connauton said. "I definitely have spent the last couple years working on my defensive game and I feel it's gotten a lot better. I feel a lot more confident back there and a lot more steady."
As Gagner points out, there isn't exactly a shortfall in capable defenders in Vancouver, with most of the team's defense core that reached the 2011 Stanley Cup Final returning, as well as a slew of other youngsters knocking on the door.
"We have a lot of good young (defensemen)," Gagner said. "We've got (Adam) Polasek, and Yann Sauve
and Chris Tanev. Right now, we feel we’re pretty happy with that depth we have. Kevin's in that group with guys trying to push their way up and open up some eyes of our coaches, but he does bring that offensive dimension, maybe more so than the other guys, and that's where he can differentiate himself from the group."
Patience certainly is being preached by the Canucks, who are in no rush to get Connauton to the NHL.
"He's still pretty young. He's going into his second year pro, so we feel it's important that he plays a lot, and that he's developing in that regard," Gagner said. "We have to be patient with our young kids, and we can afford to be right now with the depth that we have. It's a good opportunity for all our young players to get quality minutes at the American league-level, but he'll get his opportunities just like Yann Sauve
-- who played five (NHL) games -- and Chris (Tanev) ended up getting 30 games for us (last season)."
Connauton returns to Penticton for the second September after representing the Canucks last year, and seems to have embraced a leadership role in the room. He was named an alternate captain for the first game of the tournament.
"He's already taken that role on," Gagner said. "He's one of the first guys to speak up whenever we do anything. He came to Vancouver early to train just before training camp, showing that he's really taking this year seriously. He knows this is a pivotal year. He's looking at it that way, anyway. He wants to really impress in this tournament and I think you'll see him really take charge out there."