WINNIPEG – It was time.
After an incredible first year with the NCAA’s University of Michigan Wolverines, Kyle Connor felt ready for the challenge.
On Monday, Connor and the Jets agreed to terms on a three-year entry-level contract worth an annual average value of $1.775 million, bringing the 2015 first-round pick into the fold for the 2016-17 season.
“I’m just ready for this next step,” Connor said as he addressed the media via conference call Tuesday. “Turning pro was a family decision… but I think I’m ready for this.”
Connor’s college career came to end three weeks ago when the Wolverines were knocked out by fellow Jets prospect Tucker Poolman and the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final. It was his one and only season in Michigan after spending the previous three years with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League. There, he set a single-season franchise record with 80 points (34G, 46A) in his final campaign before being drafted
by the Jets.
“Coming into the season I knew there was definitely a chance it could have been a one-and-done [-type situation],” Connor said, “but you never know how it was all going to play out. After the season, I sat down with my family and my coach (the venerable Red Berenson), and that’s
when I ended up making my decision.”
“We’re really excited about the year he had and we’re proud to have him as part of our organization,” General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “He made a lot of improvements, leaps and bounds in his game, both on and off the ice, from a maturity standpoint. What it means moving forward? It’s another talented player we’re adding to the mix. We’re taking those next steps as an organization when you have a quality young player that has decided to turn pro.”
The freshman sensation finished the year on a 27-game point streak, scoring 35 goals and 71 points in just 38 games overall, tying Jack Eichel for the for second-highest total by a freshman since Paul Kariya in the 1992-93 season. As a result, he was named the Top Player and Top Freshman in the Big 10 Hockey Conference after leading the nation in scoring. He was also a unanimous All-Freshman Team selection and First Team All-Star, joining linemates Tyler Motte and JT Compher.
“A big part of it is just consistency,” Connor said. “There’s not a whole lot of games in college hockey, so you’ve got to bring it every night.”
Connor was one of three finalists for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, but was the runner-up to Harvard senior and soon-to-be free agent Jimmy Vesey.
Connor, along with his former mates Motte and Compher, will play at the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship, becoming the first American to play in the men’s tournament after being passed over by the U-20 team earlier this year.
“They haven’t told us [if we’re playing together] yet but I’m happy they made the team as well,” Connor said. “It should be fun to be on the same ice together.
“It’s going to be a good learning experience all around, to play against current NHLers on a stage like that. I’m going to really pay attention to what the pros do and try to soak it all in.”
As with any young player on the verge of professional duty, size becomes the biggest concern for critics. Connor isn’t the biggest guy – he was 177 pounds when he was drafted 10 months ago – but he’s up to 180 pounds now and hopes to be 185 or more when camp breaks in the fall.
“This summer is going to be huge for me,” he said. “I’m going to put a lot of time in the weight room, build my endurance and my strength up so I’m ready for the season. … I think my game will transition well to the next level. I play with a lot of speed and skill to help create some space for my teammates out there.”
The 19-year-old got his first taste of Winnipeg in July of last year when the Jets hosted their annual Development Camp at MTS Iceplex.
“I had a little advice about (playing in a Canadian city),” Connor said. “Especially in Winnipeg, hockey is everything there. … It was a good visit. I really learned what it takes to be a pro and how to practice every single day. It was good to meet the coaching staff, the equipment guys and
the whole organization.
“It was an eye-opening experience.”
The energy was palpable, the rink packed to the gills just to watch practice on a Wednesday. He would love nothing more than to see that again – only this time, there will be about 15,000
more than he’s used to.
“That’s the goal for next season. I want to have a good off-season, try to make that lineup and definitely have an impact with the Jets. I want to try to help them get back to the playoffs and see that whiteout at the MTS Centre.”
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com