As a Michigan native, Kyle Connor long has dreamed of playing hockey at the University of Michigan.
But before that happens he'll get to live another dream, hearing his name called at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Connor, a 6-foot-1, 182-pound left wing/center with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, earned an A rating on NHL Central Scouting's player to watch list.
"He's a solid two-way player and plays hard in both zones," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen said. "Nice stride and quickness and good in tight with the puck. Saw him against the [United States National Team Development Program] U-18 team and elevated his game against them and wants the puck. And when he gets it he makes things happen."
Kyle Connor helped the United States win the gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. (Photo: Youngstown Phantoms)
In 25 games this season Connor has 11 goals and 31 points, tied for seventh in the league. He took part in USA Hockey's summer junior evaluation camp -- Connor was one of three 2015 draft-eligible players invited -- and skated at the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in September. He'll also play in the 2015 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 13 in Dubuque, Iowa.
That's a strong follow to last season, when he was second in the USHL with 74 points and fourth with 31 goals. He also had four goals, seven assists and a tournament-best plus-8 rating to help the United States win the gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
"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."
Youngstown general manager/coach Anthony Noreen said Connor's best asset is his speed, and that he's learning to use it at both ends of the ice.
"The think about Kyle is he's just as fast with the puck as he is without it," Noreen told NHL.com. "If you give him an inch, he's going to beat you. And once he beats you you're not going to catch him."
At the defensive end Connor's speed, as well as his increased strength, has allowed Noreen to be use Connor in more situations.
"He's not one of those guys that as a coach you have to continually keep preaching about the defensive side," Noreen said. "'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.
"Last two years Kyle never took penalty kills and he is now. 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."
The strength factor also is something that Connor is focused on improving.
"Kyle works just as hard in the weight room as he does on the ice," Noreen said. "Sometimes with the elite skill guys you have to tell them it's not just about on the ice; you have to do the work off the ice. That's never been an issue with him. Especially with this summer, knowing how big this year was, he came back and he was noticeably bigger. ... If you look at him, his body, his frame right now, he's starting to fill out and look like a man. A big part of that is his commitment in the weight room. Not doing it because we're pushing him to do it or we're making him do it; he's doing it because he wants to do it. I think as long as he continues to do that I expect him to continue to fill his frame out."
Connor will take his well-rounded game next season to the University of Michigan.
"It was one of my dreams growing up," Connor said of being a Wolverine. "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."
The Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League own Connor's Canadian Hockey League rights. While he said the OHL is an interesting option, playing at Michigan remains the plan.
"It [the OHL] is always an option," he said. "I like to leave everything open. Right now I'm going to Michigan and that's where I'm going for now."
Before that, however, he has to finish the season in Youngstown. It's his third season there. Moving at age 15 from his home in Clinton Township, Mich., to join the Phantoms wasn't easy, but Connor said it's helped him grow up.
"It was really tough the first couple of days or couple weeks, being away from your family," Connor said. "I had a really nice billet family and it was an easy transition. The play, the hockey, the teammates really helped me get up to speed. ... It was a big speed adjustment the first couple games but you just go out and play hockey and just adapt to it."
Noreen said watching Connor develop has been a special experience for him.
"Kyle was the first player that we ever tendered here [in 2012]," Noreen said. "It was my first year as a head coach and he was a 15-year-old kid. I'll never forget having him in and his family and trying to convince him that this was the right place to come for the next three years. They trusted us, our organization, and me that it was. He's one of those guys that not a day goes by that he doesn't do something on the ice, I'm talking since Day One he was here, that you don't just shake your head and realize how fortunate you are to be a big part of someone like that developing. I feel like I've learned as much from him as he has from me. He's one of the guys that as a coach, this is why you do it. You do it for kids like that, kids that love the game, kids that want to get better, that have a bright future."