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Kyle Connor could land with Jets at 19

Forward prospect looks to follow path taken by teammates Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers

by Aaron Vickers / Correspondent

PENTICTON, British Columbia -- If expectations surrounding Winnipeg Jets forward prospect Kyle Connor are high heading into his first NHL training camp, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn't going to be the one applying the pressure.

He's treating the No. 17 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft the same way he would any other prospect, regardless of resume.

"From our standpoint, he's just like any other player out there," Cheveldayoff said. "I think everybody from a playing standpoint wants to push themselves. They want to try to earn that spot every single day. You just have to realize that it is a process, certainly, for players like him."

But there are few like Connor, based on his body of work to date.

As a freshman at the University of Michigan last season, Connor (6-feet-1, 176 pounds) was the nation's top scorer with 71 points (35 goals, 36 assists). He also led the NCAA in goals per game (0.92), points per game (1.87) and tied for first with 24 power-play points.

Connor finished the season with a school-record 27-game point streak and won the 2016 Tim Taylor Award, given annually to the best rookie in NCAA Division I hockey. He also was a top-three finalist for the 2016 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, won by forward Jimmy Vesey of Harvard, now with the New York Rangers.

Connor, 19, matched the 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel scored for Boston University in 2014-15. Only Paul Kariya totaled more points as a freshman; he had 100 (25 goals, 75 assists) for Maine in 1992-93.

Not a bad start for Connor, and enough for him to opt not to return as a sophomore.

"I want to be the best player I can," said Connor, who signed his entry-level contract with the Jets in April. "Turning pro was that option for me.

"It was a tough decision. A lot of things come into play. The ultimate for me was that it was the best thing for my development. I think I'm ready for that next step to try to jump to the NHL. A little bit goes into play. I think also for me, it goes back to development.

"It's obviously going to be a tough transition. The way I play, I think, translates well to the NHL game, and I think that will help me with the transition."

The Jets have plenty of players who can help Connor with the adjustment.

Center Mark Scheifele, the seventh player taken in the 2011 draft, made his NHL debut in 2011-12 at age 18, coming directly from Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League. Forward Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg's first-round pick (No. 9) in the 2014 draft, bypassed the American Hockey League to join the Jets last year at 19.

Blake Wheeler, named Winnipeg's captain on Aug. 31, made the transition from the University of Minnesota directly to the Boston Bruins to begin his NHL career after he was signed as a free agent in 2008, four years after being selected by the Phoenix Coyotes with the fifth pick in the 2004 draft.

"When he can sit down with Mark [Scheifele] and say, 'This is how I went through it,' and even Blake Wheeler … we made him captain," Cheveldayoff said. "Part of the reason we made him captain was he went through this whole progression. He was a very highly talented, high draft pick that had to go through the whole progression of his career from coming out as a skilled player learning how to play the game, to now blossoming as one of the top skilled players in the league. He can sit there and say, 'Hey, I can remember when I was 18, 19, and 20.'

"You've got Mark. You've got Nik Ehlers, who just went through it.

"Mark Scheifele at 18 … you look at the pictures of him then and now, and he's a different player and person. Even now, you talk to him and it's one of those 'I wish I knew then what I know now' type of things. It's good we've had some young players go through these things and experiences.

"That'll help Kyle as well."

But the Jets aren't putting pressure on Connor to replicate those jumps. Not at age 19. Not in his first NHL camp.

Because it's more about the process, Cheveldayoff suggested.

"Every day is going to be a learning experience for him," he said. "For us, we're so fortunate to have him in the organization. We're going to provide as much guidance as we can and make sure he takes the proper steps and we help him with the proper steps along the way.

"We're not going to put any expectations on what he needs to be. His play will dictate where things fall into place."

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