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First Round

Connor becomes key scoring threat for Jets, set to face Blues in playoffs

Forward had career-best 34 goals playing in shadow of Winnipeg's big names

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets have no shortage of big-name players on their roster heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

They have forward Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Forwards Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele represented the Jets at the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (6-foot-5, 260 pounds), a Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, is a presence all his own.

But for teams to be successful in the playoffs, they need contributions from players who fly under the radar. Forward Kyle Connor, who quietly scored 34 goals this season, is that player for Winnipeg, which will play Game 1 of the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round against the St. Louis Blues at Bell MTS Place on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS3, FS-MW).

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Blues series coverage]

 

"Is he a secret weapon?" Jets forward Andrew Copp said. "We have a guy who went second overall, lots of guys who get attention like Scheifele, Wheeler and Byfuglien. 

"He's is right in that category in how important he is to our team."

Important? Yes. Flashy? Certainly not. 

The best way to describe the 22-year-old is clinical on the ice and understated off it.

"He's pretty calm and his game is so stable," Copp said. "He doesn't cheat to create points. He's got a great nose for the net, understands his spot and he's a fantastic player."

Video: WPG@ARI: Connor sweeps home rebound in front

Forward Brandon Tanev said that's Connor's advantage.

"He's a pretty humble and quiet guy and that translates well to the ice for him," Tanev said. "[He has] the ability to slow the game down and take advantage of guys. We've seen how he can put the puck in the net and how he can take control of a game when he's got the puck in the offensive zone.

"He's an extremely dynamic player and hopefully he'll continue to be that way in the playoffs for us."

Connor's calculating approach combined with a low and steady pulse is nothing new.

"He's always been that way," said Brian Wiseman, assistant at the University of Michigan, where Connor played one NCAA season, 2015-16, leading the country in scoring with 71 points (35 goals, 36 assists) in 38 games. "There's no emotional high or low in his game or his attitude. I think without question it allows him to have success, this approach, that he's unflappable.

"He worked hard at his game and was so humble about who he was and the success he was having. His humility as a person is very refreshing for a lot of people, I'm sure."

The No. 17 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft has always been a proficient scorer but Connor (6-1, 182) being a slighter-than-many forward meant that he'd have to figure out a way to use his gifts of great hands and quick feet among men playing a faster, heavier game than he'd ever experienced.

Video: DAL@WPG: Hayes, Connor connect for goal

It didn't happen right away

After his one college season, he signed a contract with the Jets on April 11, 2016. But before he ever played a pro game, he played for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship against one of his boyhood idols, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk, who was playing for Russia.

"I grew up in Michigan so it was kind of pretty cool," Connor said. "When you first turn pro, you look up to all of those guys and you still do. As a kid, you watch them. Everybody watches them, right? But after a certain point it's your job and you want to play the best you can. You don't think about it anymore."

Connor split his first pro season between the Jets (two goals, three assists in 20 games) and Manitoba of the American Hockey League (25 goals, 19 assists in 52 games).

Figuring out how to go beyond being a developing prospect to becoming a contributor on a line with Wheeler and Scheifele is Connor's finest accomplishment so far, Jets coach Paul Maurice said.

And rare though it is to pinpoint a single moment or game for that kind of transformation, Maurice is certain it was a game last season, at the Carolina Hurricanes on March 4, 2018.

Connor had no points in that game but was "a full-on Blake Wheeler pro," Maurice said, tracking and hounding the puck, getting in on the forecheck as the optimal Jets' game requires.

Video: NSH@WPG: Connor pots 30th with slick move

"To me that was the turning point in him understanding that, 'I'm just going to play this game and the points will come from it,'" Maurice said. "From that point on, he's been a dynamic player who's now not the kid on the line.

"I don't think that in an NHL season [or] year, I've seen a player to go from what he was at training camp to where he ended at the end of the playoffs."

Connor's path to being that good fit on a top NHL line has not been by chance.

"He developed it," Maurice said. "He spent time on it with video and drills in training camp built specifically for it. And most important, he decided he was going to do it, to add that to his game."

He said his transition in awareness from dream come true -- playing in the NHL -- to full-time job happened quickly.

"You finally get to this (position) and that's when the work really starts," he said. "You've got to start putting in the time and effort and so really, after the first couple of games, for me it was business. First training camp, it was intimidating coming into this room for sure. Once you get a couple of games with these guys, you realize they're just regular guys."

Opponents may consider him a regular guy at their peril.  

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