“He told me I had to get off the ice, (that) I had just been traded,” Connauton said. “Everyone keeps it in the back of their mind during the (NHL trade) deadline, but nobody expects it to be them and I didn’t think it was going to be me. To hear him tell me I was traded was pretty shocking.”
Connauton was heading to the Dallas Stars organization as part of the deal that sent Derek Roy to the Vancouver Canucks. For the 23-year-old defenseman, it meant he was going from Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Chicago to Dallas’ affiliate in Cedar Park, and that move had its benefits. Texas was one of the top teams in the AHL, while Chicago was struggling to make the playoffs and would eventually miss out.
“Coming to the first place team was a good experience and a good feeling,” he said. “It’s not something everyone gets to do. That was nice, finding out that I was going to a team that was contending for the Calder Cup.”
And Connauton has made the most of his opportunity so far in this year’s AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. He led the Texas Stars in scoring with four points (two goals, two assists) in four games as Texas won its first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Admirals.
There’s a lot to like about Connauton, who is an offensive defenseman. As you’d expect, he’s a slick skater, moves the puck well and can shoot. He won the hardest shot contest at the 2012 AHL’s All-Star Game with a shot that clocked in at 99.4 miles per hour.
“He can skate, he’s got good speed. He’s got a good shot and he likes to jump in the situations,” said Texas Stars assistant coach Doug Lidster, who handles the team’s defensemen. “Like most young defensemen, he needs to continue to work on his play without the puck. That’s what makes the position so difficult. “Where do I go, what do I do?” A lot of that positional play is mental stuff, plus it is very physically demanding to battle all the time one-on-one with some guys that are usually bigger than you.”
Connauton, who is listed at 6-2, 200 pounds, was a forward up until his Junior A days, which explains his leaning towards the offensive side of the game. But the Edmonton native believes he has made strides on the defensive side of things.
“I’ve been labeled the offensive defenseman, which is something I definitely bring to the table,” he said. “Having that forward background, I really like jumping into the play. I think I play a well-rounded game and I think I can handle my own in the defensive zone. I like to be someone that my teammates and my coaches can trust. But if you were to label me, it would be more on the offensive side for sure.”
And one of his best assets is his ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone and do it quickly.
“That’s the way the game is now, it’s very much north-south, let’s get going, direct, whatever terminology you want to use that day and, yeah, he’s very quick,” said Lidster.
“You’ve got to get pucks up quick,” said Connauton. “The longer you have it, the more time you are letting the other team set up and letting them close in on you, and you never want to find yourself stranded with it. Getting the pucks up and letting the play stay in front of you is important.”
Connauton primarily has been paired on the Texas blue line with Cameron Gaunce, whom Dallas acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for right wing Tomas Vincour just prior to the NHL trade deadline. It’s a good match with Connauton, the offensive-minded player, and Gaunce leaning more towards the defensive end.
“It’s worked well,” said Gaunce. “We both came into a new situation together, so we had that working for us. He’s an offensive-minded player, great skater and has a great shot from the point. Hopefully I am able to give him some freedom to do that, knowing that I am going to be back or cover up for things here and there. He’s very skilled and it’s easy to play with him.”
Added Connauton: “I can always rely on him. I know he’ll always be back there if I am jumping in on the play. We complement each other well.”
Connauton’s development path has taken him to seven different cities over the last seven years. After playing Junior A hockey in two different cities in Alberta, Counnauton headed to Kalamazoo, Michigan to play at Western Michigan University. He was still a tall, lanky kid and needed more time to physically mature. He also thought the extra time would help him get used to playing on the blue line, a switch he had made in Junior A. And, of course, there was the education part of the equation.
“My parents valued school and they wanted me to focus on school and going to college,” Connauton said. “And college would give me a few more years to develop.”
But Connauton’s career at Western Michigan lasted one year. Connauton caught the attention of NHL scouts with an outstanding freshman season at Western Michigan, and the Canucks took him in the third round (81st overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Then, his development path changed and he was on his way to Vancouver to play for the Western Hockey League’s Giants.
“They thought development-wise, it would be better for me to be in their backyard in Vancouver, and the Giants have a real good coaching staff and a winning tradition, so I left college and went to the WHL,” said Connauton.
Connauton had an impressive 2009-10 season in the WHL, setting Vancouver Giants single-season records for most goals (24) and most points (72) by a defenseman.
He turned pro in 2010-11 with the Manitoba Moose, then the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, and his 11 goals were tied for the team lead among defensemen. The next season it was on to the Chicago Wolves, Vancouver’s new AHL affiliate, and he led Wolves defensemen in goals (13) and points (33). He had some ups and downs with Chicago this season, and the move to the Dallas organization provided a fresh start.
“It was nice to hit the restart button and come in with a fresh mentality. Things were kind of up and down for me in Chicago, the confidence was a little low so it was nice to hit the reset button,” Connauton said. “I came in here, we have such a great group of guys and everyone works so hard. It makes it fun to play, that’s the biggest thing. It’s exciting. I think we have the potential to do some great things here and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Connauton was considered to be close to NHL ready when he was with the Canucks organization, and he’s hoping to make a case for a roster spot with Dallas next season. But for now, he has other things on his mind.
“I’m confident in myself and that’s my goal – I want to play in that league. I’ve had a couple years pro to develop and I think that plays to my advantage,” Connauton said. “It’s not on my mind right now, I think I have to stay focused on what’s going on here. The thing I am thinking about is taking a run with this team, making a run deep in the playoffs. One, it’s important and, two, that is going to help everyone going into next year.”