The Winnipeg Jets should probably send Don Sweeney a fruit basket. When the rookie Bruins GM made three straight picks in the middle of the first round of the draft, he and his scouting crew somehow left centers Matt Barzal and Kyle Connor on the board, reaching instead for Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn (although taking Jakub Zboril at No. 12 was solid, as he was the best D-man still on the board). The New York Islanders immediately traded up to grab Barzal, meaning the Jets had the opportunity to snap up the leading scorer in the United States League.
Connor, who was in his third season (he’s a December, 1996 birthday, so he was drafted with the 1997s) with the Youngstown Phantoms, absolutely wrecked the American junior circuit with 34 goals and 80 points in 56 games, putting him nine points clear of the next-highest scorer. In the process, he helped Youngstown set a USHL record with a 17-game win streak and was named the league’s player of the year. Evolution was a big part of his appeal.
“Fast hands, first-shot goal-scorer,” said one scout. “He used to be an off-the-rush scorer, now he can wheel off checks down low, too. It’s hard not to see him in the lineup somewhere.”
Connor first jumped onto the radar with a star turn for Team USA at the 2014 world under-18s. Playing for a squad made up almost entirely of National Team Development Program kids, Connor tallied a point per game on a depth line to help the Americans win yet another gold medal at the event. Not bad for a kid who had to find instant chemistry on a squad already thick as thieves. Before he takes his shot in Winnipeg, Connor headed to the University of Michigan at a time when the Wolverines sorely needed him. Detroit first-rounder Dylan Larkin signed a pro deal with the Red Wings, ending his college days in Ann Arbor after just one fantastic freshman campaign. “Obviously it sucks for the team, losing such a great player,” Connor said. “But I’m really looking forward to going in there and getting Michigan back in the tournament.” With Winnipeg signing Andrew Copp before that, the Wolverines are looking unexpectedly thin down the middle for next year, so Connor will be thrust into a major scoring role. The incoming frosh class he’s a part of is pretty impressive, however, so Connor won’t be alone: other NHL picks include left winger Brendan Warren (Arizona) and right winger Cooper Marody (Philadelphia), plus defensemen Joseph Cecconi (Dallas) and Nick Boka (Minnesota). They will all need to contribute if the Wolverines hope to get back to the national tournament after an uncharacteristic three-year absence (which was preceded by two straight decades of berths). They're off to a solid 3-0-1 start, and ranked 10th in the
most recent polls. Since Connor is from Michigan, choosing the school was far from a labored decision. “I was a Michigan fan of football, basketball…all their sports,” he said. “And Red Berenson has such a good resume there; he’s a legendary coach. I think I can learn a lot from him.” A big fan of Colorado’s Matt Duchene, Connor has been described as having “jersey-flapping speed,” and the ability to control a game is something he prides himself on. “I like to play with a lot of speed and high pace,” he said. “I also have the ability to slow the game down.” His emphasis last season was on fine-tuning his stride and getting stronger – and with 183 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, he can easily pack a few more pounds on those ribs before he turns pro. Which brings us back to Winnipeg, a team that didn’t need any help drafting gems (the Jets were No. 1 in THN’s Future Watch 2015) but that seems to have gotten some anyway. With the Jets already counting blazing left winger Nikolaj Ehlers as one of their own, it’s downright terrifying to think what a speedy Connor-Ehlers line will look like in five years.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.