Jets’ Kyle Connor flies under the radar while putting up big numbers

WINNIPEG — He is a quiet assassin, a bona fide sniper who has put the puck in the back of the net with regularity since becoming a full-time player.

So why does it seem like Winnipeg Jets left-winger Kyle Connor is still a bit of an underrated commodity when it comes to recognition for the top goal scorers in the NHL?

Need to check his credentials?

Go right ahead.

The 17th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft is seventh in goals scored since cracking the Jets lineup as a regular during the 2017-18 season, with a whopping 130 goals on his resume during that span.

The six guys ahead of him are household names: Nathan MacKinnon (135), David Pastrnak (141), Connor McDavid (149), Leon Draisaitl (149), Auston Matthews (159) and Alex Ovechkin (174).

That’s heady company and it’s Connor’s consistency that has allowed him to hang out in the high-rent district of scorers.

The numbers themselves are impressive, with steady increases in each of his first three full seasons: 31, 34 and 38 (in a season cut short to 71 games because of the pandemic).

In last season’s condensed, 56-game campaign, Connor still managed 26 goals — which put him comfortably on pace for a fourth consecutive 30-plus total.

Interestingly enough, Jets head coach Paul Maurice believes Connor has reached the point of his career where the raw production won’t necessarily dictate how his season is measured or evaluated.

“I don’t think it matters anymore,” Maurice said during training camp. “Once you hit the level that he’s hit, you can’t tell the kind of season he had by his final number. Somewhere in between 30 and 50, there could be a Stanley Cup season. And it could be a season where the team missed the playoffs. And that number won’t tell you what it is or what you do on all other aspects of the game.

“Clearly, the two most important things in hockey are the two boxes on the clock. You can have a big impact on the (goal) for, but you can have just as great an impact on the one against. If you can do that, then the number you put up on one side doesn’t matter. So, he’s at that level in terms of scoring that when we look at his number at the end of the year, it really won’t necessarily tell us. We just expect that he’s going to score a bunch of goals.”

This isn’t a plea for more from Maurice. He’s not asking Connor to sacrifice offence to become a finalist for the Selke Trophy either.

What he wants is for Connor to continue to excel at the things he does well and also be diligent without the puck to ensure that his line with captain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele — who returns on Saturday against the San Jose Sharks after serving the fourth and final game of his suspension — is a net positive.

That could mean winning more board battles and also using his blazing speed on the back-check.

As the unit that plays the most minutes at even strength, there is a big responsibility to perform and that’s something Connor embraces.

“We definitely have to evolve,” said Connor. “You can’t look back and say, oh we were great in 2018, let’s recreate that. The game changes every year so we’ve got to change our game. We for sure have chemistry in a certain way over the years. You know certain tendencies of Blake and Mark, but going into each year, you’ve got to evolve, I would say.”

With the stylistic changes the Jets are working to implement after improving the personnel on defence, the team is expected to spend less time in the D-zone and more time in transition and on the rush.

Despite a 4-1 loss in the season opener to the Anaheim Ducks, the Jets weren’t hemmed in defensively often and limited the dangerous scoring chances against, especially during five-on-five play.

Allowing a pair of power-play goals was the difference in the contest, while the Jets ran into a hot goalie.

Connor was the lone Jets player to beat John Gibson and his one-timer goal came on a perfect pass from Wheeler.

He finished with five shots on goal and seven attempts.

So how does an elite goal scorer stay sharp during the off-season?

“Just like anything else, you’ve got to work at it,” said Connor. “Over the summer you’ve got to work on every detail.”

That diligence and commitment to playing a straight-line game is what helped Connor earn a spot on the top line with Wheeler and Scheifele after a successful season with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

“I think (it’s) the little things. That’s the biggest thing a lot of people don’t see in KC,” said Scheifele. “Obviously his shot, his speed, his skill are the things that stand out most, but I think it’s the little touches that he makes, the little chips, little plays that would seem easy to a lot of people that are actually tough. Little plays that make my job a lot easier. That’s why I like playing with him. He makes those simple plays, goes to all the right areas and that’s something you can’t really teach. That’s what’s so special about him.

“It wasn’t an easy road for him. It took a little bit of time to get his traction in the NHL, but he’s one of those guys who wants to work on things after practice, he wants to find those little nuances of the game and figure out his game and better his game for his linemates.”

For all of the discussion about the pursuit of a spot on the Olympic team for Scheifele and goalie Connor Hellebuyck, Connor is a guy who should definitely be on the radar for Team USA.

“I think it would be pretty special. I think every kid in hockey grows up watching that,” said Connor. “I know where I was for the 2010 Olympics, so that would be a pretty cool experience. It’s definitely a goal of mine, but you can’t think about it. You’ve got to come in every day and try to get better as a player and help this team win. That’s how you prove that you could be worthy.”

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