Kyle Connor isn’t the first rookie that jumps to mind in the Calder Trophy conversation, but it’s clear the Winnipeg Jets freshman is worthy of more praise after reaching a rare rookie milestone.
What does Kyle Connor have in common with Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin? Or how about with Bobby Ryan, Jeff Skinner and Logan Couture? Or even with Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Artemi Panarin?
If you’re struggling to find the answer, there’s no judgment here, especially given there was nothing that linked Connor with those notable names entering Tuesday night. But as we sit here on Wednesday and stare down the end of the NHL schedule, there’s one statistic that helps draw a connection between Connor and a dozen players who have made their mark in the post-lockout era: 30 goals.
Tuesday evening in Montreal, Connor fired home his 30th goal of the campaign, a tally that not only sunk the Canadiens in overtime and gave him his third extra-time goal in eight games, but it won the Jets their 50th contest of the season, moved the Winnipeg winger into first place in goal-scoring among rookie skaters and saw him hit a milestone that only a dozen other freshmen have hit since the 2005-06 season. The list of rookie 30-goal scorers includes all the aforementioned talent, from Crosby down to Ryan, as well as Petr Prucha, Marek Svatos and Michael Grabner. That only a dozen players, and only three in the past six seasons, had previously reached the milestone is a testament to how hard it has become for freshmen to fire home 30 in a campaign, and that Connor has done so speaks volumes about his incredible ability.
It’s not as though Connor has come out of obscurity to make this kind of impact, of course. Last season, Connor got his first taste of the big league when he spent 20 games with the Jets. He registered just two goals and five points over that span, mind you, but his 25-goal, 44-point performance in 52 games with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose made it awfully clear the talent was there. As did the praise Connor received from a panel of scouts in THN’s 2017 Future Watch. In a Winnipeg system chock-full of talent and one that finished first in overall prospect strength, Connor was ranked as the Jets’ most promising youngster and finished 26th in a ranking of the NHL’s top 100 prospects.
Connor didn’t get an automatic green light to the NHL, however. Instead, he found himself in the AHL when the 2017-18 campaign began, which was something of a shock to those who believed he would start the season with the big club. It took all of four games in the minors for Connor to send a message so loud and clear it could have been heard across the country, though. His three-goal, five-point dominance earned him a call-up, and it appears his days of riding the bus in the minors ended the same day he found his stall in the Jets’ dressing room.
There are a few things that have helped Connor both earn and keep his spot in the lineup, the most obvious of which is his skating ability. If not the fastest Jet — and he likely isn’t given Nikolaj Ehlers is lightning personified — Connor is almost undoubtedly second and he’s plenty shifty with the puck on his stick, too. But what has helped him fit into the lineup as much as anything is the trust and faith the coaching staff, led by Paul Maurice, has shown in Connor from the early going. Placed on a line with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele early in the season, the trio found instant chemistry and quickly became one of the league’s most lethal combinations. As the end of the campaign nears, their 28 goals at 5-on-5 ranks 13th among the 77 three-man units to skate at least 200 minutes together, and the line, at all strengths, has produced nearly four goals per 60 minutes, according to Corsica.
If it feels as though Connor has flown under the radar, though, that’s because he largely has. On a national stage, he’s not spoken of in the same breath as his linemates Scheifele and Wheeler. Laine’s 44-goal season and pursuit of the Rocket Richard Trophy has grabbed headlines. Ehlers’ continued development as he puts together a near-60-point season has made his spotlight shine brighter. Throw Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba and a presence as big — literally and figuartively — as Dustin Byfuglien into the mix and you can see why Connor maybe hasn’t gotten the recognition he’s deserved.
It’s not just on a team level that he hasn’t received the praise of which he’s been worthy, however, and the reality of this campaign could be that Connor’s 30-goal performance doesn’t even earn him a spot among the top three in Calder Trophy voting. That speaks not only to how exceptional the rookie class has been, but how much hype there is surrounding a several other rookie standouts. It’s a no-brainer at this point that New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal, who is on pace to become the third-highest scoring rookie in the post-lockout era, will win the award, and Clayton Keller’s late run that has boosted him into second in rookie scoring likely lands the Arizona Coyotes freshman in a top-three spot. From there, votes could go to Vancouver Canucks sniper Brock Boeser, who would have flirted with 40 goals if not for an injury that cost him the final quarter of his campaign, or Tampa Bay Lightning late-bloomer Yanni Gourde, who’s third in points by a rookie. Nods could also go to the New Jersey Devils’ Nico Hischier, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois and Boston Bruins’ standout rearguard Charlie McAvoy.
Not winning the Calder might not be the worst thing for Connor, though, because there are bigger fish to fry with the way the Jets are playing as they head towards the post-season. Winnipeg is thought to be one of the few true Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference, a club some believe is capable of winning it all if they can get out of the incredibly difficult Central Division, and Connor’s performance in recent weeks is no small part of the Jets’ success. And if everything goes right for Winnipeg in April, May and June, Connor would most certainly be willing to trade in all things Calder for his chance to hoist a Cup.
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