Phantom draft hopefuls look to Connor

With the NHL draft taking place this weekend, Youngstown Phantoms fans can expect to hear some familiar names called. Curtis Hall, Ivan Prosvetov, Michael Callahan and, potentially, Max Ellis could all be selected, setting a franchise high with four names called.

While only one name was called in 2015, former Phantom Kyle Connor has done Youngstown proud, breaking out with a 30-goal debut season with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets. Connor remains the highest selection in franchise history, being picked 17th overall.

From Youngstown to Michigan to Winnipeg. Connor’s journey so far has been an exciting one to watch for hockey fans. The young Jets forward has been snubbed a few times along the way, but keeps playing his game, and heading into his third season of professional hockey, looks to break out and become a full-fledged star.

Connor spent three seasons with the Phantoms, averaging over a point-per-game in two of his three seasons, including an impressive 80 points in 56 games in his last season in Youngstown.

“(Youngstown) was a good start for me in my junior career,” Connor said. “I played under Anthony Noreen, I learned a lot from him, and obviously Brad Patterson, who is the coach now. I had some great development there and picked up some good habits.”

In June of 2015 at the NHL Draft, Connor was expected to go no later than pick number 13. Holding three picks in a row, the Boston Bruins reaching down the draft board passed on Connor and Matthew Barzal, both of whom have had dominant rookie seasons.

Connor somehow fell to pick number 17, and the Jets could not get on stage fast enough to select him.

“We were very excited to pick Kyle where we got him,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on draft night. “He’s got tremendous upside and we think he’s a top-six forward. We believe we’ve added a really skilled player there.”

Even though he was selected in the first round, Connor was still heading off to college. Connor finished his time in Youngstown and went to the University of Michigan, where he scored 71 points in 38 games in his debut season, finishing first in the NCAA. He scored eight more points than the next highest scorer, who just so happened to be his linemate, JT Compher, who is now with the Colorado Avalanche.

Despite averaging nearly two points per game as a 19-year old, Connor missed out on the prestigious Hobey Baker trophy, the award given to the top NCAA hockey performer. The winner, Jimmy Vesey, was 17th-ranked in scoring. This didn’t set Connor back however, as he signed with the Jets a month before, ready to take the next step.

“Kyle played like an upperclassman,” former Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. “He separated himself every time he got the puck on his stick. He either knew what to do with it or made a mature play, rather than just getting rid of it like a younger player.

“Kyle’s vision was special, and when he got the puck he knew whether it was on the net or on somebody else’s stick right away.”

Connor played 20 games to start his first pro season, but was sent down to the AHL Manitoba Moose to refine his game further. The time in the AHL did wonders, getting 44 points in 52 games, which is stellar for a 20-year old.

He started his second season back with the Moose for four games, before an injury to Jets forward Mathieu Perreault sent him to the Jets’ second line. Connor shined from that point on, showing fans why the Jets were as excited as they were to pick him in 2015.

“A lot of learning,” Connor said. “I thought I adapted pretty well throughout the season, and I think it showed. The year before helped me a lot more than the four games to start the year.

“Learned a lot from (Moose coach) Pascal Vincent about what it takes to be a pro, and at the beginning of the year the opportunity happened. I just played my game and stayed up for the year.

Going from Youngstown to Michigan to Winnipeg could prove as a culture shock for a young player. This didn’t affect Connor however.

“Our crowds in Youngstown were always growing, from my first year to year three,” Connor said. “We were doing something right, and we were starting to win as well. Michigan took it to a whole new level and obviously here in Winnipeg, it’s one of the best crowds in the league.”

Connor scored 30 goals in his first full season in the NHL with the Jets, more goals than any rookie. Even though he played in 20 NHL games last season, he was still considered a rookie according to the official NHL rules. To be considered a rookie, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons.

Just like his year in Michigan, Connor was not nominated for the Calder Trophy, the rookie of the year award, despite scoring more goals than any other rookie.

Looking forward, Jet fans have a lot to be excited about, with a young group of players ready to hit the next level of their development. Connor is expected to be a key piece of their roster going forward as the Jets are poised to make another deep playoff run this upcoming season.

“Everyone is a little more motivated going into next year,” Connor said. “We have a little better idea of what it takes to get where we were, in the Western Conference Finals, and how tough it really is to get there.”