Jets choir-boy Connor up for Lady Byng Award

Turns out nice guys don’t always finish last.

The patron on-ice saint of the Winnipeg Jets, forward Kyle Connor, has been named a finalist for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. It is handed out annually to the NHL player “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

<p>“Anytime you get up for any type of awards, it’s pretty cool,” Connor said.</p>
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“Anytime you get up for any type of awards, it’s pretty cool,” Connor said.

“Anytime you get up for any type of awards, it’s pretty cool,” Connor told the Free Press on Wednesday in a telephone conversation from his off-season home in Michigan. “It’s such a tough league and you just look at the history of all the past winners. It’s an honour to be in the same conversation.”

Connor, 25, is the favourite to take the trophy. He had just four penalty minutes in 79 regular-season games, which was the fewest of the league’s top 100 scorers. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a top-line skater who plays heavy minutes and put up a career-best 47 goals, 46 assists and 93 points.

“It’s pretty crucial to have team discipline and, you know, personal discipline. I take some pride in that.” – Kyle Connor

Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Jaccob Slavin (last year’s winner) and Minnesota Wild rear-guard Jared Spurgeon are the other nominees. They each had 10 penalty minutes during the 2021-22 campaign while logging big minutes on the blue-line for their clubs.

The winners of the 2021-22 awards will be revealed during the conference finals and Stanley Cup final, with exact dates, format and times to be announced. Votes were submitted by 200 members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, including four Winnipeg-based writers.

“I think there’s definitely a little bit of luck involved in that situation,” Connor said, of his angelic behaviour. “That much time on the ice and, you know, you can put your stick in a wrong spot. And you see it happen so many times, high stick penalties or tripping. So definitely a little bit of luck.”

A slash on Connor McDavid during a meeting with the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 18 and a hook on Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders on March 11 were his only two infractions.

“I don’t remember the McDavid one. I do remember the Barzal one. I mean he had a breakaway if I didn’t take that penalty. I think I got my stick in there and the refs decided it was a call,” said Connor. “I think the average power play is now clicking around like 20 per cent. They’re pretty lethal. So you don’t want to put your team down in the situation where you can lose the game.

“It’s pretty crucial to have team discipline and, you know, personal discipline. I take some pride in that.”

Connor is the third Jets 2.0 player to be nominated for an NHL year-end award. High-scoring winger Patrik Laine was runner-up to Auston Matthews for the Calder as rookie-of-the-year in 2017, and Connor Hellebuyck grabbed the Vezina as top goaltender in 2019.

No Jets player, either in the 1.0 or 2.0 era, has ever won the Lady Byng. Nor has any member of the Atlanta Thrashers, who were moved to Winnipeg in 2011. (Dany Heatley won the Calder in 2002, and Ilya Kovalchuk won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard for top goal scorer in 2004).

Connor became a fixture on Winnipeg’s penalty kill this year, so he gained an up-close appreciation for the importance of staying out of the sin bin.

“It’s been pretty good to be utilized as a penalty killer. I’m enjoying it. I think we brought a little bit more of an offensive aspect to our kill. Just me being involved, and others,” said Connor. “We had quite a few shorties this year. I think it’s something that we can as a team utilize even more. You see it around the NHL at certain times, you turn the puck over and get those breakaways or two on ones.”

Consider this: Connor was fourth among all NHL forwards in average time on ice (21:47) and 12th among all skaters in takeaways (66). To have that many puck thefts without having to resort to illegal tactics is not easy.

“A guy that has an impact every night on the outcome of a hockey game, leading the team in scoring, is one of the elite goal scorers in the National Hockey League, and he takes two minor penalties — that tells me right there he doesn’t get enough recognition,” former coach Dave Lowry recently said of Connor.

“They don’t talk about him enough, nationally, for his accomplishments in the game.”

Perhaps not in the past. But they certainly are now.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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