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DALLAS — We take you today into a deep, dark, secret laboratory, where some of the world’s finest scientists have been commissioned by NHL general managers to come up with the next big star for the sport.
Two vials sit on a table. One contains the hockey DNA of right-winger Blake Wheeler, an elite playmaker and unquestionable leader with an intense will to succeed. The other contains the hockey DNA of centre Mark Scheifele, a budding superstar who continually pushes himself to get better.
It might be fun for fans to imagine what the final product of this freakish experiment might look like. But we may already be seeing it in action. And while Kyle Connor is no Frankenstein’s monster, he is striking plenty of fear in opponents these days while evolving at a rate his veteran coach has never seen before.
“I don’t believe I’ve had a player, that I can remember, cover that much distance in one year,” head coach Paul Maurice said following Friday’s practice at American Airlines Center in Dallas, where the Winnipeg Jets will take on the Stars tonight.
It may be easy to forget — considering Connor led all NHL rookies in goals last season with 31 — that he began the 2017-18 season in the minors. He was sent to the Manitoba Moose out of training camp and was recalled a few weeks later when Mathieu Perreault went down with an injury.
The rest, as they say, is history. And it’s hard to imagine what the Jets would look like without him.
Connor, 21, isn’t merely just a placeholder on the left wing, someone to fill a spot while the dynamic duo of Wheeler and Scheifele do all the heavy lifting. He is every bit the driver and the producer on that line, which is, without a doubt, one of the best in the NHL.
“He’s had a real advantage of having the opportunity to play with both those guys. It’s helped mould his game. And he’s taken full advantage of it,” Maurice said. “All three of them now, kind of their own project and they play off each other now so well. They’re not carrying Kyle now by any means.”
As strong as Connor was last season, there’s compelling evidence to suggest we haven’t seen anything yet. He got off to a positive start Thursday night in St. Louis with a nifty deflection goal and even nicer assist on a Wheeler tally. He had several other quality scoring chances and had a team-high five shots on goal and eight shot attempts as the Jets beat the Blues 5-1.
That top line combined for six points, with Connor and Wheeler each recording a goal and an assist, and Scheifele chipping in with a pair of helpers. To hear Connor describe it Friday, there’s almost a competitive rivalry now between the trio.
“I think we feed off each other, kind of all read each other really well. If one’s pushing the pace and really skating, everyone really wants to get their feet moving. When all three of us are going and driving each other, it’s a pretty scary line,” Connor said.
It appears the key to Connor’s success is how quickly he’s adapted to his surroundings and taken on the traits of his talented linemates. An offensive osmosis, if you will.
“He plays like us. He gets in on the forecheck, he holds the puck in the O-zone, he’s quick, he makes good plays, he shoots the puck really well. He kind of does it all. He plays in all areas of the ice. It just shows the work ethic that he has,” Scheifele said.
“That’s what happens. When I was a young guy, I watched a lot of tape on Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd. You watch the older guys and see how they play and you kind of want to emulate their game. He’s a guy that likes to learn, he likes to talk and he likes to figure out when things are good, how to get better and when things are bad, how to get them back to where we want them to be.”
Wheeler is already on record saying he thinks Connor might become one of the best offensive players in the NHL. That’s high praise from a veteran who isn’t quick to dish it out. It also must have Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff giddy with excitement, but also terrified about the fact Connor’s entry-level deal expires next summer and he’s due for a massive raise, which will likely make the salary-cap situation even messier than it already is.
“He’s one of those guys that when you saw him come back to Winnipeg (for training camp this year) and you saw him on the ice, you thought ‘This guy must have put in the work and got in the gym and focused on his game a lot.’ That shows on the ice. Like you see (Thursday), he probably could have had five goals and he made a lot of great passes as well,” Scheifele said.
Maurice spoke Friday about a specific play in the St. Louis game where Connor turned Brayden Schenn inside out and nearly scored, ringing his shot off the post. It’s a play the young forward probably wouldn’t have made six months ago, as he likely would have been looking to pass to a linemate rather than finish it himself.
“That’s some growth there. You don’t have to keep the old guys happy. And the veteran guys, it’s a challenge sometimes when young players go there, they want to keep them happy and they don’t play their game,” Maurice said.
Rather than pout at his demotion last fall, Connor said he used it as an extra motivator while fine-tuning some aspects of his game with the Moose.
“I think, for me, it’s all part of the process. It’s where I was at that point. I realized there was some stuff I needed to work on. I think I’ve just continued to grow and work on that stuff,” Connor said.
He also stepped up his training this off-season, knowing Scheifele and Wheeler were doing the same. Although they may make it look easy at times, they constantly see the most difficult matchups from opponents hoping to keep them in check.
“It’s something I look forward to, a challenge. It’s fun playing against the best. You wouldn’t want it any other way,” Connor said.
Scheifele said Connor might not get the same notoriety he and Wheeler currently do among hockey pundits, but added: “It won’t be that way for much longer.”
“I hope we can continue to grow as a line. We have that good chemistry and we can’t be complacent with that. We have to continue to want more and continue to work on things. The sky is the limit,” Scheifele said.
Maurice said he has no idea how much growth there is left in Connor’s game.
“He’s kind of moved into ‘It doesn’t matter,’ if that makes any sense. You just play like that and we’re going to win more hockey games. Whether you score 25 or 50, that style of game that he plays will help us win.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.