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How Jets scorer Kyle Connor has had one of the most productive seasons in franchise history
Not surprisingly, Kyle Connor met the question with the equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
After handling the perfunctory queries about the disappointment of landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols last week despite being symptom-free, the topic turned to his pursuit of the 50-goal mark – which was interrupted during those three games that Connor and defenceman Nate Schmidt missed last week.
“As far as that, you can’t look at the games you missed and what could have been,” said Connor, who leads the Jets this season with 41 goals and 82 points in 67 games. “You have to focus on the 12 games we have left here, 12 games as a team. If it happens, it happens, but I’m focused on trying to help my team win every single night and take care of it that way.”
Connor isn’t a guy who shares his personal goals publicly, nor does he enjoy talking about chasing watermarks like this one.
A big part of that is his reserved nature, but the other part is more about how he’s stepping into more of a leadership role with this group.
Throughout his career, Connor hasn’t been a guy who craves the spotlight, not even as he’s grown into one of the most important players on this Jets roster.
Certainly there has always been a high level of attention on him since he was chosen 17th overall in the 2015 NHL draft, and that continued only after an incredible freshman season with the University of Michigan Wolverines that should have landed him the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA men’s hockey.
During the first several years of his professional career, Connor often chose his words wisely and didn’t often dig deep into the details.
But this season, he’s begun to spread his wings a bit, and his ability to have his finger on the pulse and share those thoughts at the podium has been impressive to witness.
Not only have there been clear signs of maturity as an orator, it’s been equally evident when it comes to the rounding out of his game on the ice.
Connor’s days as a complementary piece on the Jets’ top line are well in the rearview mirror. He’s graduated to driving play and helping to set the standard.
If there were any doubts about his value to the Jets – and there shouldn’t have been – they were on full display last week, especially in games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings.
Those were two games when Connor’s elite-level finishing ability was sorely missed.
The underrated piece that was also sorely lacking for the Jets relates to what Connor has brought to the penalty kill.
Although it’s true the Jets have slipped back into a rut while shorthanded during the past 10 games, that’s got very little to do with Connor’s contribution.
The combination of his speed and instincts has added an important element for the Jets penalty-killing unit, and perhaps the most impressive part of his addition is that adding those taxing minutes to his portfolio hasn’t impacted his offence in a negative way.
One of the hallmarks of Connor’s season has been his consistency.
Not only has Connor generated a ton of offence for himself and his linemates, he’s mostly avoided lengthy dry spells – the lone exception being a five-game drought without a goal in November, but he still had two assists during that stretch to push a personal point streak to six games before going without a point for three games.
Connor is having one of the most productive seasons in Jets 2.0 franchise history.
He’s just three behind the 44 goals Patrik Laine recorded during the 2017-18 season and he’s within striking distance of captain Blake Wheeler for most points in a single season since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011 (91 in 2017-18, and again in 2018-19).
With the Jets set to host the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday as part of a three-game homestand that concludes on Friday against the Colorado Avalanche, the Jets should have Connnor and Schmidt back in the lineup, but forward Jansen Harkins is out with a suspected head injury after taking an elbow from Kings forward Arthur Kaliyev on Saturday.
Harkins is still being evaluated, while fellow forward Cole Perfetti remains out indefinitely with an upper-body issue that’s kept him out of the lineup since Feb. 17, when he was on the receiving end of a hit from Seattle Kraken defenceman Jamie Oleksiak.
“He’s not skating, so (Perfetti) is unavailable,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “That hasn’t changed.”
The conversation with Connor eventually shifted to the predicament the Jets find themselves in.
Trailing the Dallas Stars by seven points with 12 games left in the regular season (and the Stars holding a game in hand) is not where the Jets want to be.
These are dire circumstances to be sure, but Connor isn’t ready to throw in the towel. He’s keeping hope alive.
“I know this group’s pretty resilient,” said Connor. “The way we look at, it’s the game on hand coming up. We’re going to get focused for that. We’re going to get ready. Give it our best foot and see what happens here. I don’t think there’s anybody not believing. We’ve got belief in this locker-room that we can do it. There’s tons of skill, leadership. We have all the intangibles. We’ve just got to put it together and see what happens.”