Jets’ Kyle Connor emerging as an important line driver for Winnipeg

Bryan Little chats with Dan Murphy following the Winnipeg Jets 6-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

Is there a more fitting nickname in the NHL right now than “Hat Trick” Laine? The young scoring machine added another three-goal night to his resume helping the Jets topple the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. That marks the sixth hat trick of Laine’s short career. Only Wayne Gretzky had more by his 21st birthday, although his 12 hat tricks at that age suggest Laine will have to settle for second on that list.

Not yet at the quarter mark of their season, the Jets now have three players with double-digit goal totals and none of them lead this team in points.

Second line success
The search for chemistry on the Jets’ second line has been well-documented over the past two years. No doubt that search lead to the acquisition of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline last season. But when he chose Vegas over Winnipeg in free agency last summer, the Jets were back to trying Bryan Little between Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, which did not move the needle at the start of the season.

So it was surprising earlier this month to hear Paul Maurice say he was not done with the Little/Laine experiment. Maurice didn’t think Laine’s play early this season provided a proper look at that duo’s capabilities so he wanted to try it again. No doubt he’s happy he did.

The pair has been on the same page since being reunited and that line was the Jets’ best unit Monday against the Canucks. Both players found ways to complement the other and it landed them multi-point games on the scoresheet — Laine’s forecheck led to Little’s game-opening goal against the Canucks, while Little’s seam pass that set Laine up for his second of the game was a thing of beauty.

If the second line continues that level of play it gives the Jets arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league.

Driver’s license
Maurice likes to talk about drivers in the game of hockey — players who don’t just capitalize on opportunity, but consistently generate it. Players such as Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien are good examples of these types on the Jets roster. The trick is finding the complementary pieces to leverage the space and chaos created by those players.

Luckily for the Jets they have a long list of those assets.

Kyle Connor has had a lot of success being one of those players. Maurice talked recently about the young sniper, suggesting his time as a driver on this roster was coming.

It may be coming sooner than even he thought.

Though Connor entered the league resembling a prototypical trigger man, he is morphing into something more.

Since returning from Finland Connor has points in five straight games, totalling nine points in that stretch and giving the Jets the offensive punch that’s been missing from the second line. His speed and ability to exit the defensive zone has freed Little to focus on his defensive responsibilities as his chemistry with Laine has the young Finn feeling as comfortable as he has all season.

When Connor lost his spot on the top line with Scheifele and Wheeler it may have hurt at the time, but being the pace-setter on a line away from those two will be a big fat bargaining chip come this summer when he’s due a new contract.

Prime post-season position
By now it’s common knowledge in the hockey world that teams in a playoff spot come American Thanksgiving have a good chance of staying there in the spring, though disaster can strike. The 2017-18 St. Louis Blues are a prime example — they sat near the top of the league last Thanksgiving before a late-season meltdown led to them missing out.

The key is avoiding slumps, something the Jets have excelled at so far this season. Winnipeg is 6-0-0 in games following a loss so far, outscoring their opponents 23-9 in the process.

Clearly the Jets’ ability to stop a losing streak before it starts is rooted in their defensive game. They allowed just one goal in four of those bounce-back games, the result of a suffocating defensive structure based on a speedy forecheck. That system requires consistent buy-in, but the payoff is forced turnovers that often lead to scoring chances. Every player loves to score so a defensive system built on feeding you offensive stats is not a hard sell.

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