Even under the spotlight, Jets’ Kyle Connor continues to impress

Kyle Connor scored his 45th goal of the year, Connor Hellebuyck turned away 38 shots, and the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Colorado Avalanche 4-1.

WINNIPEG – His No. 81 is the one with a circle around it on the dry erase board of every single team the Winnipeg Jets face.

And despite the fact that everyone around the NHL is fully aware of his ability to put the puck in the net, Kyle Connor has somehow found a way to put together one of the most impressive seasons in Jets 2.0 franchise history.

As Connor provided an insurance marker in the Jets 4-1 victory over the suddenly stumbling Colorado Avalanche on Sunday night, he secured the highest single-season goal total since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg back in 2011.

With 45 goals already recorded and three games remaining in the regular season, Connor still has an outside shot of hitting 50 for the first time in his budding NHL career. But he isn’t spending much time thinking about the milestone that virtually all snipers set their sights on, whether they make those goals public or not.

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“I don’t,” Connor said emphatically when the subject was broached and then asked a follow-up question about it. “If it happens, it happens. It’s not going to change my mentality to how I approach the game.”

Of course, Connor would love to hit the mark. He’s just not going to go out of his way or be caught cheating for offence in order to do it.

He’s one of the purest goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the most productive goal scorers since becoming an NHL regular in 2017-18, when Patrik Laine scored 44 times for the Jets as a 19 year old.

It’s true that mostly receiving first-line minutes and top power play time played a role in Connor becoming the go-to goal scorer on the Jets.

But it’s his ability to produce on a regular basis that allowed him to maintain the status bestowed upon him.

One of the things that stands out about Connor during the current season is not suffering through any extended dry spells.

The longest drought – and we use that term loosely – that Connor went between goals was five games and he still managed to put up two assists during that span.

“Well it’s a credit to the year that he’s having. The type of player he is,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “But also a credit to how he’s played this year, (with) the consistency that he has in his game.”

Sunday’s goal showcased Connor’s soft hands in tight.

As the Jets took advantage of a turnover from Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson, Jansen Harkins intercepted the errant pass and found Connor all alone in the slot and that’s not a spot where many goalies around the NHL feel overly comfortable.

He’s also made a habit of scoring goals when the stakes are highest, recording eight game-winners (including one in overtime), an impressive number when you consider the Jets record is 36-32-11.

“Just an elite shot. It’s tricky, tricky to read,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who trains with Connor in the summer back home in Michigan and faces him regularly in practice. “And any time you can be tricky like that, you’re dangerous any time you get a shot. He knows that at any second, he can score. When you have a player like that, guys have to respect him and it opens up some eyes.”

Ever since he was chosen 17th overall by the Jets in the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor was known for his quick release and high-end finishing ability.

But it’s his willingness to find additional ways to score and diversify his portfolio that’s allowed him to continue to fill the net.

“Yeah, I mean you have to in this league,” said Connor, who is tied for fifth in goals with Minnesota Wild winger Kirill Kaprizov and also the front-runner to win the Lady Byng Trophy for most gentlemanly player after amassing just two minor penalties through 76 games. “You come in with a couple of skill sets. You see it in all of the great goal scorers, whether it’s a shot or a one-timer or what they’re known for coming into the league. You’ve got to develop in all areas. Like you said, there are pretty good defenders out there too and they’re going to hone in on you.”

“I take pride in that, being able to score in all areas of the ice, whether it’s in my spot on the power play over there or anywhere on the ice in tight trying to get a shot off quick. It’s something that I continue to work on every summer and I want to get better (at).”

That drive to get better is part of the reason Connor is expected to hit 50 goals, whether it’s through a strong finish in 2021-22 or sometime down the road.

Connor wasn’t the only Jets player to take sole possession of a franchise record on Sunday.

Hellebuyck passed Ondrej Pavelec on the all-time games played list for goalies on a night where he made 30 saves against the top team in the Western Conference and secured his 200th victory in what was his 380th appearance over seven NHL seasons.

As much as he appreciates the historical significance, it was an important start for Hellebuyck as he was pulled in consecutive games last week against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning and then caught a bug of some kind that prevented him from starting on Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

At a time when it would have been easy for Hellebuyck to take some additional time before returning to the crease against a team like the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night, he let Lowry know that he wanted to face the Avalanche.

Then he went out and provided a rock-solid effort that allowed the Jets to avoid a four-game season series sweep by the Avalanche, who have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1). 

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