How Winnipeg Jets winger Kyle Connor became one of the NHL's best finishers

You have to go back a while to find the last time the Winnipeg Jets were playing for nothing more than pride. In the closing game of the 2016–17 season, the Jets hosted the Nashville Predators knowing it would be their final skate together until the following September. If some players had to talk themselves into the importance of going out guns blazing, Kyle Connor wasn’t one of them. The first-year pro — 20 years old at the time — had just spent the previous four months toiling in the American Hockey League after starting the season with the big club. Connor got the call to come up for one more NHL contest, providing him an opportunity to end a transitional year — probably the hardest of his young career — on a high. And he’s not really one to miss on opportunities.

With just over nine minutes remaining in the third period and his team trailing 1–0, Connor made the kind of boring play coaches cherish, followed by the type of explosive action that makes him who he is. As Nashville defenceman Anthony Bitetto chugged out of his own zone with the puck, Connor swished backwards toward the red line, his stick-holding right arm fully extended to clog a passing lane in the middle of the ice. Bitetto shuffled to his backhand and tried to flick the puck past Connor, but the latter got his left hand in the way, spun around like a Daytona 500 winner while trying to relocate the puck, then whacked it over to teammate Adam Lowry. As play suddenly swung back toward Nashville’s goal, Connor made a beeline for the crease. He took Lowry’s return pass just a few feet in front of goalie Pekka Rinne, held it for a beat, then whipped it over Rinne’s blocker arm. As he peeled off, Connor lifted every limb except his right leg with an unmistakable “Let’s go!” spirit. The Jets won the game. Connor won the night.

Twelve months before that exciting April evening, Connor was shredding the NCAA. One year after the tally against Rinne, he wrapped his official rookie season in the NHL by leading all freshman in goals, with 31. In between, he laid much of the foundation for the player he’s become, one whose arrow keeps pointing up. The guy they call “K.C.” has pushed his way into the elite tier of NHL goal-scorers, though his name can still be a late entry into any discussion about the world’s finest finishers. Maybe some withhold shine because Connor has spent so much of his career as the junior on a line with established offensive stars. Don’t get it twisted, though: The kid who hung on every shoulder shimmy and blade twitch in the Pavel Datsyuk highlights he’d devour before youth hockey games has become a force for the Jets. And even if the 24-year-old is not the type to tell you how it is, there are plenty of people around him who will.

It's far from the only thrilling part of Connor's game, but Woodcroft describes his speed as "electric"

Todd Woodcroft had a front-row view of Connor’s NHL career from 2016 to 2020. The former Jets assistant coach can cite a number of things that stand out from games, practices and workouts, but he opts to highlight the quality that puts Connor in the company of another Connor. “His speed is electric,” says Woodcroft, now coach of the NCAA’s Vermont Catamounts. “Like, he’s not far off from McDavid.”

Connor certainly shot out of the blocks this year. In Winnipeg’s first game, he blasted home a one-timer during a two-man advantage to tie a battle with the Calgary Flames the Jets eventually won in overtime. Next time out, he took a pass in the slot on his forehand and beat Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen on the stick side. When Connor roofed one over an outstretched Marcus Hogberg the next night in Ottawa, it was three goals in three outings for a player who sniffs chances like few others and excels at cashing them. “You’ve heard it a million times,” says Connor, who has 10 tallies this season after popping a pair against Montreal on Thursday, “but there’s a lot of goals scored [via] tips, rebounds — just being in the right spot is the biggest thing.”

The right spot is like a second home to Connor at this point. Since the start of the 2017–18 season, only eight players have more goals than Connor’s 113. After registering 34 goals as a sophomore in 2018-19, he was on pace for 44 last year when COVID-19 hijacked everything. On March 11, 2020 — the last night of regular-season hockey — Connor broke a 2–2 tie with the Edmonton Oilers early in the third period by taking a Blake Wheeler feed, streaking in alone on goalie Mike Smith and zipping the puck under his pads. He added an empty-netter to seal a crucial win for a Jets team fighting tooth-and-nail for the playoffs and it marked his 10th goal in 13 outings. When — after a long hiatus — the hockey world gathered again for the summer bubble session, Jets coach Paul Maurice was talking like a man who wanted to catch the world up on what people inside the Jets room already knew.

“I would say [he’s] quietly become an elite player, right? Because there is more than just putting the puck in the net,” Maurice said of Connor ahead of his team’s preliminary-round loss to the Flames. “This guy, I think he’s going to be thought of — he’s got a long-term deal so I don’t mind saying it — I think he’s going to be a top-10 player in the National Hockey League.”

Connor has spent the majority of his NHL time skating on the left side of a line with Wheeler and centre Mark Scheifele. The three have unique chemistry, but even when the equation changes, Connor sees himself as a guy who can make a trio go. “At this point, I believe I can for sure drive the line,” he says. “Whether it’s with Blake and Mark or anybody else up and down our lineup.”

“There’s no fear in him. He plays really hard.”

What Maurice was referring to last summer, though, is all the things Connor has picked up over time to round out his game. Yes, hiccups happen. No. 81 wasn’t called out by name, but was clearly the target of some Maurice frustration earlier this year when a half-hearted backcheck led to a goal against. Blips aside, Connor supplements his million-dollar highlights with a lot of pennywise plays. “He’s so good at picking the puck from guys,” says Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski, who played AAA youth and NCAA hockey with Connor. “He’s so good at just popping their stick and taking the puck. It’s a skill and it’s one of those things that not everyone can do.”

One scout for a North Division rival echoed Werenski, while also noting Connor is a great first man on the forecheck because he’s so fast and fights hard for 50-50 pucks. Woodcroft confirms Connor has an ample supply of gumption. “There’s no fear in him,” says Woodcroft. “He plays really hard.”

Connor started this season red-hot, netting a goal in each of his first three outings

When the bus finally rolled back into Youngstown, Ohio, coach Anthony Noreen had one message for his Phantoms before they staggered home to their beds: I don’t want to see any of you tomorrow. The United States Hockey League team had just completed a three-in-three road slog, which prompted Noreen’s message to stay home and rest up. The next day, as Noreen and his assistants chatted upstairs in the arena, they started to hear something. The sounds called to mind an episode of the old Adam West Batman show: Ping! Thwack! Doink! “I look out and Kyle’s on the ice [shooting pucks],” Noreen says. “And next thing I know, eight or nine other guys are on the ice. Next thing I know, the whole team is on the ice.”

Noreen knew he was getting a talented player when he signed Connor to play for the Phantoms beginning in the 2012–13 season. Along the way he learned he was also getting a person who — purely through his own devotion to the game — would elevate the bar for those around him. Connor grew up in Shelby Township, Mich. with three siblings, a backyard rink and a dad, Joe, who was often on his youth team coaching staffs. After playing AAA alongside Werenski for multiple years with the Belle Tire program, Connor tried out for the U.S. National Team Development Program under-17 squad. He didn’t make it. Instead, he left home for Youngstown, beginning his rookie Jr. A season still a few months shy of his 16th birthday. The fledgling program — the Phantoms joined the USHL three seasons before Connor joined them — rose in tandem with the quiet, skinny scorer who was quickly dubbed “Franchise.”

“He’s one of those kids who was a little bit of a natural and he was good at everything,” Noreen says. “Whatever the guys would do, he would be the best.”

“Even in the off-season in practices, he wants to score on every single shot. Just to see that firsthand was insane.”

The veteran players — some were five years Connor’s senior — took a shine to him, even joking back then that “Franchise” could get away with begging off typical rookie chores like collecting pucks after practice or pushing carts full of equipment bags. Austin Cangelosi, now playing in Norway, was a second-year Phantom who billeted with a rookie Connor. The two spent free time playing NHL 2K online and busting out mini-sticks for whack-fests with their billets’ hockey-playing children. As Connor began to relax into his new surroundings, Cangelosi realized a sense of humour — complete with some trash talk — was one dimension of the person everyone finds easy to like. “If he had a bad day, you’d never know,” Cangelosi says. “You never caught him waking up on the wrong side of the bed. I think that’s a hard thing to come by, a guy who has a good attitude every day and nothing seems to change it. Not too many ups and downs with him.”

There certainly wasn’t much in the way of scoring troughs during Connor’s one and only NCAA season. A few months after being drafted 17th overall in 2015 by the Jets, Connor was suiting up as a Michigan Wolverine in front of family and friends at the always-rocking Yost Ice Arena. Part of a deadly trio featuring J.T. Compher at centre and Tyler Motte on right wing, he led the nation in both goals (35) and points (71). Still, Connor felt the sting of being cut from the American World Junior Championship team that winter. Compher says it was clear that, upon his return to Michigan, Connor was playing with something to prove. “You have to use it as motivation,” Connor says. “There were a bunch of instances [growing up] where I’d get cut from a team, and you can’t sit there and just wonder what could have been, you’ve got to go out there and work harder.”

That mentality came into play again shortly after the start of Connor’s Jets career. He actually made the team out of his first training camp in the fall of 2016, but by mid-November — with just one goal on his stat line — he was playing fewer than 10 minutes per game. Frustration soon bubbled up. “I just remember wanting to play games,” Connor says. “That was the biggest thing.”

“You have to use it as motivation,” Connor says of being cut earlier in his career. “You can’t sit there and just wonder what could have been, you’ve got to go out there and work harder.”

He did just that in the AHL, dressing for 52 contests under Manitoba Moose bench boss Pascal Vincent. Connor scored 25 times in the minors and did video work with Vincent that he says provided the underpinning for his pro game. After the sweet send-off that year versus Nashville, Connor returned for camp the following September and experienced a little more turbulence when he was assigned back to the ‘A’ to start the year. After four minor-league outings that October, Connor had three goals and five points and an invitation to rejoin the Jets for good. His AHL apprenticeship — 56 games in total — was relatively short in the end, but went a long way toward preparing him the chess match hockey becomes at the NHL level.

“It’s totally different,” he says. “About 90 per cent of the game, nothing really happens and you’ve just got to be in good defensive position, you’ve got to run your routes, do your job and then when you get your chance, that’s where the skill and the top-end players take over and they’re able to capitalize on them.”

Connor’s knack for taking anything that resembles a scoring opportunity and putting it on the board is what stands out to Compher, a Colorado Avalanche centre who typically sees a fair bit of his old pal under normal scheduling circumstances in the Western Conference. “His finishing ability is super high-end,” Compher says. “It doesn’t matter where the puck came from, where it is, whether it’s in front of him, behind him, he’s able to get off good shots and good goal-scoring shots.”

Connor is already scoring at a rate that more than justifies the seven year, $50-million deal he signed in September 2019. Of the eight players who’ve exceeded his goal total in the past three-plus seasons, all but one — David Pastrnak — were drafted higher than Connor; six were first-overall selections. “K.C. can score on a breakaway. K.C. can score on a goal-line jam. K.C. can score coming off the half wall, he can tip it,” says Woodcroft. “That guy is a scoring chance waiting to happen.”

Connor says his shot was actually one of the weakest parts of his game when he was a kid. Even when he was in Youngstown, Noreen said his prolific numbers were more about the high volume of chances he generated with his ridiculous skating rather than picking every corner. Those small spaces are getting hit now because Connor continues to slave away at finding them. Werenski saw it close up during the off-season in Michigan when he and Connor took part in regular skates at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth with NHLers — and, in all likelihood, fellow future U.S. Olympians — like Dylan Larkin and Jack and Quinn Hughes. “It was the first summer I trained with Kyle and every day I was blown away,” Werenski raves. “It was like he was the talk of the skate every skate; just how he scores on every single shot. I kept telling him, ‘You’re automatic. Like, you don’t miss.’ And when he doesn’t score, I don’t think there’s a harder person on himself. Even in the off-season in practices, he wants to score on every single shot. Just to see that firsthand this summer was insane.”

Connor also excels at hitting the mark on the links, where — naturally — he is a scratch golfer. Compher knows, whenever his buddy needs a straight one off the tee, he’ll reach for the two-iron and knock it down the middle. No fuss, just a self-assured man who strolls up, locks in and makes it happen. “Sometimes the loudest guy in the room you might think is the most confident,” Compher says. “But I tend to like guys who know what they can do, believe in what they can do but they don’t have to put it in your face. That’s exactly Kyle. Just a good dude.”

With serious hints of greatness.

Photo Credits

Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images; John Woods/CP; Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images.