How Kyle Connor Is Taking His Scoring to New Heights

While Kyle Connor has ranked among the most exciting young stars in the league for a few years now, it’s always felt like he had more to give. The 24-year-old is a dynamic offensive weapon with excellent burst, vision and finish. There’s no reason why he can’t control proceedings rather than merely flashing every now and then.

Actually, there was one: deference.

Too often, Connor has been content to play his role and wait for the action to come to him. Especially on a team that iced a low-grade blue line, his passivity yielded long periods spent idling in the defensive zone. It held him back.

That’s no longer the case in 2021-22. Through 16 games, Connor is sitting on 21 points (fifth in the NHL) and playing the best hockey of his career because he’s hungrier for touches. Where he once settled into his spot and bided his time in hopes of landing an opportunity, he’s now working to meet the puck in all three zones. Look at how he hounds opponents to regain possession and establish his club’s attack:

At his worst, Connor would sleepwalk through shifts until he came alive with the puck on his stick. If his teammates didn’t unlock this exact scenario for him, he wasn’t all that visible. He would head back to the bench without having left a trace.

So far this season, he’s leaping off the screen. His off-puck engagement level is evident at both ends of the ice. He’s supporting his defensemen on the breakout and offering clear passing targets for his teammates in all three zones. He isn’t burning through the neutral zone as quickly as possible but carving out a groove in between defenders.

As such, it’s much for easier for the Jets to connect with him:

From there, his skill and offensive instincts grab the wheel. His talent is undeniable, but with considerably more chances to utilize it, he’s begun to tilt the ice for the 9-3-4 Winnipeg Jets on a nightly basis. His partnership with a resurgent Pierre-Luc Dubois has utterly dominated at 5-on-5, controlling 59.2% of the scoring chances, 64.9% of the high-danger bids, 63.3% of the expected goals and 73.3% of the actual goals. That’s pretty damn good.

It’s not strictly about finesse, though. Connor appears intent on diversifying his offensive designs. When he has the space to flex his skill, he does so. When blueliners are blanketing him, he darts to the crease area to screen goaltenders or deflect point shots. His understanding of spacing in the offensive zone is outstanding.

He’s continually sliding into different pockets and providing his teammates with new lanes to exploit:

By complementing his puck skills with a simple, direct and multi-dimensional approach, he’s become much more difficult to handle. He’s always working to free himself up. He’s always dangerous. It’s no shocker, then, that he’s shattering his career bests in shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger chance and expected goal rates. He’s currently second leaguewide in expected goals/60.

Consequently, he’s starting to score more greasy goals in addition to the long-range bombs:

Of course, we can’t gloss over his natural marksmanship. Connor’s release in stride is lightning-quick and accurate. Moreover, he’s developed a deadly one-timer that he can unleash in a fraction of a second. At even strength and on the power play, the Jets are continually trying to feed him. You can’t argue with the results either:

Thanks to his laser beam and a more balanced offensive style, his 5-on-5 scoring rate has made a quantum leap from 34th in the NHL in 2019-20 to 21st last year to…first this season. Since most of the game is played at even strength and he isn’t riding some insane shooting percentage—it’s right in line with his career average—it’s fair to say he’s now among the most lethal goal scorers in the league.

Look, no one will claim that he’s suddenly become a two-way stalwart. But Connor has added layers to his skill set and thus opened up a wealth of possibilities on the attack. He’s injecting himself into the heart of the action and manufacturing plus situations at every turn. He can hurt you no matter how you choose to defend him.

That potency has been crucial to Winnipeg early on. Though the team addressed its porous blue line by bringing Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon on board, Mark Scheifele (6 points in 10 games) and Blake Wheeler (5 points in 11 games) have struggled out of the gates. Even Connor Hellebuyck (2.62 GAA, 91.8 SV%), likely the team’s most important player, hasn’t been as sharp as usual. 29 goaltenders have logged at least 500 minutes between the pipes this season. He ranks 15th in goals saved above average/60. That’s the definition of average.

The Jets need their key veterans to shake off the cobwebs soon. In the meantime, however, Connor’s consistent and scorching-hot scoring touch has powered them to the second seed in the Central Division.

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