Apparently, the Winnipeg Jets love college athletes. Three former NCAA superstars are currently plying their trade for the Jets on a full-time basis, while many more college stars await their chance in Winnipeg. In their collection of prospects, 10 currently represent the NCAA and are headlined by the University of Michigan’s Kyle Connor.
The left-winger was Winnipeg’s 17th overall selection from the 2015 NHL Draft. Described as a “solid two-way player” by NHL Central Scouting, Connor starred for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL) – the most competitive junior hockey league in the U.S. – from 2012 to 2015.
Connor has been nothing short of an offensive powerhouse for the Michigan Wolverines this season. In 21 games, his staggering 18 goals and 18 assists ranks him third amongst NCAA offensive leaders, despite his freshman status. Even more impressively, he’s getting accustomed to the Big Ten conference, scoring 12 goals in just eight games against Big Ten opposition.
The 19-year-old’s remarkable introduction to post-junior might be a surprise to some, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Winnipeg.
Jacob Trouba lined up for the Michigan Wolverines during the 2012-13 season before forgoing his collegiate career to join the NHL. The defenseman was joined by Andrew Copp, who completed three years with Michigan. Current Jets starter Connor Hellebuyck also graced the NCAA, winning the Mike Richter award as best goaltender for 2014 as a UMass-Lowell Riverhawk.
In his career already with the Michigan Wolverines, Connor (a former USHL player of the year) is certainly proving his high ceiling. If he can keep pace with his NCAA superiors, the Jets will have no problem tapping into his vast potential.
His meteoric rise could be attributed to his fortunate outcome at the draft and subsequent positioning down the Jets pipeline. As the 14th-ranked prospect, Connor was passed on three consecutive picks (13th to 15th) by the Boston Bruins. Considering that two of those three Boston picks were the 19th- and 38th-ranked prospects respectively, the pressure is eased off Connor in living up to his top-15 pick status.
As a member of the Jets developmental system, Connor is also a relatively small fish in a big pond. With Winnipeg’s youth focus on the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Nic Petan, there is a more relaxed timeframe for Connor to develop into an NHL-ready prospect. In addition, his status as NCAA athlete puts him in a no-rush scenario unlike prospects drafted out of Canadian Major Junior Hockey.
While many other Jets in the pipeline have been on display at prospect showcase events, Connor has yet to play for the Winnipeg crowd. He was unable to appear in the 2015 Penticton Young Stars tournament with that summer’s crop of Jets prospects as a result of NCAA restrictions. As he’s shown already, he’s making up for some lost time with a very compelling start as a college freshman.
Perhaps location is the greatest weapon in his arsenal. Hailing from Clinton Township – an area within metropolitan Detroit – Connor is playing hockey in his home state of Michigan. The Jets will be hoping that a trip up north in a few years will be close enough for the prospect to continue to his exuberant form.
For now, Connor’s home is where the heart is. The next stop in his hockey journey is 900 miles away from home, where his future awaits, in Winnipeg.