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ANALYSIS: Connor adds layers to his game as he leads Jets in more than just scoring

Click to play video: 'Weekly Jets recap w/John Shannon: March 9' Weekly Jets recap w/John Shannon: March 9
Will the Jets win over the Lightning spark a Winnipeg run with the season winding down? Why are the Jets so bad in OT this season? What could they get for pending UFA's Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny in a trade? 680 CJOB hockey analyst John Shannon gives his latest Jets takes – Mar 9, 2022

The move itself was extra spicy, a delicate little number that saw Kyle Connor take advantage of a miscue to find himself all alone in a one-on-one battle with Andrei Vasilevskiy.

As Connor watched Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov blow a tire and go sliding along the ice, the Winnipeg Jets sniper calmly picked up the loose puck off the sideboards, steadied himself and then froze Vasilevskiy with a backhand-forehand-backhand bit of sorcery that ended with him stuffing the puck home beyond the outstretched left pad to make the score 5-3.

It takes a special set of hands to be able to get one of the best goalies in the NHL to bite in that manner.

“It was really nice,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “I don’t think there’s any guy we trust more on a breakaway than this guy right here.”

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Connor was the one sitting beside Scheifele at the podium as he gushed about him.

Oh, and did we mention the highlight-reel goal came while the Jets were shorthanded?

Connor is up to 34 goals on the season and he remains right in the thick of the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy with the likes of Chris Kreider, Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin, among others.

That Connor has found the back of the net should come as no surprise. Scoring goals is what he does.

He’s done it at every level and he’s done it consistently since becoming an NHL regular during the 2017-18 season.

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Connor is a safe bet to eclipse 40 goals for the first time in his career and is currently on pace to threaten to hit 50.

Perhaps the biggest development we’ve seen with Connor’s game this season is his solid work on the penalty kill.

Known mostly as an offensive dynamo, adding this important skill to the toolbox is part of the reason the Jets have turned things around while shorthanded.

It’s never as simple as adding one player to the mix, but it’s not a coincidence either that since Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach on Dec. 19, Connor has seen his time on the penalty kill increase dramatically.

Part of the reason Connor has been so effective in the expanded role is his breathtaking speed.

With the group attacking pressure points far more aggressively than they did early in the season, Connor’s skating ability and anticipation have been on full display.

It has led directly to a pair of shorthanded goals for him, but he’s generated a number of dangerous opportunities for himself and the guys joining him in those shorthanded situations.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor- March 8' RAW: Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor- March 8
RAW: Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor- March 8 – Mar 9, 2022

“We made an adjustment — just wanted to be more aggressive, just make them make a play,” said Connor, referring to the push to turning up the heat that came in a game against the Seattle Kraken in early December.

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“I’ve personally been on the power play and if you’re constantly getting pressured and you’re forced to make plays, it can be tough. We’ve really focused on pressure points. When they’re trying to get into the zone, that’s a spot where we recognize that we can be aggressive.

He also talked about thinking strategically about faceoffs. “You’ve got to be smart about it. You can’t just be running around with your head cut off.”

One of the reasons Paul Maurice was reluctant to use Connor on the penalty kill for extended stretches in the past was because of the taxing nature of those minutes.

Those minutes remain taxing and Connor is still playing big minutes at even strength and on the first power play unit, but his physical maturity and growth in his all-around game has ensured that he remains effective despite averaging nearly 22 minutes per game.

Perhaps the most impressive thing in this breakout season for Connor, who was chosen to participate in his first NHL All-Star weekend in Las Vegas in January, has been his consistent level of production.

The dry spells have been few and far between and even on the nights he’s not ending up on the score sheet, Connor has found other ways to contribute.

Not only does Connor lead the Jets in goals, he leads them in points (64) and shots on goal, with 250.

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Read more: ANALYSIS: Kyle Connor emerges as Jets’ MVP during 1st half of NHL season

The scary thing for opposing goalies is that Connor is actually converting his scoring chances at a slightly lower efficiency (13.5 per cent compared with his career average of 15.0 per cent).

Provided he continues to generate as many dangerous chances as he has to this stage of the season, Connor could be in line for a hot streak during the stretch run.

Although he won’t be working himself into the discussion for the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward anytime soon, Connor has made strides in his play away from the puck as well.

Of course, there are times when his board play and puck management can improve, but Connor’s willingness to use his skating ability to apply back pressure and make a concerted effort away from the puck have been part of a noticeable improvement.

Not long ago, Connor was seen as more of a complementary piece on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

Connor’s straight-line game made him easy for others to play alongside, thanks to his predictability.

One of the other big developments this season has been his union with Pierre-Luc Dubois to form another duo that has been dynamic.

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Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers (27) celebrates his goal with teammates Kyle Connor (81), Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) and Nathan Beaulieu (28) against the Calgary Flames during first period NHL pre-season game action in Winnipeg on Oct. 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods.

Connor, who turned 25 just a few months ago, has grown into a bona fide play driver and his finishing ability remains elite.

He’s also diversified where his goals come from, which has only made him tougher to defend, and his passing ability is somewhat underrated.

With six games to go for the Jets before the NHL trade deadline, it won’t take long to figure out what direction general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to take when it comes to standing pat or selling to try and retool on the fly.

No matter what Cheveldayoff decides to do, one thing has become abundantly clear: Connor is going nowhere and his stock continues to be on the rise during his sixth season as a professional — and fifth as a full-time member of the Jets.

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Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Dave Lowry – March 8' RAW: Dave Lowry – March 8
RAW: Dave Lowry – March 8 – Mar 9, 2022

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