PLUS JETS AWARDS –
Given one more chance to shine, Kyle Connor took full advantage and played a key role in the Winnipeg Jets earning their seventh straight win.
The 20-year-old first-year pro played his 20th NHL game Saturday night as the Jets finished off their season with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.
It was his first game for the Jets since Nov. 29 and, after playing 49 games with the Manitoba Moose and leading them in goals, he made his opportunity count.
Connor scored the game-tying goal with 9:13 left in the third period — setting the stage for captain Blake Wheeler to score a late decisive marker — as the Jets won to finish their season with a 40-35-7 record.
“It was a fun game to be a part of and it obviously feels good to contribute,” Connor said. “I kind of came in late at the end of the season but it just shows you there’s never quit in the locker room.”
Connor started on the Jets fourth line with Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn but quickly moved up to the third unit with Adam Lowry and Joel Armia. He had 10 minutes and 27 seconds of ice time and three shots on goal.
“I really tried to work on my game when I went down to the Moose,” said Connor, who took a feed from Lowry and beat Nashville’s Pekka Rinne to the blocker side. “I learned a lot and tried to translate that and implement it into tonight’s game.”
It has been an interesting year for Connor, who had a strong training camp with the Jets, scoring three goals, and cracked the big team’s lineup before cracks started to show in his game.
“It’s been kind of challenging, tough starting here and then going down to the Moose,” said Connor, who had two goals and three assists in the NHL this season. “The last few weeks I’ve been playing some pretty good hockey.”
In his first stint with the big club, Connor’s physical and defensive play were simply not good enough for the NHL and the Jets believe he has improved in that area.
Jets coach Paul Maurice said Connor’s growth showed in Saturday’s game.
“Way before the goal, his first period and his first 30 minutes, right away he showed that his first year of pro is good for him,” Maurice said.
“He was on the puck, he didn’t come off it. He won some battles, won some loose pucks. That’s the area of growth. He’s used his first year of pro well.”
There’s no question Connor has shown he has the speed and skill to be an NHL winger. The AHL has helped him become more well-rounded and that certainly could lead to a promotion to the big club for all of next season.
“The other parts are good enough,” Maurice said. “He’s fast as there is and he’s got a great release and he sees the game well enough. Getting the defensive things that everybody has to do now into his game? He built on it. I don’t know that it was something that came right away for him, which is probably better because he had to work at it, work at it, value it and understand it. That’s the part where we’ve seen the biggest improvement in his game.”
The biggest surprise of the season for the Jets had to be the play of rookie defenceman Josh Morrissey.
The 2013 first-round draft pick came into training camp just hoping to land a job and wound up being one of the team’s more dependable blue-liners while playing all 82 games.
Nobody expected that kind of growth from the rookie, including Morrissey himself.
“Coming into the season, I just wanted to have a really good training camp and do whatever I could to make the team,” said Morrissey, who finished the season with six goals and 20 points.
“From there, all of a sudden you’re on the opening day roster and you’re starting, you’re 10 games in, 20 games in, now all of a sudden it’s 60 games in and you’re still playing. Now we’re here in the last game.
“I feel for the most part this season I’ve been able to get better and improve my game. It’s been a lot of fun for me this year living my dream of playing in the NHL.”
Maurice was astonished by Morrissey’s development over the course of his first season in the NHL.
“All the parts of his game that we thought would take years, fairly early on became a strength of his,” Maurice said. “We called him an offensive defenceman to start and the offensive part of the game is the last thing that we think we’re going to start to see. We still believe it’s there.
“The things we would have said this was the big checklist for him, he had done right away.”
Maurice said Morrissey adapted very quickly to the physical rigours of the NHL game, which is something coaches questioned about him before he joined the Jets.
“His quickness back to get the puck, his physicality one-on-one … he’s learned how to engage one-on-one with far bigger men,” Maurice said.
SEASON ENDING AWARDS
The Jets announced their season-ending awards Saturday night, with rookie winger Patrik Laine getting the nod for the Three Star Award, Morrissey getting the Community Service Award and veteran centre Bryan Little getting the Dan Snyder Memorial Award.
The Three Star Award goes to the player with the most three star selections over the course of the season. Laine scored 36 goals and 64 points in 74 games, all played before his 19th birthday (which is on April 19).
The Community Service Award goes to the player who shows the most commitment to spending time in the community and the Dan Snyder Award goes to the player who embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition.