2015 NHL Draft Profiles: Kyle Connor is anything but a reach at ninth overall

The Michigan commit flew a bit under the radar this season but deserves legitimate top-ten consideration.

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Although Kyle Connor isn’t exactly a mainstay in most scouting agencies’ top tens, there is a lot to like about this player and a lot of things that typically appeal to Doug Wilson’s amateur scouting staff. On my personal list, I have Connor in an interchangeable group with Zach Werenski and Pavel Zacha in the 8-9-10 slots, so I think Connor is a player well worth looking at with the 9th overall pick.

To start, he is a very well-rounded forward with no real weaknesses to his game, unlike even prospects like Dylan Strome (skating), Lawson Crouse (offensive creativity), or Mathew Barzal ("Joe Thornton Syndrome"). Connor is a natural center but he has spent most of the last calendar year playing the left wing both internationally and for the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL. At 6’1.5", Connor cannot be called small, but his lanky build suggests there is quite a bit of room for him to get bigger and stronger. He has extremely high hockey IQ and anticipation, and while Connor isn’t yet a defensive stalwart by any means, he’s made a lot of progress on his two-way play this year and this along with his skillset lends to the idea that he could become an excellent defensive forward.

Now, before you sigh and think "not another safe two-way center," rest assured that there is a helluva lot more to Connor than that. First of all, Connor is an elite skater in every way. He gets a lot of power behind a very fundamentally sound stride and is quick and agile in all four directions with and without the puck. Second of all, Connor has extremely soft hands and can deke with the best of them. Combine these two factors and you have a player who is lethal in transition and on breakaway opportunities. On the cycle, Connor is very good at maintaining and handling the puck in traffic, and is an equally adept playmaker and goalscorer. All-in-all, his offensive skillset seems to be very translatable to the NHL.

What do the scouts say?

Here's Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports who ranked Connor 12th:

Kyle Connor is an outstanding skater, with excellent speed, first step quickness, and great acceleration. He also has extremely good stickhandling ability, and can make plays while moving at close to top speed. He is extremely agile, and uses this and his stickhandling ability to terrify defenders off the rush. His ability to change speeds is yet another weapon that he can use to beat defenders wide, or to slow things down and open up passing and shooting lanes. Connor could use a bit more strength and balance so that he can be better in board battles and at protecting the puck down low on the cycle game. He doesn’t shy away from physical contact at all, but would be more effective with added strength.

Kyle Connor is an excellent playmaker who has the vision to spot the open man, and the skill to make tape-to-tape passes through tight areas. He is extremely poised with the puck on his stick and can slow the game down and wait for a seam to open up to make that pass to a teammate. He stickhandles well in traffic and avoids defenders. Connor also shows a very good wrist shot and release, but he doesn’t seem to use it often enough. He is much more content to be a playmaker than a scorer. He has good hockey IQ, usually making the smart pass, and also looking to get open when he doesn’t have the puck.

Everyone generally agrees on the main strengths of Connor, which are his skating ability, puck-handling, and creativity. He can be a north-south player or an east-west player and is extremely versatile. Most scouts have him ranked somewhere around 12th-13th overall, but primarily due to the league he plays in he didn't get even close to the kind of exposure that CHLers or even Europeans got. Connor was invited to the US WJC Evaluation Camp last summer and impressed in flashes, but was ultimately left off the team. He should be a key component to this coming WJC team in the winter, and should get more attention playing for the University of Michigan in the fall.

What do the stats say?

Given Connor's skillset, why isn’t he ranked higher? There are a few reasons for that, but the most obvious one is the league he plays in. There haven’t been that many players drafted in the early rounds from the USHL (besides the USNDTP) in the last decade, or even ones who played in the USHL and moved on to the NCAA or CHL before their draft year. Partially due to this, the USHL isn’t nearly as strong as the CHL or the NCAA or any of the European men’s professional leagues. This of course raises questions about whether Connor’s statistics can be trusted, or whether he’s just dominating soft competition, and that in turn raises concerns about Connor’s ultimate upside. While these are fair questions, a list of Connor’s NHL Comparables from the USHL provides a good counter point.

Connor is a late ’96 birthday, so this is actually his third year in the USHL. For this reason, separate lists of Connor’s 17 year old season (2013-2014) and 18 year old season (2014-2015) will be used:

Player (17yo season) USHL points/game USHL scoring rank
Thomas Vanek 1.72 1st
Jaden Schwartz 1.38 1st
Kyle Connor 1.32 2nd
Johnny Gaudreau 1.20 4th
Kyle Okposo 1.16 6th
Nick Schmaltz 1.15 8th

Player (18yo season) USHL points/game USHL scoring rank
Kyle Connor 1.43 1st
Paul Stastny 1.38 2nd
Trevor Lewis 1.34 2nd
David Backes 1.21 4th
Joe Pavelski 1.15 3rd
Max Pacioretty 1.05 12th

From these tables, we find that Connor’s best comparables appear to be Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny, and Trevor Lewis. However, Lewis needs to be taken with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. First is that although he did lead his team in scoring, he also played on a team with Kyle Okposo and Jeff Petry. I didn’t follow prospects back in 2006, but I have to assume that Okposo was considered the significantly superior prospect and likely figured in to Lewis’ scoring totals. Secondly is that Lewis’ 17 year old USHL season before Petry and Okposo showed up was extremely lackluster (.43 PPG and seventh on his team in scoring), which is much different from Connor’s dominant 17 year old season. And thirdly, and probably most importantly, was that Lewis was actually 19 when he was drafted 17th overall by the Kings in 2006. Connor’s situation is much different than Lewis’; Lewis’ real draft year production was almost four times less than Connor’s.

In fact there have been 8 forwards not in the NTDP that have been drafted in the 1st round since 2003, not including Patrick White and TJ Oshie, who each played less than 15 games, or Nick Schmaltz, who was drafted last year and is much to young to draw any conclusions from. Those players are Zemgus Girgensons, Jaden Schwartz, Louis Leblanc, Max Pacioretty, Kyle Okposo, Trevor Lewis, Blake Wheeler, and Thomas Vanek. That seems like a pretty good list: one bust (LeBlanc), one bottom-6 forward (Lewis), one second line forward (Girgensons, an All-Star!), and five first line forwards (Schwartz, Pacioretty, Okposo, Wheeler, and Vanek). That seems good.

So while the league strength concern is a valid one, looking back at the last 12 years of 1st round forwards who were either drafted from or played at least one full year before being drafted from the USHL shows there weren’t a lot of fools’ gold or paper tigers. This should lay aside ultimate upside concerns for the statistically inclined. Additionally, Connor has shown well in international competition, scoring 7 points in seven games at the 2014 U18 tournament en route to a gold medal with household names like Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin, and Auston Matthews.

Should the Sharks be interested?

A personal concern I have with Connor is his lack of urgency at times. He’ll hold on to the puck and make great plays and keep possession, but it’s like he forgets that the goal of hockey is actually to score goals. However, I strongly believe this is a product of the level of competition he faces in the USHL, since that was nowhere to be seen at the U18 tournament. His coaches love him, he’s a leader with great work ethic, and he’s great with community involvement (the last two per the coach himself).

One additional factor to consider is the growing concern of the "NCAA factor", which is an ode to players like Justin Schultz, Kevin Hayes, and now Mike Reilly who played in college hockey long enough to become unrestricted free agents. However, given Connor's age, this is not something that should be a deciding factor.

Overall, you have a well-rounded forward with size, speed, smarts, hands, and vision who has excellent NHL comparables and by all accounts is an upstanding person on and off the ice. I believe his floor is a good third liner, like Lewis, but that he is very likely to be a scoring line forward at whatever position his team needs and if he hits his ceiling could be a legitimate first line forward. While there may be players with higher upside on the board when the Sharks pick (like Pavel Zacha, for example), Connor is a great happy medium between those who want upside and the typical safe Sharks pick. If Connor’s name is called by the Sharks on draft day, and I think he has as good a chance as any, Sharks fans should be excited.

What does he look like in action?

Here's a short highlight reel showcasing some of Connor's exploits in Youngstown this season: