July 12 2012 09:46AM
Kevin Connauton (left) protects the puck during a practice session.
Kevin Connauton is arguably the top defensive prospect in Vancouver’s system. He was profiled back in January, and at the time he was halfway into a very solid season with the Chicago Wolves. His defensive partner, Chris Tanev, had just been recalled to the Canucks. Connauton continued his solid play without Tanev, as the Wolves qualified for the AHL postseason.
The 22-year-old defenseman’s game improved a lot under the tutelage of head coach Craig MacTavish.
“Craig MacTavish has done a terrific job of taking Connauton’s natural abilities and channelling them in a positive direction. He isn’t trying to rein in Connauton’s natural abilities his skating, speed, his shot. Instead he's teaching Connauton to pick his spots better, while also playing the young defenseman in difficult minutes, and challenging him to be better defensively.”
Connauton has also benefitted tremendously from a relationship with Wolves Captain (and now assistant coach) Nolan Baumgartner. Their friendship is obvious to anyone who follows them on Twitter (Connauton is @K_Nauts and Baumgartner is @Baumer_5).
"Last year was his rookie year and at times he struggled, but it's tough to step in. Sometimes you're in and out of the lineup and try to get some confidence going, which he's playing with a lot of this year. And confidence can go a long way. He's learning to play in his own end, which is huge for him. He's got a huge offensive upside as we all see."
Connauton finished 2011-12 with 13 goals and 33 points (an improvement of two goals and 10 points from his rookie campaign in 2010-11). He was 23rd in scoring among all AHL defensemen, and only two defensemen scored more goals than he did (Eric Gelinas and Clay Wilson each scored 16). He was named to the AHL All-Star Game, and won the hardest shot competition with a 99.4 mile-per-hour rocket. At the time of the All-Star Game, he led all AHL defensemen with nine goals.
The Canucks aren’t in a position where they need to rush a young defenseman into their top six, as the depth chart is pretty solid.
- Dan Hamhuis – Kevin Bieksa
- Alex Edler – Jason Garrison
- Keith Ballard – Chris Tanev
- Andrew Alberts
Man, It feels weird not writing Sami Salo in there…
Connauton has moved around a lot early on in his hockey career. He spent only one year in college at Western Michigan before joining the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. He played only one season there before turning pro with the Manitoba Moose. The Moose lasted only one season in Winnipeg before the Canucks switched affiliates to the Wolves in Chicago. Hockey players are used to changing locations and moving around, but usually not four times in four years (although Mike Sillinger and Dominic Moore have something to say about that).
Assuming Vancouver goes with the pairings I have listed above; Connauton will start the season in the AHL. However, he is likely the first call up if any of the defensemen go down.
The Canucks signed depth defensemen Derek Joslin and Patrick Mullen earlier this month, but both defensemen should spend the majority of the 2012-13 season with Chicago. With Sami Salo now in Tampa Bay, the Canucks don’t have an injury-prone defenseman that they have to plan around anymore. Letting Marc-Andre Gragnani go was a bit of a surprise, as he has been very productive at the AHL level. However, the Canucks were obviously turned off by his decision to go to arbitration, and figured he would be easily replaceable. He didn’t show much during his limited tenure with the team here, either.
Connauton will see some time with the big club this year, and could be a mainstay on the back end by 2013-14. His entry-level contract will have expired at that time, but he won’t have much leverage with limited NHL experience. The Canucks would love to be able to slide him in to their starting six on an affordable contract (much like Tanev right now). If Connauton continues to polish the rough parts of his game, he could find himself partnered up with Tanev once again, this time in Canucks colours.
He spent some time training at the Nike Headquarters in Oregon last month, alongside other Canuck prospects like Jordan Schroeder and Darren Archibald.
Being able to ice a defensive pairing featuring two players with cap-friendly contracts would free up a tremendous amount of cap space to be used elsewhere (not naming names, but a particular superstar defenseman from Sicamous, BC may be made available at some point in the next year).
He isn’t a superstar prospect, but Connauton has developed from a one or two-trick pony (big point shot, great skater) into a top four defenseman at the AHL level and a legitimate NHL prospect.
A sampling of Connauton’s offensive (and defensive) abilities: