Kevin Connauton’s Big Leap Forward

Connauton and his partner Chris Tanev celebrate a Chicago Wolves goal via Chris Jerina.

Sorry I didn’t have any fresh content last week, I was half way through a take on Chris Tanev’s long-term upside when some persona issues came up and I never got the time to finish it.

Tanev’s recall from Chicago came after I had started my piece, and there were quickly numerous other bloggers and writers who offered their thoughts, and insights on him. Thomas Drance wrote a really good piece on Tanev (and at the same time referenced my favourite Schwarzenegger movie – Total Recalled), and I wouldn’t disagree with any of his opinions on Tanev’s short term upside with the club. This week, I’ve decided to shift my focus across the rink to Tanev’s defensive partner with Chicago, the dynamic Kevin Connauton. Connauton has gone from borderline NHL prospect (even after his dominant season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants) to a legitimate top-four defenseman prospect. Let’s take a look at Connauton’s big step forward this season…

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Connauton’s road to professional hockey has been a weird one. After bypassing the WHL for the college game, Connauton decided to switch back to major junior after one season at Western Michigan. The Canucks (who had recently picked Connauton in the Entry Draft) were a significant catalyst in this move, as they felt he would benefit from the physical style and number of games played in the WHL compared to college hockey.

In Connauton’s one season at WMU, he scored seven goals and finished with 18 points in 40 games. He was an honourable mention on the CCHA All-Rookie Team that year, as well. He came to Don Hay and the Vancouver Giants as a defenseman with a lot of positive attributes – and a lot of deficiencies. His defensive coverage was below average at best, and his general awareness, in terms of when to pinch and gamble, were subpar for an NHL-calibre defensive prospect. Connauton played center growing up before shifting back to defense as a teenager. His time playing forward allowed him to develop his shot and offensive game more, but also hindered his ability to develop said fundamentals.

In his first (and only) season with the Giants, Connauton was a dominant offensive force. He finished the 2009-10 season with 24 goals and 48 assists in 69 games (he added in 107 PIM, as well). In the WHL playoffs, his 13 points in 16 games ranked him tops among Giants defensemen. Even after that statistically impressive season, doubts lingered about Connauton’s ability to translate his game to professional hockey. He had the best shot (slap shot and wrister) from the point in the WHL, and he was very, very accurate with it. He can flat out fly too, and had game-breaking speed at the major junior level. But professional hockey has a way of levelling off the speed advantage many prospects have in junior hockey.

With the AHL season now more than half done, Connauton has made huge improvements strides in his defensive game. His shot and speed are still dynamic against a much higher level of competition, and he has shown more patience when he’s without the puck, and poise when he’s got it.

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Playing with a rock solid decision maker like Tanev has definitely helped, and it has allowed Connauton a bit more freedom to rush the puck up the ice. The two young defensemen won’t break in with the Canucks at the same time (Connauton is likely another year away, while Tanev should be a regular next season), but it is easy to see them playing together for a long, long time (provided neither is traded at the deadline this year, or in the future).

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 reign 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.

Mike Gillis took the time to single out Connauton (and Mac-T) in his year in review piece for the Vancouver Sun back in December, saying: “Chris Tanev and Kevin Connauton have made huge strides under [MacTavish’s] coaching.”

Here’s what MacTavish said about Connauton before training camp last fall:

You have a kid with that raw skill set, a highly intelligent and determined kid, I’d bet that. Ideally, he’s going to want to go in and compete for a job in Vancouver and that’s the next step for him. He’s right there at the end of the decision making for the Canucks coaches and managers and I think that’s the natural progression.

For Canucks fans, think back to Ed Jovanovski (before his ‘Special Ed’ days). He was at his best when he was hitting, fighting, rushing the puck up the ice, and taking risks. Connauton is a similar type of defenseman, albeit it somewhat less physical. Both Jovo and Connauton have terrific wrist shots, too.

There are a lot of moving parts on a hockey team from season to season, but look for Connauton to get a few cups of coffee with the Canucks next season before making the team in a more significant capacity for the 2013-14 season. His defensive game still has room for improvement, but his rapid progression from college, to major junior, to the AHL, speaks to his upside and legitimacy as a prospect to keep an eye on.

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