Kevin Connauton – Next in Line

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).

Baumgartner on Connauton:

"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.

Potential pairings:

  • 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:

  • KleptoKlown

    Ballard is really out of place as a 5/6 pairing. I hope the Canucks can get some value for him, but at bare minimum, get his contract off the books.

    This would give Connauton or Sauve a chance to impress at training camp and the pre-season.

    Kind of a scary thought having your 5/6 pairing as a couple of kids, but it has worked in the past. Add the fact that the Canucks have a lot of veterans and it could work, while saving some cap space.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Seeing how AV generally needs to be able to trust his players, him ever icing a (defensive) line of just rookies is a bit unlikely.
    I agree that trading Ballard could free up some valuable cap space but Ballard and Tanev work well together. So I think the Canucks in all likelihood will keep Ballard for 1 more year before trading him.

  • puck-bandit

    Ballard doesn’t fit as a 5/6, but with the rising cap, his $4.2 cap hit isn’t as bad as it once was.

    And he’s still a significant upgrade on Connauton and especially Sauve. The team wants to win now, not develop young players.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Ballard is a good fit with Tanev, and showed well during the second half of last season. He is a decent D-Man with a short leash (with av holding it). I would like him at a little less than his current price though.

  • KleptoKlown

    It’s true that Ballard’s cap hit doesn’t seem as bad as it was, but it still doesn’t fit his role with this team. There is no doubt he’s an upgrade over Sauve/Connauton, and the Canucks don’t *need* to move him right now. However, if something does come up where cap space is needed, Ballard (After Luongo is traded of course) will probably be the first guy targeted as an expendable asset.