Vancouver’s hockey fans are very familiar with Kevin Connauton. After his outrageously productive year year playing WHL hockey for the Giants – when Connauton’s "home ice" was located at the Pacific Colliseum he scored 24 goals from the blueline – fans know all about his offensive abilities. Since then, he’s spent two years in the AHL honing his defensive game, and by all accounts he took a major step forward in that area of his game last season.
Over each of the past three seasons, Connauton has seen improvement. Drafted after a year of college hockey with Western Michigan, Connauton left school for major junior. Each team he’s played for has presented a unique challenge and he’s bested each one of them. So, will his developmental curve continue to trend upward?
Connauton’s strength has always been his offensive game. At each level he’s shown the ability to move the puck with ease, produce on the power-play and chip in the odd goal. Like so many top prospects, a coach will tell you that you can’t teach offence; just like many of those other prospects, Connauton has always needed to work on his defensive game.
But this is where Connauton’s work ethic and attitude have always shone through. Challenged to get better in his own end, no matter the level, Connauton has never taken a backwards step, and this past season, his defensively play took a major step forward.
Just ask Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay, who told us:
What i really like about Kevin was his attitude he wanted to get better he wanted to play against top competition. That’s one of the reasons he left college – he got that here…[and] part of what we wanted to work with Kevin was to try to be a little more aware of defensively without the puck”
Connauton’s coachability was a positive, according to Hay:
“He had weakenesses in his game and they were pointed out and he got better at them. I thought he was coachable. Sometimes it’s easier to coach a younger player — a 16 year old — one who’s not as set in his ways. Kevin had to adapt to how we wanted to run things and he did that.”
The high praise didn’t end there, though. Connauton’s skill set also drew compliments:
“He’s got great offensive skills – those skills will get him to the NHL. It’s those defensive skills that will keep him there. He’s got really good skating ability, that can get him out of trouble, but learning the small details of the defensive game will make him stick."
Playing AHL hockey in Chicago this past season, Connauton continued to spend most of his time on a top pairing with his defensive partner the past two seasons, then-captain and now assistant coach, Nolan Baumgartner. Connauton scored 13 goals from the back end this past season, building on the 11 he scored for Manitoba in his first professional season in 2010-11. Those numbers are especially impressive when you consider how anemic Chicago’s power-play was, and that Connauton faced the second toughest competition among regular Wolves defenseman (behind only Baumgartner).
The Wolves travelled twice to Abbotsford this past AHL season and Connauton spoke with the media after one of their west coast victories. He told CanucksArmy:
"As I’ve gained more experience, working on my down low battles, my gap [control], you know, reading the play, getting an active stick, all the kinds of things you need, I think I’ve needed to improve in every area and that’s what i’ve been working on for the last couple years."
After the same game, Baumgartner spoke effusively about his young colleague.
“Kevin Connauton’s playing a lot of minutes; those guys [Connauton and his fellow prospects] are getting a lot of responsibilty being put on them, they’re starting to learn what it takes to play as a pro.
We played quite a bit together last year, there’s quite a bit of familiarity there, i think it’s just more asking questions – i mean i still have questions too – it’s just beting comfortable with each other and knowing where we are and our tendencies on the ice. We’re playing well together, so hopefully we can keep that going down the stretch.”
The Wolves made the playoffs, and although they were bounced in the first round, Connauton was a key contributor all the way. After the season, Canucks GM Mike Gillis singled out Connauton’s play as worthy of praise.
“At the end of the day we thought Kevin Connauton’s development in Chicago rivalled that of Marc-Andre [Gragnani],” Gillis told the Team 1040. “We felt, at the end of the day, we’d be better off giving him an opportunity.”
It’s clear that Connauton has the tools and the drive to make the NHL. Whether he will prove GM Mike Gillis right about his readiness remains to be seen, but it seems likely he will be given every opportunity.