Kevin Connauton (right) hopes to be back sharing a bench with the Sedins in short order.
After stepping up the defensive side of his game last season, Canucks defence prospect Kevin Connauton was poised to push for an NHL roster spot at training camp this fall. With the lockout intervening, however, Connauton is headed back to Chicago for another few months of AHL action (at least). How does a guy prepare himself mentally for this, and might going back to the AHL be a blessing in disguise? After the Canucks practiced today, we caught up with Connauton and Chris Higgins (who was in Connauton’s shoes during the 2004-05 lockout) about the "little, extra half step" that otherwise NHL ready young players will take in the AHL this season.
After another informal skate at UBC on Monday morning, Canucks Army caught up with Chris Higgins and asked him how players in Connauton’s boat should be handling the lockout. Higgins was in a similar position eight years ago. He’d graduated from Yale in 2003 and moved on to the AHL (Hamilton), where his first professional season was a success. Having played a pair of games for the Habs in 2003-04 on top of his time with the Bulldogs, Higgins looked set to make the jump to the NHL. But then the NHL’s doors were closed and it was back to the AHL for the forward from Long Island.
Let’s let Higgins pick the story up from there:
"You know what, that was one of the most important years in my career was that last lockout. I think I probably would’ve played in the NHL, at least I feel confident that I would’ve played my first year in the NHL, but I ended up having no pressure playing my second year and being a "go-to guy" in the minors."
"The league was a lot better – you look at all the guys going down this year, just that Edmonton team alone, they’ve got legit NHL first-line guys he’s going to be playing against. It’ll be a really good transition year for those guys who think they’re going to stick with the big squad. They’ve got a little more time to practice andthey should be excited by the opportunity they have. Obviously they want to play in the NHL, but to have that little, extra half-step that I got, I thought that was great for my career."
With that in mind, we turn to Kevin Connauton, who has been skating with the likes of Higgins, Mason Raymond, the Sedins, Kevin Bieksa and other Canucks regulars at UBC.
How does a young guy prepare for the most important camp of his career, especially when it becomes clear no one knows when that will be? Connauton is well aware of the expectations, and that a door is opening on his NHL opportunity.
"I think coming into it obviously, I had a big year last year and this is my last year of my entry-level contract. I have two AHL season under my belt, so I’m hoping this year is the one where I make an impression, maybe earn a spot.
This lockout isn’t what I’d counted on, but I’m still grateful I’ve got a place to play. A lot of these guys are caught sitting around unfortunately, but I’m able to go down to Chicago and go and make the most of it down there. Ideally, I’d rather be fighting for a spot at training camp up here right now, but that’s not the way the cards are dealt, so I’m going to do everything I can to help the Wolves get a strong start to the season."
Getting to play is his biggest advantage. Players who can’t be sent to the minors are going to be in a no-man’s-land; at least Connauton has got that option, he can go to Chicago and play:
wherever you are you’ve got to make the most of it. I think, for me, going to Chicago, we’ve got a good group of guys there, a good coaching staff; I’m excited for it. I just like getting into game situations and feeling the competition and winning. It’s been a long summer, it’s going to be nice once things get going.
He’s also looking forward to the chance to work with ex-captain, now assistant coach, Nolan Baumgartner. Being the senior statesman on the squad last season, Baumgartner was known to take a ribbing or two from his teammates on the 2011-12 Wolves, but Connauton knows that the relationship will be more professional from now on.
"Ya, I’m sure we’ll be joking around a little bit. Obviously we’ve got a good friendship from playing together for two years now, but he’s the kind of guy that you respect him and you listen to what he’s saying, coach or player. If he’s talking, you listen up and really pay attention to what he’s saying. None of the guys can take advantage of the fact that we know him on a personal level, he’s still a coach and we still have to respect him for that. It’s going to be good, I think."
After one of the Wolves’ visits to Abbotsford last winter, Baumgartner told Canucks Army that he was still learning the game all the time, even from a young player like Kevin Connauton:
"Obviously that’s a big compliment from a guy who’s been in the league for so long. I think we work well with each other, He’d teach me things every day. He’s the best captain I’ve ever had in hockey, that’s for sure. Being an older guy, he includes everyone in the room, it doesn’t matter what age you are, and on the ice he’s always supportive. For me, it was a big help with my career that’s for sure, being able to learn from a guy like Baumgartner."
Connauton’s off to Chicago later this week for Wolves training camp but he hopes to be back in Vancouver soon. In the meantime it’s all about keeping the eyes on the prize:
"I think the biggest thing will be going to Chicago and having a great start. There’re no excuses to not bring my best game down there. I’m excited for it and I think it’s going to be a fun start to the season. And then I’ve got to keep preparing myself for hopefully coming up here and fighting for a spot, whenever things do start."