Connauton’s Leap Forward
This piece was originally published at the CanucksArmy.
I was planning on writing a profile on Chris Tanev last week, but due to some personal reasons 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 to offer 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 find out why.
I won't bore you with details of Connauton's road to the AHL (his Wikipedia page offers up a pretty good break down). His road to professional hockey has been a weird one, though. 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 he seemed to lack fundamental decision-making attributes essential for an NHL-calibre defensive prospect. Connauton played center growing up before shifting back to defense as a teenager – which 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 this 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) in the WHL from the point), and he was very, very accurate with it. His skating was also an attribute he used with great success, but professional hockey has a way of levelling off the speed advantage many prospects have in junior hockey.
The AHL season is more than half done, and Connauton has showed huge, huge improvements in his defensive game. His shot and speed are still dynamic against a much higher level of competition, and he has shown more patience without the puck, and poise with it. 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 take Connauton's skating, speed, or shot away, but he is teaching him to pick his spots better. Look at defensemen like PK Subban and Mike Green – you have to take the good (and in some cases, the great) with the bad if you want them to succeed. Telling Green to sit back or telling Subban to not force the puck up the ice isn't something that is going to allow them to succeed at their game. I'm not comparing Connauton to Green or Subban in terms of overall skill level or offensive upside (although he isn't as far off as he once was) – the comparisons were just to highlight examples of players who have succeeded by translating their dynamic abilities to higher levels of hockey.
MacTavish on Connauton from 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. Both of them have terrific wrist shots, too.
Mike Gillis took the time to single out Connauton in his year in review piece for the Vancouver Sun back in December, too.
"Chris Tanev and Kevin Connauton have made huge strides under [MacTavish's] coaching."
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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