Typically, the Hockey’s Future Prospect of the Month is selected based on play from the first to the last day of a particular month. The World Junior Championship, however, being the foremost showcase for hockey’s top prospects, allows for some leniency in those dates. And while some of the most impressive individual performances at the 2016 tournament were from undrafted players (who are ineligible for the HF honor), there was plenty of standout performances from previously drafted players. Of course, exclusion from national teams also sparked some tremendous play from top-level prospects.
That is the case with the December Prospect of the Month, Kyle Connor.
Drafted 17th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in June, Connor has made an immediate impact in his freshman season with the University of Michigan, where he currently leads the team in scoring with 25 points in 20 games. The Michigan native has played so well, in fact, that the Wolverines are hardly missing the presence of Dylan Larkin (DET), impressive as he was last season.
Early in December, Connor was left off the United States’ World Junior selection camp roster. He was one of the more notable omissions, but it obviously didn’t affect his confidence as he scored seven goals and added six assists in just six December games, which was enough to lead the entire NCAA in points for the month. Against Minnesota on Dec. 11th, Connor became the first Wolverines freshman to record a hat trick since 2001. He also had a pair of game-winning goals in the month and was named the MVP of the Great Lakes Invitational tournament.
Connor is now eighth in the nation in scoring, but fifth in points per game. The Winnipeg Jets boast one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL, so Connor’s play this year has to have them excited about him donning a Jets jersey in the next year or two. He has the potential (and ability) to be a one-and-done player at the University of Michigan, much like Larkin, but the Jets also have the privilege of patience. Surely, he would be a lock for the U.S. World Junior team next season.
Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan (NCAA)
With the departure of Noah Hanifin from the USA’s World Junior team, the pressure was on Zach Werenski to lead a relatively inexperienced U.S. defense in Helsinki. In addition to that task, the Columbus Blue Jackets first rounder was also named captain of the team. At the end of the tournament, he had led the United States to a bronze medal in one of the more competitive tournaments in recent years. More impressively, Werenski was named the tournament’s Top Defenseman after his nine-point performance. He was also a team-leading +10. In the four games he played with Michigan prior to leaving for the World Juniors, Werenski had recorded three assists. He still leads the Wolverines in points by a defenseman with 12 in 15 games.
Sebastian Aho, W, Karpat (Liiga)
In five Liiga regular season games in the month of December, Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Sebastian Aho was held pointless in all but one contest, where he scored once and added a pair of assists. But it was his performance at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship that put the hockey world on notice. Aho, who has 21 points in 25 regular season games for Karpat, finished second in World Junior scoring with 14 points in seven games and was a key cog in the impressive, young line alongside Jesse Puljujarvi (2016) and Patrik Laine (2016). In the gold medal game against the Russians, Aho scored the tying goal at 2-2, which led to dramatic final 10 minutes. All three players are eligible to return to the junior team next season, leaving Finland in a strong position to repeat as champions.
Christian Dvorak, C, London Knights (OHL)
Christian Dvorak has been a steady offensive presence for the past season-and-a-half in London of the OHL and this year was one of the USA’s best forwards at the World Juniors, save for Auston Matthews (2016). Dvorak finished fourth on the team in scoring with eight points in seven games and was a consistent offensive threat on the team’s second line. The Arizona Coyotes prospect scored the lone goal for the United States in the 2-1 semi-final loss to the Russians and also had a pair of assists in the team’s 8-3 bronze medal win over Sweden. The most impressive statistic in the month for Dvorak, however, was the five games he played for the Knights before leaving in mid-December. In those five games he recorded 15 points and extended his point streak to 17 games. He also improved his faceoff percentage to 60 per cent by winning 74 of 119 draws in the month, including a pair of 15-of-20 games.
Brendan Lemieux, LW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Since serving a 10-game suspension, Brendan Lemieux has been one of the OHL’s best goal scorers. A second round pick of the Buffalo Sabres who has since been dealt to the Winnipeg Jets as part of the Evander Kane deal, Lemieux was also traded in the OHL, going from the Barrie Colts to the Windsor Spitfires in early December. The son of former NHL forward Claude Lemieux has been on fire since moving to Windsor. In his first game with the Spitfires, Lemiuex scored a goal and added an assist and the next night recorded a hat trick. He played nine games in the month (seven of which were played with Windsor) and recorded 12 goals and six assists. Three of those goals were game winners. Lemieux was also named the OHL Player of the Month for December.
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