Hockey’s Future 2016 NHL Prospect of the Year: Connor’s strong NCAA season a springboard to NHL career

By Chris Roberts
Kyle Connor - University of Michigan

Photo: University of Michigan forward and Winnipeg Jets prospect Kyle Connor was a runner-up for the 2016 Hobey Baker Award after a strong freshman campaign with the Wolverines (courtesy of Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

 

 

A few different considerations go into deciding the Hockey’s Future NHL Prospect of the Year – performance, expectation, and of course showing up on the monthly list throughout the season. There were standout players at every level of hockey this season, but nobody fit the criteria more than University of Michigan’s Kyle Connor (WPG).

It’s the second consecutive season the HF Prospect of the Year has been awarded to a Michigan Wolverine. Last year’s honor went to Dylan Larkin (DET), who recorded 47 points in 35 games and was a standout for the United States’ World Junior team. As impressive as those numbers are, Connor had no trouble surpassing them; in fact, he reached 47 points on Feb. 13th and finished the season as the leading scorer in all of college hockey with a ridiculous 71 points (35 goals, 36 assists) in 38 games.

Connor’s linemates JT Compher (COL) and Tyler Motte (CHI) helped the Michigan native to an incredible freshman campaign, but there was no denying Connor was the driving force of that line and the most dynamic player. He was held pointless in just three of Michigan’s 38 games this past season, and the last time that happened was Nov. 28th against Dartmouth. Following that outing, Connor rattled off 59 points in the team’s final 27 games. Coincidentally enough (or perhaps not) it was announced shortly after that Connor would not be part of the United States’ World Junior team, an incredible oversight that has since been corrected and, at the same time made worse, by his inclusion on the World Championship team currently competing in Russia.

Recently signed by the Winnipeg Jets, Connor should have the chance to make an impact his first season in the NHL much like Larkin did this past season.

Honorable Mention

Mitch Marner, C/W, London Knights (OHL)

Everyone expected big numbers this season from Mitch Marner, the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ top pick, fourth overall, in the 2015 NHL Draft, but he could have been forgiven if he didn’t equal last year’s 126 points in 63 games. He didn’t match those lofty numbers, but he slightly bettered his point-per-game total from the season before with 116 points in 57 games. Though there were some great players in the OHL this season, it came as little surprise that he was named the OHL MVP for the second year in a row. In addition to the point totals, Marner wowed with his highlight reel goals that quickly became web gems on social media. It is almost absurd to think that he could – and might – spend another season in London.

Brock Boeser, RW, University of North Dakota (NCHC)

It was a great year for top NHL prospects playing in the NCAA, and Brock Boeser was one of the best. If not for Kyle Connor’s incredible season, Boeser might have had one of the best seasons among all prospects. The Minnesota native and Vancouver Canucks first rounder finished third in the nation in scoring with 60 points in 42 games. He does have one thing Connor doesn’t, however – an NCAA National Championship. Boeser scored once and added three assists for the University of North Dakota as they beat Quinnipiac 5-1 in the NCAA’s final game of the season. He intends to return to UND for his sophomore season.

Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan (Big Ten)

Despite the fact that he won’t turn 19 until July, Zach Werenski has already played two full seasons for the University of Michigan, starred for the United States’ World Junior team in consecutive years, and has already turned pro. As a freshman in 2014-15, Werenski recorded 25 points in 35 games, and this season the Columbus Blue Jackets first rounder had 36 in 36, which was fourth on the high-powered Michigan roster and second among all collegiate defensemen (his 11 goals ranked first). He dressed in seven regular season games for the Lake Erie Monsters, the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, after Michigan’s season ended and had one goal and no assists; in seven playoff appearances, however, Werenski has three goals and four helpers. He was also named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

No defenseman in junior hockey looked more NHL-ready this season than Ivan Provorov. The Philadelphia Flyers top pick, seventh overall, in last June’s NHL Draft was a difference maker when on the ice for the Wheat Kings and was a catalyst for the powerhouse team finding their confidence in the second half of the season. Provorov finished the season with 73 points in 62 games and was a +64, both of which led all WHL defensemen, while the plus/minus number was best among all WHL players. At the World Junior Championship, Provorov had eight assists in seven games for Russia.

HF NHL Prospect of the Month, March, 2016

Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @chrisroberts_7