Rick Shanley has been covering Western Michigan Hockey for the Kalamazoo Gazette and on his blog since 2006. Shortly after this year’s NHL Draft, he broke the news that Canucks 3rd round draft pick, Kevin Connauton, might transfer from WMU to the Vancouver Giants. In the following Q & A, he gives Canucks fans an inside look at one of the newest Canucks defensemen.
CHB: On your blog, you mentioned a few things about Connauton that really impressed you – “skates like the wind, hands, vision, patience” – is there an NHL player or prospect he reminds you of?
Rick: Mike Green of the Washington Capitals. I know, I know — Green is the NHL’s best offensive defensemen and Kevin is only beginning his first year of major junior. It might not be a fair comparison for Kevin, but it’s hard not to notice some raw similarities: Kevin’s combination of speed, hands and vision makes him an instant offensive threat, just like Green; both players can take the puck end-to-end or drop down to the back-door circle for a one-timer; both float along the offensive blue line very well and look for seams through which to shoot or make a play; both can even take it to the net. Short version: both players “get” the offensive part of the game. Green is 6-2, 208; Kevin is 6-1, 185 and will get thicker. Both seem bigger on the ice than they are. They’re lankier. Longer. Amazing reach. They float. They move laterally quite well, too, unlike typical north-south-skating defensemen.
CHB: One year after being bypassed in the NHL draft, Hockey’s Future calls him one of the most underrated defensemen no one is talking about. What did he bring to the WMU program and was there a particular aspect in his game that you noticed he improved the most last year?
Rick: He gave WMU a dynamic offensive weapon on the back end, which is not something the program had. In fact, the Broncos were awful at getting the puck out of their own end in the few years prior to his arrival, so his presence really helped spring WMU on the attack more often and unclog the neutral zone (the team scored 26 more goals in 08-09 than it did in 07-08, in part because of him). Where did I notice improvement? It’s hard to say. Honestly, he looked as good in game one as he did in game twenty-five. But if anything improved, I’d say it was his confidence. By the end of the season he played with a healthy swagger that was fun to watch, and he quickly became a player the Broncos relied on in key situations.
CHB: He’s transferring to the Vancouver Giants this season. How do you think he’ll adapt to the rough-and-tumble WHL?
Rick: This is where the rubber will meet the road (or the shoulder will meet the chest). The CCHA can get physical, but it is pond hockey compared to the WHL. I didn’t get the sense he was afraid of the physical part of the game; he just wasn’t required to play that way every night. He created a lot of space for himself with his skating and puck-handling skills, so he didn’t get hit much. He’s one of those “slippery” players; his vision allows him to see the ice (and any oncoming traffic) well. He’s born and bred to “run” — to skate full-throttle, to have the puck on his stick, to float. It could get difficult for him if he’s forced to change his style. If he gets clobbered in the neutral zone with the puck or finds he doesn’t have as much time and space as he did here, it might not make him as effective right away. But with his raw ability and the right coaching, he should adapt well.
CHB: What area does he need to improve on the most to eventually make the NHL?
GMs say it all the time and it’s cliché, but he’ll need to get stronger and faster. I think the raw tools are there (clearly, so do the Canucks). His decision to transfer to the WHL was good for a number of reasons, most notably his entrance into a winning program that successfully develops NHL-caliber talent. WMU does not offer that opportunity.