Red Berenson said Kyle Connor lacked confidence when he first donned the Michigan sweater. That was back in October when Connor was skating on the second line and didn’t even have the most points among his freshmen teammates.
But a move to the first line in early December changed the narrative, and Connor’s confidence is now at an all-time high. Friday, before Connor could even answer a question on whether that’s the case, senior forward Justin Selman interrupted and agreed, pointing to Connor’s new European-style haircut as the only evidence you need.
With the regular season now over, Connor’s 61 points lead the nation, as do his 30 goals. And with another four tallies to cap this weekend, Connor has nearly perfectly positioned himself to win the Hobey Baker award — a feat only Michigan greats Kevin Porter (2008) and Brendan Morrison (1997) have accomplished.
There’s no question his numbers are astounding — his 1.79 points-per-game average is the highest for a freshman since superhuman Jack Eichel registered 1.83 a game last season. Eichel won the Hobey Baker Award.
And Connor should, too.
Sure, it’s easy to chalk up Connor’s success to his linemates, juniors JT Compher and Tyler Motte, who boast 52 and 50 points, respectively. And to some extent, that may be true. Compher leads the nation with 39 assists. But Connor leads that three-headed monster, coined the CCM line.
Connor commands the attention, allowing room for his linemates and when all the defensive attention comes his way, he has no problem feeding Compher and Motte.
“He’s such a dangerous player with the puck,” Berenson said. “You don’t know for sure what he’s going to do, what he’s going to pull off. One thing is sure: If he gets a scoring chance, it’s going in the net. And when is the last time we had a 30-goal scorer? Let alone as a freshman.”
Porter was the last player to notch 30 goals in a season; he scored 33 times in 43 games. He was a senior and won the Hobey. Whereas Connor, just a freshman, has scored 30 goals while playing in nine fewer games.
Connor is guaranteed at least two more contests, and it’s not unreasonable that he matches Porter’s total in those games — in fact, most fans would assume he does just that.
Critics may say Boston College netminder Thatcher Demko, who has posted an incredible 10 shutouts and a .939 save percentage, deserves the award. But he also benefits from one of the nation’s best defenses that has allowed 1.89 goals per game.
And while those stats do warrant consideration, the committee isn’t keen on handing the award to netminders — mind you, Connor Hellebuyck registered a mind-blowing .952 save percentage for UMass-Lowell back in 2012-13. He didn’t win the Hobey Baker Award.
New Hampshire’s Andrew Poturalski kept pace with Connor for much of the season. In 37 games, the sophomore notched 52 points. But much of that total stems from playing a weak schedule. And just this last week, Poturalski opted to ditch the final games of the season, and the last two years of his college career, signing a NHL contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Unfortunately for Poturalski, whose stats had him very much in the race for the award, the decision committee also takes a player’s character into account — and bolting early certainly shows how much regard Poturalski holds for college hockey. Sure, he was realizing his dream, but he could have waited a couple more weeks, and I’m confident Carolina would have too.
By all means, it must be frustrating for the committee to hand the award to a freshman, let alone having to do it two years in a row. Before Eichel won last season, Paul Kariya was the lone freshman to accomplish the feat after he had 100 points playing for Maine in 1992-93.
Connor’s stats mirror Eichel’s. Connor’s impact on his team is similar to that of Eichel’s. And he dazzles everyone who watches him play, just like Eichel.
“He’s one of those players,” said senior forward Boo Nieves, “when he gets the puck, you hold your breath.”
And when it comes time to announce the 2016 Hobey Baker Award Winner, Michigan fans shouldn’t have to hold their breath.
Because Kyle Connor is far and away the most deserving player to win the award.
Rubinstein can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @jrubinstein4.