Berenson: 'We're not babying Kyle Connor'
Senior forward Justin Selman says his line is as fast as the snap of a finger.
That was evident during line rushes on Tuesday at the Michigan hockey team’s practice. Selman, senior Boo Nieves and freshman Kyle Connor brought the puck through the neutral zone with just two passes before Connor found twine.
“When we get the puck, next thing you know we’re in the other end,” Selman said. “Today we were talking at practice, and we’re like, ‘Wow, we’re fast — like two passes and we’re in the other end, and we scored.’ ”
None of that would be possible if it weren’t for the line’s youngest player: Connor.
The freshman joined the Wolverines as their most heralded recruit. It was much deserved, though, after he notched 195 points in three seasons in the United States Hockey League.
But Michigan coach Red Berenson said players of Connor’s talent level often don’t realize the challenge college hockey presents.
“We recruit gifted players,” Berenson said, “and some of them are more receptive (to) learning how to play without the puck, and some of them don’t because they’ve been babied all the way up because they are a good player. ... We’re not babying Kyle Connor.”
Connor knows that, and he has been extremely coachable, according to Berenson. Moreover, Nieves said his linemate is always listening to him and Selman on the ice, which is refreshing from a senior’s vantage point.
However, if there’s one blemish to the freshman’s game through six contests, it’s his play without the puck and in the defensive zone. That’s not to say his play has been porous, but it’s something Connor — who has tallied three goals and four assists — needs to work on.
“He’s been able to freelance all the way up, and now all of the sudden he needs to play better in his own zone because he’s not going to have the puck all the time,” Berenson said. “He’s not going to be as dominant a player as he was in the U.S. Hockey League. He still will be able to freelance to a certain extent, but he will have to be more responsible.”
As a comparison, Berenson praised former forward Dylan Larkin, who is now a rookie for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
“You score your way into the NHL by being a talented player without the puck,” Berenson said. “Dylan Larkin wouldn’t be there right now if he weren’t one of the top plus-minuses in the NHL, so good for him for taking care of business without the puck.
“And that’s what Kyle Connor has to learn.”
The message has been made loud and clear to Connor, who has already taken the initiative to find ways to improve his 100-foot game. This past week during the bye, Connor sat down one-on-one with assistant coach Brian Wiseman to watch each of his shifts against Robert Morris.
Wiseman helped Connor learn where he should be without the puck and how to make the correct defensive play.
“It was good to get a different perspective to see what the coaches have to say,” Connor said. “I think you can always work on it and fine-tune your defensive game. I think I’ve taken a lot of strides in my defensive game since my last year in Youngstown.”
Those strides were much needed. Despite notching 195 points in three years with Youngstown, his plus-minus was minus-29. In other words, for as many goals he was on the ice — and that’s a ton — he was on the ice for more goals against.
So far at Michigan, though, he is already plus-three through six games, and his offensive game has been invaluable to the Wolverines.
A large of chunk of that success stems from his ability to deceive goaltenders and defensemen. So while he may not overwhelm you with his slim and fragile 175-pound frame, before a defenseman can lay a hit on him, the puck is usually on its way to the net.
“He’s got a real exceptional release on the puck,” Berenson said. “He shoots it before the goalie is even ready for it. Other players will get it and stick handle it. I call that telegraphing the shot.”
Added Connor: “It’s something growing up through all the ranks I tried to work on, being indecisive and sneaky with my shot. At this level, all goalies are good, so you got to try new ways to beat them.”
And he has beaten them with the puck so far. Now, he’s working to beat opponents without it.