If Youngstown Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen’s words are any indication, Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson has recruited a gem of a player.
And if Noreen’s words hold true, next year, Michigan will have another freshman who can make an immediate impact to the program, and fans will soon cherish the name, Kyle Connor.
The 17-year-old commit for the 2015-16 season is scoring goals at will in the United States Hockey League. He helped the United States win a gold medal at the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s Under-18 World Championship back in April, during which Connor — playing with athletes as many as two years older than him — tallied seven points in seven games.
The scoring barrage didn’t surprise Noreen one bit. Connor registered 74 points — 31 goals and 43 assists — in 56 games with the Phantoms in 2013-14. Connor, a versatile forward who can play both wing and center postions, became just the third player in USHL history to notch 50 goals in the league before turning 18.
“He truly has an elite skill level,” Noreen said. “He’s a phenomenal skater. He’s got an NHL release on his shot and has great hockey sense. He’s extremely driven. He’s a player that always wants to get better; he’s a student of the game. He works on every area of it. He’s got a good attitude, he’s humble and a great teammate.”
While Noreen may sound like any coach boasting about his best player, he means every word.
Noreen, who has been with the Phantoms for five years as a coach and a general manager, couldn’t point to another player who Connor reminds him of.
“If you took some of the best characteristics of some of the guys we’ve had here and put them together, there’s no one that I can say, ‘Kyle’s like that guy’,” Noreen said. “I think, to be quite honest, with his combination of size, skating, offensive ability and age, he’s really put himself on a different level than any guy that we’ve had.”
Connor knows he’s elite. He knows he’s everything his coach describes him to be, but he won’t show it. Instead, he knows that tallying points speaks more volumes than words.
NHL scouts are salivating at having Connor on their team. Connor is a projected top-15 pick at this year’s NHL Draft and the Michigan coaching staff knows it has landed a rare talent.
But Michigan knows players of Connor’s caliber don’t come around every year, and that the recruitment process doesn’t end until they step foot on campus. The coaching staff remembers what happened with Connor Carrick, a current member of the Washington Capitals, the summer before 2012. Carrick, a highly touted defenseman, abandoned his commitment in June before his freshman year, instead opting to join the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
But Connor is different. Though the Saginaw Spirit drafted Connor in the 14th round of the OHL Draft, he won’t defect from his pledge to Michigan.
“I committed to Michigan, and I am going to honor that commitment,” Connor said. “I think they do a really good job developing players, getting them to the next level. Obviously, being from Michigan, I was a Wolverine fan growing up. So it was a no-brainer. I always followed Michigan and wanted to go there my whole life.”
Connor is admittedly anxious to get to Michigan. While staying a third year with the Phantoms to work out the finer kinks in his game, he has watched two of his closest friends — freshman defenseman Zach Werenski and freshman center Dylan Larkin — quickly make names for themselves with the Wolverines.
The trio grew up playing for the same junior team, Belle Tire, for which they won three state championships and a national championship together, one of Connor’s favorite memories.
Now, he’s already hoping to bring a title to Michigan with Larkin and Werenski. Larkin and Werenski repeatedly tell Connor that they have loved every moment of their time with the Wolverines, which only makes Connor more anxious.
While playing junior hockey, Connor played center on the same line as Larkin, and he would jump at the chance to reunite the pair.
“He’s a really good player,” Connor said of Larkin. “It would be a real honor to play with him again.”
Belle Tire, though, wasn’t the only team Larkin and Connor both played for. The two players both played for the USA U18 World Junior roster that included some of the nation’s top players, including Boston University sensation Jack Eichel.
Connor was never fazed. The forward tallied four goals and three assists, finishing left with a tournament-best plus-eight rating.
More so, Connor’s performance in Finland put him into consideration for the upcoming 2015 IHF World Junior Championships — an Under-20 tournament regarded as the most prestigious junior championship in the world
The first step to making the team took place this past summer, when Connor went to the evaluation camp in Lake Placid, New York. At the camp were fellow Wolverines: Larkin, junior forward Tyler Motte, sophomore forward JT Compher and sophomore defenseman Michael Downing. Forty-two players were originally selected to fight for spots on the team.
There, Connor played well at left wing, scoring a goal and assisting on another in five games. Recently, the roster was slimmed down to 27, and Connor made the cut. He’s one of four players on the roster who hasn’t been drafted.
“Learning from those guys was awesome,” Connor said. “Learning how to do things the right way. It was nice to pick up some tips from the guys there.”
Compher was one of “those guys,” and Connor quickly caught on to his aggressive and ultra-competitive playing style.
“It was a real eye-opener watching him play,” Connor said. “He never loses puck battles. He never gets outworked. Luckily, I was on his team, so I didn’t have to go against him.”
The tournament, though, still remains far away, and Connor knows a spot on the team isn’t guaranteed. Instead, he focuses on fine-tuning his game.
“I think he is trying to play a 200-foot game, be responsible in every zone,” Noreen said. “He’s making sure he’s elite in every zone. No one is going to doubt his offensive abilities. Obviously, his numbers speak for themselves, but he wants to make sure he’s responsible defensively as well and that’s what we’re working on most with him.”
Connor knows he could help the Wolverines offensively this year, but shoring up his defensive flaws will only help Michigan more in the long run. Regardless, Noreen appreciates every second he gets to work with him.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around him every day,” Noreen said. “There are no red flags. There’s not a day that goes by where you don’t shake your head at something he does and just realize how lucky you are to be a part of it and help his development.”