ABBOTSFORD -- Defencemen spend a good deal of their time on the ice skating backwards, but Kevin Connauton has always felt more comfortable heading in the opposite direction.
The Vancouver Canucks' prospect has never seen a rush he hasn't wanted to join. He is and always will be an offensive defenceman.
But as he begins the third year of his professional hockey journey, Connauton has come to realize it can't be all offence all the time. The focus now is on becoming a more reliable player in his own zone.
"I think I am getting more and more confident every day with that side of my game," Connauton said before he and his Chicago Wolves teammates met the Abbotsford Heat on Friday night. "It's kind of been a knock against me for quite a while now. I am improving and working with the coaches and my teammates to get better. As long as I keep on the upward climb with that I am on the right track. It's something I really have been focusing on and I like the results."
So does new Wolves coach Scott Arniel, who recalls seeing Connauton for the first time a few years ago.
"I remember seeing him at a rookie camp and he had just come out of junior and he was all offence," Arniel said. "I don't know if he knew where the other end of the rink was. He was leading rushes and was in behind the offensive net.
"But you know what, he's made good strides. He takes a lot of pride in his play without the puck now. He's got good size, he has put on weight, he skates well and has got a cannon of a shot, but he's also defending well. He's using his size and his range to his advantage and he's a guy that I have been very impressed with. You can see the last couple of years he has matured and recognizes that opportunity is there and if he puts his mind to it and continues to improve he can get an opportunity to play up."
Connauton, an Edmonton native, was drafted in the third round (83rd overall) by the Canucks in 2009 after his one and only season at Western Michigan University. He joined the Vancouver Giants for the 2009-10 season and set franchise scoring records for a defenceman with 24 goals and 72 points.
He continued to pile up the points in his first two seasons in the AHL. He had 23 points in his rookie pro season with the Manitoba Moose two years ago and last season had 13 goals and 33 points for the Wolves. The 22-year-old had two points in the Wolves' first three games this season, but is probably most proud of the fact he entered Friday night's game with a plus-four rating.
He has been paired this season with fellow Canuck prospect Chris Tanev and they are a study in contrasts. Tanev has been instructed to work on his offensive game, while Connauton's marching orders are to shore up his work in the defensive zone.
Given his offensive bent, it should come as no surprise that Connauton spent much of his minor hockey career as a forward.
"I was about 16 and I switched back to the point and I think for a while I was struggling as a forward playing on the back end, but now throughout the years I have looked up to a lot of other defencemen and every year been improving my game. I think playing forward that many years definitely helped with the offensive side of things and it's contributed to my game today."
Once he made the switch to defence, Connauton became a fan of Duncan Keith and has tried to pattern his game after the Chicago Blackhawks defenceman. That's something he probably shouldn't share with Canuck winger Daniel Sedin, who was concussed by a Keith elbow last spring.
"He might not be the favourite guy in this city, but as far as a player he is a guy I look up to," Connauton said.
The Canucks like to think Connauton could one day quarterback their power play. He seems to have all the right tools, including a heavy shot. Connauton ripped a shot 99.4 miles per hour to win the hardest hardest shot competition at the AHL's All-Star skills competition last season.
Like many of the Canuck prospects, Connauton felt like he had a chance to crack the Vancouver lineup had the lockout not occurred. Now in the final year of his contract, he views this season as a particularly important one.
If he continues to play well and improve in his own end, he could get a look with the Canucks if the lockout gets settled.
"This is a big year for me and I was excited to try and fight for a job," he said. "This is the last year of my contract and I really wanted to strive to be playing in Vancouver. But at the end iof the day I can't focus on that. I am very fortunate to have a place to play right now, especially with an organization like this. We have a great team here and are having fun and I'm just going to focus on doing whatever I can to help Chicago Wolves win."
At both ends of the ice.
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