In a roundabout way, Kevin Connauton had to go backward in order to move forward in his hockey career.
Over the summer, the Vancouver Canucks prospect spent hours working on one of hockey’s most basic skills – backwards skating. It was an apt metaphor for where Connauton’s game needed to go in order to improve his professional stock.
The 21-year-old defenceman, a third-round draft choice by the Canucks in 2009, had always been a terrific offensive player – in 2009-10, he racked up 72 points in just 69 games during his final junior season with the Vancouver Giants. Connauton’s play in his own zone, though, was shaky by comparison.
At the close of the 2010-11 campaign, Connauton’s first as a pro with the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks brass told him there was room to improve his backward-skating mobility.
The Edmonton native made it a priority over the summer, as he worked out in his hometown alongside local NHLers like Kyle Brodziak of the Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers players like Ales Hemsky, Theo Peckham and Ladislav Smid.
This season, playing for the Chicago Wolves, the Canucks’ new AHL affiliate, Connauton has made tremendous strides. He leads all AHL defencemen in goals with 10, and he’s been named to the league’s all-star game.
“This year, I’m just a lot more confident in my game,” explained Connauton, 21, whose Wolves are in Abbotsford this week for a Tuesday-Wednesday set with the Heat (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
“Defensively, my positioning is a lot better, I’m a lot better with my stick, and I’m a lot more comfortable accepting the rush and playing in my own zone.
“As I improve on that, my overall game gets better, because offensively I’m very comfortable and I feel I can contribute quite a bit. When I have the confidence defensively, I think my offence improves as well.”
Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish said Connauton’s AHL all-star nod is richly deserved.
“He’s been outstanding for us,” MacTavish said. “He’s been a very consistent performer each and every night. He’s a big contributor for us on the power play as well – big shot, great skater, incredible endurance and conditioning. He’s a really, really hard-working player.”
Connauton, who leads Wolves blueliners with 21 points in 41 games, isn’t the only promising prospect on the baby Canucks. Jordan Schroeder, Vancouver’s first-round pick in 2009, is third in team scoring (11 goals, 13 assists in 41 games), and youngsters like Bill Sweatt, Anton Rodin and Yann Sauve are fast improving as well.
Rugged veteran forwards Mark Mancari, Mike Duco and Victor Oreskovich have all taken turns on the Canucks’ fourth line this season, while Eddie Lack and Matt Climie have formed an effective goalie tandem for the Wolves, who are third in the Midwest Division at 21-16-1-3.
Additionally, blueliner Chris Tanev was re-assigned to the Wolves on Monday afternoon after a short NHL stint with the Canucks. Tanev, who was solid in three Stanley Cup Finals appearances for Vancouver last spring, has 12 points (all assists) in 25 games with the Wolves.
Overseeing the operation is MacTavish, the former Oilers great who has eight seasons of NHL head-coaching experience on his resumé with Edmonton. The 2011-12 campaign marks his AHL coaching debut, and he’s enjoyed the challenge of developing the Canucks’ young talent.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “The schedule is a lot easier than the NHL schedule. We play largely on the weekends, so we have lots of practice time mid-week, and you can try and employ a lot of different looks and tactics. You can allot a lot of time for individual development as well as your team play.
“We’ve got a lot of real bright prospects who have the overall game to make it, at some point, to the next level.”
Playing in Abbotsford figures to be a unique road atmosphere for the Wolves – when the Canucks prospects came to town with the Moose in years past, about half the crowd supported the visitors.
“It’s a pretty cool experience,” Connauton recalled. “It’s not every day you go into an away game and have the majority of the fans cheering for you. It’s kind of different than what you experience everywhere else, but at the same time, it’s pretty fun.”
• This week’s Heat-Wolves games will be televised on Shaw TV, and broadcast on the radio at Country 107.1. Tuesday’s game will also be on The Team 1410 AM radio.