February 14, 2018
All of a sudden, Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton looks like a different player.
Connauton, 27, is a typical blueliner who quietly goes about his business. He does the little things like taking away opponents' sticks in front of the net, playing a key role on the penalty kill and battling for pucks along the boards.
But recently, Connauton has seen another part of his game flourish — offense.
With three goals in his past four games, Connauton is one of the Coyotes' hottest goal scorers. The defenseman said the offensive outburst is a product of taking more shots when he sees the opportunities.
"I'm just trying to shoot as much as I can and get pucks to the net," Connauton said. "I've been fortunate that a few have snuck past."
Christian Fischer questionable for game. Richard Morin/azcentral sports
Connauton posted a two-point effort (one goal, one assist) on Thursday in the Coyotes' 4-3 overtime win over the Minnesota Wild in which they trailed by three goals at one point.
In Thursday's game, Connauton posted a career-high seven shots on goal. That's the kind of game the defenseman wants to keep playing.
"It's everything, opportunity," Connauton said. "All you want is a chance and to make the most of them when they come to you. Right now, I'm not really focused on anything but working hard and sticking with it. As a team, we're trying to get some momentum here and to string together some wins in the last 30 games."
This season has been anything but smooth sailing for the Edmonton native, who played his college hockey at Western Michigan. After being acquired off waivers by the Coyotes in 2016, Connauton battled injuries last season and has had trouble establishing himself in Arizona.
When the Coyotes got their full defensive contingent healthy this season, Connauton was a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But the defenseman said he was prepared for that situation.
"I go into every season with the same mentality," Connauton said. "It's all about preparing yourself in the offseason and coming in with a clear mind, ready to play. You wait for your (opportunity) because there's more guys on a team than there is spots to play that night. It's a situation that I've been in before, so I have some experience with it and I know how to handle it.
"At the beginning of the year, it was still tough getting over last season because I had a lot of injuries and I was sitting around a lot. It's nice to be playing now and I want to make sure I continue to push forward."
But even a healthy Connauton wasn't cutting it for first-year head coach Rick Tocchet in the early part of this season. Tocchet said he saw flashes of the defenseman's game, but the consistency wasn't there in the first half of the year.
"There are certain parts of his game," Tocchet said of Connauton. "Like anybody, to be an established, good hockey player, it's about consistency. You can't have a roller coaster where you're good one night and the next you're minus-2 and you have a couple giveaways or miss your coverage. That's kind of been (Connauton) all year, where he's too much of a roller coaster."
However, Tocchet said he has noticed a change in his defenseman over the past several games.
"I think in the last three of four weeks, he's strung some consistent games together," Tocchet said. "If he can do that, he can become a really good regular in the league. But it takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of smarts and it takes a lot of passion. He has that in his game and in his mentality, but he just needs to be more consistent."
From his point of view, Connauton was "playing to survive" early in the season and not actively trying to bring his game to the next level. He said there needed to be a mental adjustment there.
"I think when you're not playing with confidence, then you're not playing to your strengths," Connauton said. "I was just trying to stick around and I wasn't really trying to take charge. That's something I've changed within my own head.
"All of a sudden, you start playing safe and playing to survive instead of moving forward, and I found myself in that position at the beginning of the season."
Now, Connauton said he's found a rhythm on the ice and has the confidence to keep his game moving in the right direction. For him, it comes down to an old adage that he accepts reluctantly.
"Sometimes you get in that mindset where you go out and try not to make a mistake," Connauton said. "You're so, so nervous about screwing up that you end up doing it anyway. It's kind of a stupid cliche — don't think, just play. I've heard it a few times, and I don't really like it. But it does make sense if you break it down.
"You've got to get out there and not turn your brain off, but just get on a roll and play instinctively."
Connauton, who does not have a contract after this season, admitted he has given thought to his uncertain future in the NHL. For now, the defenseman says that he will try to stop thinking about that, too.
"You get caught thinking about it once in a while," Connauton said of his expiring contract. "I don't have a contract after this year, so in pro sports, it's a little nerve-racking when you don't know what lies ahead. But that's life, and you roll with the punches as they come to you. I'm focused now, and if you stay in the present, it's going to benefit you a lot more down the road."
COURTESY: Richard Morin - Az Central Sports