Chris Conner is turning heads in the first few weeks of the American Hockey League season with his on-ice explosiveness and scoring touch.
Conner, whom the Coyotes signed over the summer and then assigned to their AHL affiliate once the NHL work stoppage began, is co-leading the AHL with five goals after five games with the Portland Pirates.
“With the type of speed that Chris has, I can see why ‘Tip’ really liked him in Dallas and why we signed him as a depth guy,” Pirates Head Coach Ray Edwards said. “With speed like his he creates a lot of loose pucks off the forecheck and he can win puck races.”
“Tip,” of course, is Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett. The relationship between he and Conner, an undrafted, 5-foot-8 winger from Westland, Mich., dates to when Conner broke into the NHL in 2006-07 when both were with the Dallas Stars organization.
“Our scouts liked him so we brought him in and he really opened a lot of eyes in his second training camp with us,” Tippett said. “He’s a smaller player that plays with a great deal of heart and a strong work ethic. His scoring chances come from his hard work, determination and hustle. Plus, he’s a really honest player who plays with a commitment to a team game every game.”
Conner, 28, has played 147 NHL games for three teams. Tippett said he expected him to compete for a roster spot with the Coyotes had there been a training camp last month, and likened him to role players Kyle Chipchura, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Gilbert Brule from the 2011-12 team that reached the Western Conference Final.
“All those guys were big contributors to our team last year and that’s kind of the category that Chris falls into,” Tippett said. “Unfortunately we didn’t have a camp this year to evaluate him, but he had an outstanding camp in Portland and is off to a good start there… I think we were fortunate to sign him.”
Conner is making the most of his time in the AHL during the NHL work stoppage, but he hopes to become a full-time NHL player once it’s over.
“I’m not getting any younger and this is where I’m at right now, but the AHL is a great league to be playing in and to showcase,” Conner said. “There are a lot of people watching right now.”
Conner played six games for the Detroit Red Wings last season as a third-line, energy player who killed penalties before injuring a hand and consequently losing his roster spot. He says that’s the role he envisions himself filling again in the NHL, hopefully for the Coyotes in the near future.
“I want to get back to the NHL,” Conner said. “I know I can play there. I know I’m not the youngest player around, but I feel good and at age 28 I feel I am peaking as a player.”
Conner has been playing on a line with center Andy Miele and winger Chris Brown while with Portland. Last Friday, he scored a nifty breakaway goal that showcased his eye-popping speed in a 7-4 win over Worcester.
“I think the three of us have done really well so far and we’re growing together and learning each other and creating some chemistry,” Conner said. “I think our line has a lot of potential. We’ve been successful so far but it’s only going to get better as time goes on.”
Conner said he signed with the Coyotes in the off-season because he saw an opportunity and because he’d heard great things about the franchise from other players. Plus, the thought of playing for Tippett again intrigued him.
“I really liked the way I was treated and the fairness that I was treated with (by Tippett) when I first came in as a pro,” Conner said. “He was a great coach for me when I was with Dallas, and he taught me a lot about the game. It was definitely a factor in my decision to sign with Phoenix.”
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