When the Philadelphia Flyers selected forward Connor McClennon in the sixth round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, things were more of the same but also different. With the stench of the COVID-19 global pandemic seeping through the cracks of every bit of news around hockey, a skilled undersized player dropping into the penultimate round of the draft was a nice reminder of the before times.
Whether you cite Chicago Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat or Vegas Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault, there are plenty of examples of talented, but at first, were under the mysterious six-foot requirement to be a forward in the NHL. They would go further into the draft — or not be selected at all — than their eventual NHL careers warrants.
Standing at 5-foot-8, the Winnipeg Ice forward might fit in with your fears of a smaller player being on the ice, but there is none of that fear coming from his Assistant General Manager and VP of Hockey Operations, Jake Heisinger.
“He competes. One thing with him is you’re always going to get his best effort,” Heisinger said confidently. “He’s a guy that everyday comes to the rink to work hard and is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
His daily drive led him to score 21 goals and 49 points through 42 games for the WHL team last season, his first season of draft eligibility. Among forwards under 18 years of age, only Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Seth Jarvis was able to score more goals per game than McClennon last season.
For Heisinger, that level of scoring ability was clear ever since he stepped into the organization as the second-overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft.
“With his skill level, you knew he was going to be a real good player,” said Heisinger. “Where he’s made so many strides is his overall game and his overall approach to be a complete player, to be a guy that plays at both ends, working hard every shift. And that’s what he’s developed into.”
Unfortunately, his season was cut short after breaking his collarbone at the beginning of the new year. The teenage forward was steadily recovering and just as he was approaching his return, the league was shut down.
“He was working hard to get back and play the last couple of games before we headed into the playoffs. It was unfortunate, but, obviously with everything going on, he didn’t get the right opportunity.”
Missing all of that time and missing out on an opportunity to make a triumphant return as Winnipeg already clinched a spot in the postseason, put a certain damper on his personal season. The only thing that didn’t change was his draft eligibility and there was excitement surrounding management.
Sitting among other Ice staff in the team offices, Heisinger was hastily following along with the rare October draft. When the forward’s name was announced as the Flyers’ pick in the sixth round, there was nothing but joy coming from his AGM.
“You have to be excited for him,” he said. “He’s worked hard the last number of years to make himself one of the top players in our league — trying to get recognized. Everyone was really excited for him.”
What a crazy day, such an honour to be selected by the @NHLFlyers. Thank you to everyone who has supported and helped me get to this point in my career. Excited for the future, but now the real work starts. #flyer ⚫️ pic.twitter.com/SzBxB6iM4R— Connor Mcclennon (@mcclennon_94) October 8, 2020
No matter how far he slipped, McClennon is the type of player that takes it in stride and continues his positive outlook, a reputation that has been carried through his last three years with the organization.
“[Connor] always has a smile on his face; always likes to throw a joke at you,” Heisinger explained. “He’s a guy that’s a pleasure to be around. Anytime you’re around him, everybody seems to be having fun. But when it comes to getting ready for a game, he takes it as serious as anybody. He’s a kid that everyone in Philadelphia will really like.
“Anywhere Connor was going to go, he’s a guy that’s going to go in and work hard and he’s a very good kid, teammates certainly like him. Wherever he went, I had no doubt he was going to fit in. He’ll fit in just fine.”
Painting with broad strokes, the 18-year-old winger would have made the most out of any situation, no matter what team called his name on Oct. 7.
Now with the Flyers, it will be both be up to the team and himself to see how far he can develop into the overall player that he hopes to become. To make the NHL as a responsible winger that can score piles of goals.
For McClennon, that means fully recovering from his prior injury and earning his way back through game action. The forward made the decision to make most of his current opportunity and go down to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League — one of the 12 Junior A leagues across Canada.
With the WHL not starting until Jan. 8, the 18-year-old decided to play for the Winnipeg Blues of the MJHL for the two months before the season. A step down in terms of competition, but to play his first competitive hockey since Jan. 14 of this year, can only be a positive experience in the eyes of Heisinger.
Even if it makes all the sense in the world to go on a quasi rehab assignment down to a lower league, the fact that he is getting straight into competitive games, rather than do the typical training regimen of an offseason, demonstrates his desire to put in the extra work.
Clichés aside, McClennon is no doubt a talented skater that has an incredibly high ceiling for someone that was only a few dozen picks away from not being selected. There is a path to follow and Heisinger knows it.
“All he can do is continue to get better,” the Assistant General Manager said. “Improve the overall game and that’s no different with him. Just keep working on the details of the game, keep getting stronger, focusing on the little things. I have no doubt he’ll do that.”
With heaping piles of confidence coming from his team’s management supporting him, McClennon will be suiting up for the Blues in the coming days and will officially start an unusual 2020-21 season, something that every prospect and player will experience shortly.
The only thing left to do is to observe the winger grow beyond his stature and prove that he can be yet another player that teams will be kicking themselves for not using a pick on him.