Connor Kurth could always score.
But, he came to the mature conclusion that, in order to succeed in the upper levels of hockey, he needed to develop into a more complete player.
He found the perfect environment to round out his game this season under coach Oliver David and the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
The 5-foot-11, 214-pound right wing from Elk River, Minn., ranks fifth in USHL rookie scoring with 13 goals and 32 points through 43 games and put himself on the radar for NHL Central Scouting in his first year of draft eligibility. On Wednesday, he will continue a Saints legacy by competing in the BioSteel All-American Game at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich.
“Coming to the USHL has made a huge difference in my game,” Kurth said Saturday night. “Coach David has taught me so much, especially in how to play without the puck, because that was an aspect of my game that I really needed to work on before I came to Dubuque. The coaches have shown me so many little details that I’d never seen before, and I can tell I’ve just skyrocketed in that part of my game.
“Because of that, my confidence is head over heels better than it was at the beginning of the year. I go out there every night, and I’m not nervous. I’m just excited to play, ready to play and I’m not scared of whoever I’m out there against. And I trust Coach David has me in the right spot.”
Kurth, a University of Minnesota recruit who won’t turn 18 until July 30, tallied 30 goals and 70 points in just 20 games for the Gentry Academy U16 AAA team last season. The previous season, he put up 28 goals and 58 points in 27 games split between the 15U and 14U AAA levels.
On Nov. 6, in his first game with Dubuque, Kurth recorded a hat trick in a 7-4 loss to Muskegon. He led the team in scoring for several weeks before settling into his current spot at third.
“He made an immediate impact with us, which is a really tough thing to do for a 17-year-old in this league,” David said. “But he can really shoot the puck, and he has a knack for finding the back of the net. He’s a well-built young man who’s strong and a powerful skater.
“Stepping up a level helped him early on. Because of the start we had, all of our young guys had an opportunity to play through the learning curve of stepping up into the USHL. Ultimately, it benefited them tremendously.”
Saints general manager Kalle Larsson and David opted to begin the season with seven 17-year-old players after rostering only three last season. The challenge became steeper for the rookies in 2020-21 because nearly every other USHL team returned college-ready players who opted for another season in the USHL rather than facing the uncertainty of freshman seasons in a coronavirus-impacted NCAA Division I season.
In late December, after a 1-10-0 start, Larsson began to overhaul the roster and brought in five impact players — goaltender Lukas Parik, defenseman Zane Demsey and forwards Andrei Buyalsky, Matt Savoie and John Evans — all without sacrificing prospects or draft picks. NCAA-tested defenseman Henry Thrun returned to the team after helping USA Hockey win the World Junior Championships, because Harvard opted not to have a season.
“That influx of talent has been huge for our team,” Kurth said. “We brought in some guys who really know how to play hockey and how to score goals, which has been a big thing for all of us. But for me, personally, adding more depth and more goals took some pressure off, and I was able to execute with those guys a little better.”
For the most part, Kurth avoided “the wall” that many rookies hit when the USHL reaches the dog days of the season. He hasn’t gone more than four games without registering at least one point.
“When the grind kicks in, production tends to go away a little bit,” David said. “But he’s had a very stable character the entire way through this season, and it’s a testament to him that he’s been consistent.
“He’s been attentive to the many learning opportunities that present themselves. And now he has a new understanding of the other aspects of the game that complement his skill set and will continue to make his game even more threatening as he continues this season and when he ultimately moves up levels. Learning the game without the puck and learning when to make plays, when to hang onto the puck, shot selection versus scanning for a teammate ... all of those things have improved tremendously.”
One reward for his attention to detail will come Wednesday night.
“Ultimately, he’s well built and has a very healthy family unit and support network,” David said. “That’s a big part off why he’s earned recognition with NHL Central Scouting. His selection to the All-American Game is a testament to that.”
The BioSteel All-American Game features two teams of the top American-born prospects eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. Kurth will play for the USHL squad against the National Team Development Program’s U18 squad.
The BioSteel All-American Game has featured more than 200 NHL Draft picks, including 46 total first-round selections, since its inception in 2012. The event did not take place in 2019.
“I was really thankful to hear that I made the game,” said Kurth, who has leaned on teammate Daniyal Dzhaniyev for advice on the event. “It’s a really big honor for me. I obviously wouldn’t be in this position without my awesome teammates, who have helped me out a lot the whole season. Talking to Danny about playing in it last year, I know it’s going to be an exciting time and a lot of fun.
“It’ll be a little different, because we only get two or three practices and we’re playing a game against a team that has been together all year. We just have to buy into whatever our coaches want us to do and try to play that system as well as we can.”