Brett Connolly, LW Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Born: May 2, 1992 in Campbell River, British Columbia
Scouting report: One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body's long-term health.
Strengths: Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August '09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net. Smart, instinctive player who recognizes the natural flow and puts himself into position to make an impact. A force on the power play; uses his quickness, agility and upper-tier puck skills to put the extra space to good use, wreaking havoc. Good penalty killer who uses his speed, soft hands and hockey intellect to anticipate errant passes or take away time and space for opponents.
Weaknesses: Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren't chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can't afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.
Style compares to: Thomas Vanek, Rick Nash
Draft prediction: 11th overall to Dallas. Last year, the Stars grabbed a promising center out of the WHL in Scott Glennie. This time around, they roll the dice a bit with a player who could have been challenging for a spot in the top-three and who could be a homerun alongside Glennie for a lot of years. Connolly's hips are no doubt a real source of discussion and conjecture, but the player himself recently attended Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final in Philadelphia and maintains that he's on the road to recovery and got a clean bill of health in Toronto last month. Even so, I'm a believer that the other 10 players ahead of him, who don't come with that element of risk, will drop Connolly just out of the top tier, but that he'll soon get snapped up. Dallas makes sense here. Other players who might go here: Derek Forbort, Emerson Etem, Ryan Johansen and Alexander Burmistrov. One off-the-board early pick here could be Austin Watson, who impressed scouts a lot when he got out from under Windsor's galaxy of stars and put up 20 points in ten games with Peterborough. If you're really feeling froggy, then Russian winger Evgeny Kuznetsov, who turned heads at February's Six Nations Cup, is another risky, but very high upside pick at 11. Last year, Jared Cowen fell further than expected (ninth overall to Ottawa) because of concerns about his major knee injury. Expect a similar fall for Connolly in L.A.
Projection: If he can stay healthy, then Connolly is a steal at 11 and a likely first-line winger with 35-40 goal potential. (And, if you believe recent articles about his status, Connolly's going to go closer to six or seven than 11) He's got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it's a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he's caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he'll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL as a rookie. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heartwrenching press conference. Teams who don't take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can't go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.
Background: Parents are Pat and Dawn Connolly. Has a brother, Josh.Family moved to Prince George, B.C. when Connolly was 10. The 2008-09 CHL Rookie of the Year recipient after scoring 30 goals and 60 points in 65 games with Prince George; he became the first 16-year-old to score 30 goals in the WHL since Patrick Marleau did it in 1995-96. Injured while playing for Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tourney, but got a gold medal out of it, at least. Favorite NHL team as a kid: Mighty Ducks of Anaheim First hockey idol: Paul Kariya Current favorite NHL player: Sidney Crosby
"Brett is a very gifted player and it's too bad we haven't been able to see more of him this season because of his injury. Brett can take over a game with his skill and puck control and he's also a very intelligent player. He has always been a dependable player at both ends of the ice, whether it be five-on-five or on special teams and he's a real competitive kid. When the game is on the line, he wants to be out there to make a difference."- Prince George head coach Dean Clark to NHL.com
“He puts the puck in the net, he's got good size, great on-ice awareness. He's not a crasher or a banger, but he finishes his checks. He does everything well."- NHL Central scout Peter Sullivan to NHL.com
"It's all about the injury risk with Connolly. If you're not concerned about the hips, then he's easily the 3rd best player in the entire draft and should go right after Hall and Seguin. Otherwise, I think his upside still justifies rolling the dice around picks 8-14."- Red Line Report's Mike Remmerde on his NHL Draft Notes blog; May, 2010
"As far as I'm concerned, the injury is behind me. I've gotten clearance from doctors and specialists. I'm not worried about it coming back. I'll meet with the teams and handle anything they want to challenge me with. At this point, I want to be drafted by a team that believes in me."- Brett Connolly to NHL Fanhouse.com; June, 2010
"I don’t second-guess myself or anyone else. Looking back, I think the injury happened in August maybe because I played so much hockey the year before and never gave myself a break from skating or working out. It was a learning experience. I consider the hip injury a freak accident and I’m not concerned about it anymore - even though I understand I’ll be answering a lot of questions about it over the next few months. That’s okay."-Brett Connolly to NY Islanders Point Blank; May, 2010
“You can imagine every scout was asking us: 'What's going on with Connolly? What's happening? When's he going to be back?' We had that from 30 teams and maybe three scouts per team. There is so much pressure on these kids to perform in their draft year."- Connolly's agent, Gerry Johannson, to the Vancouver Sun; June, 2010
“I got asked if I wanted to read a soft poem or shoot a gun. Weird stuff, Anyway, I chose to shoot a gun, which I had done when I was younger. After the interview, I started to think about what I said and whether it was the right thing.”- Brett Connolly to the Vancouver Sun; June, 2010