Connor Murphy is a pretty bright hockey player, so he knew right away when he fell during a training camp practice that there was a problem.
"The pain came right away pretty sharp," Murphy told NHL.com. "I had something similar the year before, so I knew what to expect."
What he had was a condition known as spondylosis, a stress fracture of the L5 vertebrae. It was the same condition that limited him to just eight games in 2009-10 with the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-17 team.
The condition didn't require surgery, but it did put him in a back brace and sideline him for five months in the most important hockey season of his career thus far.
After a strong summer that saw him score 4 points in five games at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament -- including an overtime goal against Sweden in the semifinal -- Murphy entered this past season with the USNTDP's U-18 team as a highly regarded defense prospect for the 2011 Entry Draft. But after re-injuring his back, scouts couldn't get a good view of him for most of the season.
"Obviously it was a downer having to sit out in a big year like this," he said, "but I knew I could come back strong and have a good finish and it wouldn't matter in the end missing that much time."
Once again, Murphy proved prescient, as he made a strong return in February, and then had an outstanding performance for the U.S. at the World Under-18 Championship. He had 2 goals in the gold-medal game, including the overtime score that allowed the U.S. to take home its third straight gold medal at the event.
"It was huge," Murphy said of the tournament. "It was a tournament our whole team had been gearing up for the whole two years (with the USNTDP). We prepared a lot for it. It was really on my mind being injured, that was something I wanted to go to no matter what. Even missing time, I was happy I got to go there out of any place. And anytime being able to represent your country on the international level like that, it's really a privilege and I'm glad we were able to finish with a gold medal."
In all he played 22 games, against NCAA, USHL and international competition, finishing with 6 goals and 10 points. His strong finish certainly caught the attention of the scouts. NHL Central Scouting, which left him off its mid-term rankings due to limited viewing, placed him at No. 25 in its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, and eighth among defensemen.
"The most impressive thing for me about Connor Murphy was no matter if he played on an Olympic-size rink or the smaller (North American) ice surface, he had so much poise, patience and confidence," NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "He was able to take control of high-pressure situations without any lack of any one of those three ingredients. I'm thinking to myself, 'This kid has missed so much hockey, but he's still as good a player as I've seen all around this season.'"
While the injury curtailed Murphy's playing time, he was able to find the positive in the situation.
"I stayed around the rink, around the team," he said. "Watched all our games, I stayed in the video sessions, learned off of the systems we do, off of the games, off of the players we play against, guys on our team, so when I did come back, I can mesh easier with my teammates and the systems we play. Watching it, I was able to also learn immensely certain situations in the game, plays to make, plays not to make."
USNTDP coach Ron Rolston told NHL.com the way Murphy handled himself was a credit to the 18-year-old's professionalism.
"He would be in video sessions, we'd take him on the road and he'd watch games, watch the team," he said. "We'd talk to him as a staff on how the team was playing, what he saw. He kept himself as close to ready to go as possible, which is to his credit, because it didn't take him long to jump back in.
"He came in every day and he wasn't able to do anything weight-baring, but he did everything he could as far as strengthening his core and getting himself back to where he needed to be. He was very professional about how he handled himself. He was training, catching practice, watching video -- just trying to stay sharp."
Rolston believes it all paid off when Murphy got back in the lineup, because it didn't take long for him to show the kind of player he could be.
"It was around 10 games," Rolston said. "We got him back a game before the Five Nations tournament. He played one USHL game and then we went overseas and played four games in four days on an Olympic-size sheet. That was really difficult for him to be put back in that situation, and he was still one of our top defensemen."
That led to the World Under-18 Tournament, an event Rolston believes will lead to Murphy "skyrocketing" up NHL teams' draft boards.
"It was a good opportunity for him where he's going to get a lot of exposure in front of NHL scouts and NHL general managers to show what he can do against players in his own birth year," Rolston said. "The way he prepared himself mentally to get back certainly helped him be prepared for that stage and the way he played there. It was very big for him."
Murphy was healthy enough to perform each event at the NHL Scouting Combine, but more important for him might have been the interview process. One of the first things teams asked him about was the condition of his back. Murphy's stock response was he's fully healed and fully healthy.
"Most teams ask," he said. "I'm open about it and explain what happened and what precautions (he takes) and they're understanding. Injuries happen in sports. As long as I come back and feel fine, there's no limitations and it's not going to affect me in the future."
Murphy said he isn't sure what NHL teams are thinking about him, or if he showed them enough in his shortened season to be worthy of a high pick.
"It's tough to dictate to anyone off 20 games in a season," he said, "but I was able to be consistent enough for scouts to get a taste of what I play like, that the scouts can look off of and hope it's good enough and be able to see the future if they draft me."
Should we doubt him? Murphy has been pretty smart about his career to this point.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK