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Bolts' Connolly proving pre-draft injury not deterrent

Tuesday, 11.22.2011 / 3:06 PM / 2012 NHL Draft

By Lonnie Herman - NHL.com Correspondent

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Bolts' Connolly proving pre-draft injury not deterrent
The injuries that may cost Alex Galchenyuk and Morgan Rielly the seasons prior to their draft eligibility won't necessarily hurt their stock if Brett Connolly of the Lightning is any indication.
TAMPA BAY -- When two potential 2012 draft picks go down with season-ending injuries within weeks of each other, that's news. When those picks are projected to be top-five selections on virtually everyone's draft list, that's even bigger news. That unfortunate fate is exactly what befell center Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Morgan Rielly, both hobbled with torn anterior cruciate ligaments.

Galchenyuk, with the Sarnia Sting (OHL) went down first, suffering his injury in a preseason game on Sept. 16. Reilly, a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL), tore his ACL on Nov. 6. Both injuries are likely to be season-ending.

Brett Connolly
Right Wing - TBL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 7
SOG: 32 | +/-: 1
So where does that leave these two highly-touted prospects in terms of their future draft value? Will missing the entire season just prior to becoming draft eligible send their stock plummeting?

Not necessarily, said Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager.

And Yzerman should know. In 2010, his first draft in charge of the Lightning, Yzerman used his first selection, No. 6, to take Brett Connolly. A top-rated forward with Prince George (WHL), Connolly had suffered a serious hip injury and appeared in only 16 games in 2009-10. Question marks abounded, but not for Yzerman and his scouting staff.

"The injury involved wasn't a concern," Yzerman said. "It was nothing structural. The trick is projecting a player and what he will become."

Yzerman delegated that job to his scouting staff.

"I give the scouts instructions and guidance as to the type of player we're looking for, but they're the ones out there watching every day, all over the world, so I let them pick the player," he said. "They had their list of players and Connolly was the player they wanted with the sixth pick, based on the players that were left."

But what if the player isn't there to be watched, as Connolly wasn't and Galchenyuk and Rielly aren't now?

"If the player is out for the year, you can't exactly tell what you have," Yzerman said. "Then it becomes somewhat of a gamble, but you look at your options and decide what your best option is."

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For Yzerman, that best option was Connolly. For Connolly, the selection was a big relief.

"At the time my injury happened, it was demoralizing," Connolly said. "Especially because the injury was re-occurring. It wasn't going away, and that was a concern. I was pushing myself to get back in the lineup."

Eventually, Connolly learned to slow down and take his recovery day-by-day.

"It was hard not playing," Connolly said, "but I had to be very cautious and look out for myself and make sure I was getting better. I knew it meant my career, so I had to make sure I could come back. I didn't realize until I got into my first NHL camp that it really doesn't matter where you are picked, you have to go to camp and earn a spot."

After losing almost an entire season, that first camp was a challenge.

"When he arrived at camp in 2010, frankly, he wasn't very good," Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He was soft, he was slow and he was an east-west player."

After another season in juniors Connolly was back, and this time Boucher found himself watching a different player -- the player Connolly should have been all along.

"This year he came into camp flying, being a north-south player, paying the price and driving to the net and being concerned about his defensive game and being able to follow the guys on the top lines," Boucher said.

While the Lightning had the option to return Connolly to juniors for another season, his play has kept him in Tampa Bay for the season. Connolly, who doesn't turn 20 until May 2, entered Tuesday's game against Toronto with 4 goals in his last eight games -- two were game-winners, including an overtime goal to beat Philadelphia.

"He made us have to keep him," Boucher said. "He forced our hand and he's still forcing our hand. He's got a great future. Missing a year means that last year he should have been where he is now, so next year, he'll likely be where a top-notch 19-year-old would be. We think he'll be terrific."

The gamble looks like it will pay off for Yzerman and his staff, and that should give some comfort and encouragement to Galchenyuk and Rielly as they convalesce.

So should this viewpoint from Yzerman:

"A serious injury may cause a player to fall, but you look at some of these ACL injuries, that's a pretty common thing now and guys get them repaired and go on to long careers," he said. "That kind of injury doesn't hurt their career at all. That's not an injury that's a big concern."

And finally, a piece of advice for Galchenyuk and Rielly from a player who has been there:

"Keep your head on straight and focus and don't look too far ahead," Connolly said. "Keep your whole career in perspective. At the end of the day, an injury won't dictate your career in the NHL, if you don't let it."
 
2012 NHL Draft