Brett Connolly entered the season expecting to compete with Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin for the first overall pick in this year’s draft. A healthy dose of adversity has since made him one of the most difficult players to project in the first round.
Hip flexor injuries limited the talented winger to just 16 games this season after an outstanding rookie campaign with Prince George in which he became the first 16-year-old to score 30 goals in the Western Hockey League since Patrick Marleau in 1995-96. He did well enough in his brief appearance this year, picking up 10 goals and nine assists, but the small sample size in a key growth year has NHL teams, including the Hurricanes, feeling cautious.
“He’s shown a tremendous amount of talent and ability when he’s been able to play, but that being said, he’s had some major injury issues that are a concern going forward,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “There’s a history with the type of hip injury that he’s had, which makes it a concern at such a young age.”
Helping Connolly’s case is the fact that he finished the season healthy, having played the last four games of the regular season for the non-playoff Cougars, scoring six points. However, he did not have a great showing later at the World Under-18 Tournament, notching just one goal and missing two games to due food poisoning as his disappointing Canadian squad ended up in the relegation round.
If those factors cause Connolly to be high-risk, particularly when weighted against the group of solid, safer players expected to go in the top 15, it’s important to consider the potentially high reward. He’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the draft and, at 6-foot-2 and 181 points, also one of its better power forwards.
“He’s a big body, he sees the ice well and plays a complete game,” said Karmanos. “That would, if healthy, translate very well to the NHL.”
“He has as good of a set of hands as anybody in this draft, and is definitely one of the premiere goal scorers,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ director of amateur scouting who had Connolly ranked at No. 3 going into the season. “He plays a combination of the finesse and power games. When you see him off the ice he doesn’t look like he would be that physical, but he’s very deceptive with his size.”
How teams view Connolly’s handling of his troubles could also be a key component. One could learn a lot about how a player reacts to a potentially stark fall from grace, which is where the pre-draft interview process comes in.
“He’s missed a critical development stage, but you could turn that around and say that this player could learn more than any other from having to deal with so much adversity at a very young age,” said Karmanos.
If his hip problems are indeed behind him, Connolly could make a team who takes a chance on him in the top 10 look smart, or he could be a huge steal to a team that has him fall into their laps should he slide into or even outside of the top 15. Even for a player who was placed as the No. 3 North American skater in the NHL Central Scouting Service’s final ranking, either scenario would not be a surprise as opinions are expected to vary widely across the league.
”The combination of having a comfort level with the health of the player and the character of the player would lead to a final decision,” said Karmanos. “There are concerns, but you could certainly hit a home run with a guy like this.”