Connor Brickley knew playing his brand of hockey as a rookie with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League wouldn't be easy.
Then again, intimidation certainly wasn't going to stop him from giving it his best shot, either.
"Coming to the USHL, I didn't know what to expect because you hear about the league being the highest junior league you can perform in," Brickley, 18, told NHL.com. "Obviously, there's a little nervousness playing with and against older players, but I felt I had to bring what I had to the game and bring it as hard as I could to find out exactly how I matched up against everyone."
He found out he could do more than hold his own. The Malden, Mass., native left Belmont (Mass.) Hill School for Des Moines this season. He finished with a team-best 22 goals and was fourth on the team with 43 points. He also gained valuable international exposure this season, scoring 2 goals and 7 points in 14 games with the United States Under-18 National Team Developmental Program, as well as 4 assists and a plus-5 rating to help the U.S. win gold at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship last month.
NHL Central Scouting has the 6-foot, 190-pound forward at No. 58 on its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2010 Entry Draft, June 25-26 in Los Angeles.
"Connor's highly motivated, never takes a shift off and is combative," said Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in U.S. prospects. "I'd be surprised if he's not taken by the third round. Everybody on our staff has seen this kid and they all like him."
"He's strong, quick and skates hard," Des Moines coach Mike Guentzel said. "His compete level is very good and he's physical and plays a grinding-effort game. He's first on the forecheck and he'll finish his checks. He's basically a power forward-type -- that's what he's aspiring to be and what he's trying to do and I think he does a decent job at it."
USNTDP Under-18 coach Kurt Kleinendorst offered a similar endorsement after watching Brickley perform at the Six Nations Tournament in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
"I didn't know much about him prior to his joining us in Minsk, but he has a lot about his game that any coach would appreciate," Kleinendorst said. "The first thing you notice is how hard he competes and his skill set -- any coach would appreciate that combination. He skates well, above-average speed, has good overall skills and is great on every dumped puck. He hits hard every chance he gets.
"I also liked his demeanor on the bench. He's very much a team player and he fit right in around the locker room. I think he'll become a better player spending time at the University of Vermont (he'll start there in 2011) -- he'll continue to develop his game both with and without the puck."
Brickley considered it an honor to play for the U-18 team in Belarus.
"Coach Kleinendorst just wanted me to be the best player I could be in five-on-five situations," Brickley said. "It was a great experience to play for them and a privilege. I knew the guys on the team so I felt comfortable."
While having an opportunity to be drafted by an NHL team would be a dream come true, Brickley also is gearing up for his college experience at Vermont.
"I plan on attending Vermont," he said. "It's always been a dream of mine to play college hockey."
Guentzel feels Brickley, who moved from center to the wing this season, will benefit from a year or two of college hockey.
"When he puts some defining muscle on his body, he'll have even more of an impact," Guentzel said. "He's one of those kids that has very good leverage when he hits people. Some guys hit people and the guy doesn't move, some hit people and they bounce backwards. Then there are those who just run people over, and that's Connor. When he hits someone, they're usually taking the brunt of his hit."
Connor Brickley (Courtesy: USHL)
Brickley comes from solid hockey bloodlines. His father, Craig Brickley, was a 13th-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1974, and his cousin is Andy Brickley, a 10th-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 and current Boston Bruins TV broadcaster.
Connor said he hopes to keep improving with each game.
"You can never be fast enough," Brickley said. "I transferred to wing from center this year and really focused on getting pucks out on my sidewall and battling on my sidewall and also being good support for my defense. My dad has always stressed that being drafted is one thing, but making the best of that situation is most important. I know I'll have to compete day-in and day-out.
"Being drafted would mean everything. It's been a long year and big test for me and my family, living away from home this year. But I put myself out there to say this is what I want to do and this is how I can prove that I can do it."