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Connolly stands out among WHL's draft prospects

by Adam Kimelman
Last season was a banner one for Western Hockey League draft prospects, as four players -- Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Scott Glennie and Jared Cowen -- were taken in the first nine picks of the 2009 Entry Draft.
Could the crop for the 2010 draft be as plentiful? That's certainly a possibility as a number of talented players will start auditioning for NHL scouts.
Top among them seems to be Prince George Cougars left wing Brett Connolly, who was named both WHL and Canadian Hockey League rookie of the year.
Connolly may be the first name mentioned, but he certainly won't be the only one.
Brett Connolly -- One scout said he's got the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Prince George Cougars left wing penciled in as the fifth pick in the 2010 draft.
"He puts the puck in the net, he's got good size, great on-ice awareness," NHL Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan told "He's not a crasher or a banger, but he finishes his checks. He does everything well."
Despite battling a hip injury that currently has him sidelined, Connolly has 4 goals in seven games.
Connolly became the first 16-year-old WHL rookie to score 30 goals in a season since Patrick Marleau in 1995-96. He finished with a team-high 60 points, and beat out Evgeny Grachev and Dmitry Kulikov -- both high NHL draft picks -- to be named the top rookie in the three CHL leagues. Connolly also had 3 goals, 6 points and a plus-5 rating for Canada at the World Under-18 Championship in April.
"He's going to be a special player," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told "He's got it all. He can make things happen all by himself. ... He looks like he's going to be a natural leader. There aren't too many 16-year-olds that can step up and be a leader for a team, especially in the (WHL). He's just a young kid but he showed up to play every night for them."
Jordan Weal -- Since he's been reunited with linemate Jordan Eberle, Weal has been nearly unstoppable. A recent scoring binge saw the 5-8 1/2, 156-pound forward score 4 goals and 5 assists in a three-game span to earn CHL Player of the Week. On the season, Weal is tied for sixth in the league with 11 points in eight games.
As a WHL rookie last season, Weal started fast and never really slowed down. He had 25 points in his first 18 games, and led all first-year players for the season with 54 assists, and was second with 70 points.
Weal tied for third on the team with 4 assists playing for Canada at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
"There're cute small hockey players, but this kid has (guts)," Sullivan said. "He's the first one in there, takes a hit, gives a hit. He's probably as smart as anybody in the league hockey-sense wise. He's very gifted. You'll see him and say, 'Oh, that's too bad, the size,' and you'll come back after the game and see guys 6-2 and 6-3 guys, he's hitting them. His way of being tough is giving a hit and taking a hit."
"He's one of those real Theoren Fleury guys," added MacDonald. "His size isn't a factor. He'll just put his head down and go."
Curtis Hamilton -- The Saskatoon forward has 3 goals, 6 points and a plus-4 rating in his first seven games this season. Last season, the 6-2 1/4, 209-pound left wing had 20 goals and 48 points in just 58 games last season. He also improved defensively, as he went from a minus-15 rating as a rookie in 2007-08 to a plus-28 last season. Hamilton also made an impression at the World Under-18 Championship, finishing with 5 points and a plus-5 rating in six games for Canada.
"He's got size and all the skill that you need," Sullivan said. "I wouldn't consider him a power forward, but he's a guy that really finishes his checks well. ... He knows the game very well, plays his position well, knows where everybody is on the ice. He's got a solid all-round game."
Hamilton is the son of Kelowna Rockets GM and co-owner Bruce Hamilton.
Nino Niederreiter -- The Portland Winter Hawks made the Swiss-born right wing the second pick of the 2009 CHL Import draft, and the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder so far looks like a good investment with 5 points in his first six games.
"He has really nice hands and he's more physical than I thought," MacDonald said. "He finishes his checks. He's got really nice hands; nice, balanced skater. He really goes to the net and shoots."
Niederreiter played for top Swiss club HC Davos last season, and led Switzerland at the World Under-18 Championship with 3 goals, 6 points and 16 penalty minutes.
Brett Bullmer -- With 6 points in his first seven games, he Kelowna Rockets right wing entered the weekend fifth among rookie scorers in the league.
"He's a good-sized kid (6-2 1/4, 175)," MacDonald said. "I think he's going to be one of those players that get better as the year goes. He shows signs of playmaking and he can be offensive. He uses his size to his advantage. He could be a kid that comes on later."
Craig Cunningham -- The Vancouver Giants left wing got off to a great start, sitting among the early scoring leaders with 13 points in his first eight games.
The 5-9 3/4, 180-pounder went unselected in last year's draft, but if he keeps going like he is, it's unlikely teams will overlook him again.
"He's improved every year," MacDonald said. "If he continues on the way he is I'm sure teams are going to want another look at him. His size is a little bit of a factor but he fights through checks, he works."
Quinton Howden -- The Moose Jaw Warriors center has jumped out of the blocks with 4 goals and 11 points in his first seven games. At a shade under 6-1 and 183 pounds, Howden is regarded as one of the finest skaters in the WHL.
"One of the best, if not the best skaters in the league for his size," Sullivan said. "His skating is so good for his size. His threat is his speed, not only to score goals but to cause turnovers. He's excellent on the PK, always a threat out there. If he gets a step on anybody he's gone."
In his first full WHL season in 2008-09, Howden had 13 goals and 30 points in 62 games and earned a spot on Canada's team at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
The first pick of the 2007 WHL bantam draft, Howden had 121 goals and 76 assists in 51 games two seasons ago in midget AA.
"I think there's a lot of guys that have made some comments that he has a lot of similarities to a player like Joe Thornton," Moose Jaw GM Chad Lang said. "He's a big, lanky guy with good vision that can shoot the puck and is a two-way player."

Alexander Petrovic --
A high ankle sprain has limited the Red Deer Rebels defenseman to just two games this season. When healthy, however, he's considered the top draft-eligible blueliner in the league.
Petrovic has a mean streak to match his 6-3 1/2, 192-pound frame. He had 70 penalty minutes in 66 games last season, and was one of only two WHL defenseman named to Canada's roster for the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August.
"I like his on-ice attitude, he's got a bit of an edge to him,"  MacDonald said. "He uses his size. He also looks to be like a take-charge guy. Every time I saw Red Deer, I'm looking at the (1991 birth-year players), but he jumped out every game. ... He's really strong in his own end. He's going to take charge in his own zone, make that good first pass."
Calvin Pickard -- The Seattle Thunderbirds goalie is 2-2-0, but is third in the league with a 938 save percentage in four games this season. Last season, Pickard finished fourth among first-year WHL netminders with a 3.05 goals-against average. He won 23 games while splitting time with Philadelphia draft pick Jacob DeSerres, and played well in the playoffs when DeSerres was hurt.
"He's a real good, solid goaltender," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told "Smart, great positioning, great rebound control, moves well. Great goalie instincts. When somebody has that, when they go between the pipes they know what's going on there. He looks like a goalie, and you can't say that about everybody."
Pickard is the younger brother of Chet Pickard, the 2008 CHL Goaltender of the Year and a top prospect for the Nashville Predators.
Mark Pysyk -- The Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman is neck-and-neck with Petrovic for the draft's top blueliner from the WHL. A solid, stay-at-home defender, the 6-1, 179-pounder has just 3 assists, but is a plus-2 with 15 penalty minutes in seven games.
Last season, his first in the WHL, Pysyk had 5 goals and 20 points in 61 games, and he was one of only two WHL blueliners to make Canada's Memorial of Ivan Hlinka team, where he had 2 assists in four games.
"He's an excellent defenseman, strong all-round game," Sullivan said. "He's solid in his own end, he joins the rush, he breaks up plays in the neutral zone, plays a ton of ice time. He's just an all-round solid defenseman. He just jumps out at you."
Mark Stone -- A broken thumb has limited Stone to just three games, but big things are expected from the 6-2 1/4, 188-pound right wing. He had 17 goals and 39 points in 56 games last season as a WHL rookie.
"They say they're worried about his foot speed but he always seems to get there," Sullivan said. "Excellent hockey sense, knows where the net is, crashes the net. His speed is deceptive at times. He gets there, he finds the open holes. He's just a solid, all-round player."
Kevin Sundher -- The 5-11 3/4, 192-pound center is off to a bit of a slow start in his second season with the Chilliwack Bruins with 3 points in six games, but the talent level certainly is there. Last season, he was second on the team with 39 points in 69 games.
"He can be really explosive," MacDonald said. "Good speed, sees the ice really well. ... He's a good little player, good little playmaker, plays with a lot of spunk. He goes into the dirty areas."
Brendan Ranford --
The Kamloops Blazers left wing measures only 5-8 and 174 pounds, but he packs a lot of skill and toughness into that frame. The nephew of Conn Smythe winner Bill Ranford, Brendan has 4 points in eight games. He had 13 goals, 27 points and 46 penalty minutes in 66 games last season, but he's highly regarded for his work ethic and courage.
"He's a real honest kid," MacDonald said. "He just really works hard, tremendous work ethic. He's a real on-ice leader for them. He just works hard, deserves every point he gets. He plays real honest. He doesn't go out and try to intimidate, but he'll grind, he'll bang in the corners.
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