In three successive seasons, future #1 NHL draft picks John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Taylor Hall were named CHL rookie of the year. The following season, the winner was Brett Connolly. So the Tampa Lightning product certainly has the pedigree to become a major stud in the NHL.
Selected sixth overall by Steve Yzerman and Co. in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, the six-foot-two right winger is dominating the WHL with the Prince George Cougars this season, scoring 40 goals in 56 games against 23 assists.
Playing for his hometown team, Connolly missed all but 16 games last season after suffering a hip injury at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Prince George Head Coach Dean Clark, who was drafted by Edmonton in the eighth round of the 1982 NHL Draft and played one game for the Oilers during their first Stanley Cup season in 1983-84, told PROSPECT PRESCRIPTION that Connolly’s injury is behind him and he’s back to playing the way he showed he could when he scored 30 goals as a 16-year old, the first WHL player to do so in 13 years.
“There has been no trouble at all this season with his hips,” says Clark. “After the season is done, Brett just needs to put in a good summer and get himself in better shape and stronger so that he compete at the next level. It’s a lot harder to compete at that level, playing against men, as compared to playing against kids here. So that’s the one way he’s really got to improve this summer.”
Clark doesn’t think Connolly will find a spot on Tampa Bay’s roster next season but is confident that he’ll be an impact player one day.
“I project him to be a top-six forward in the NHL,” says Clark. “But obviously, for these kids to get to that level there is still a lot of work to be done. And I don’t know if he’s a guy that can step in next season. Like I said, I just think there needs to be more work done physically so he is strong enough to play at that level for an extended period of time and play against men.”
Some seasoning in the AHL with Tampa Bay’s affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, may be in Connolly’s future, says Clark although he admits he’s not very well versed in the Lightning’s depth at each position.
“They’ve got a great lineup with Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis but they’ve got a lot of young, good kids too that are coming up and eventually there will be room for these kids on the roster.”
Clark says Connolly skates very well for a six-foot-two forward, not only straight ahead but laterally, as well.
“He’s a good skater. There is obviously things in his game that he’s got to get better at to compete on a regular basis at the NHL level but he certainly has some very good talent, some very good skill, possesses very good vision of the ice and he can make some great plays.”
With 40 goals already this season, Connolly has no problem putting the puck in the net but Clark says he’s a playmaker too. It’s just difficult to find players that can skate with him.
“One of the things that are hard when you have a player of his calibre is trying to find players that are going to complement that level of play,” explains Clark. “I think we’ve tried to get some people that will make our team successful but obviously he’s a guy that has a hunger around the net and he’s a natural goal scorer.”
Connolly also serves as captain of the Cougars, a leadership position that Clark says suits his star player well.
“Some of things that he’s learning right now aren’t necessarily about scoring goals. He’s our captain, so he’s learning some leadership skills and some other things that will round him out into being a better player.”
That includes Clark playing him at centre, although he says Connolly natural position of right wing is definitely his best.
“He’s played a little bit of centre for me but the majority of the time, he’s been on the right wing and that’s where I see him in the NHL. I think the games that he played at centre, he wasn’t bad and it allowed him to have the puck a little bit more than he does as a winger. And I also think he could play on his off-wing too. That wouldn’t be a problem either.”
E.P.T.A. (ESTIMATED PROSPECT TIME OF ARRIVAL): 2012-13