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Noon: Thousands of miles away, in the town of Bobruisk, Belarus, the wonderfully hockey-mad nation of Canada has fallen on its face. Led by coach Guy Carbonneau, Team Canada suffered the ignominy of having to play in the relegation round of the Under-18 World Championships before winning its way back to the main pool. As Canada sheds tears over a possible eighth-place finish, Team USA has advanced to the championship game.
For a team like the Islanders, however, there is some very, very good news regarding Team Canada. Brett Connolly is playing.
“That’s a positive sign,” NHL Central Scouting Bureau director E.J. McGuire told Point Blank. “If Connolly is healthy, there are many teams in the league that will have him ranked right at the top of the draft with Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall.”
Potentially, this is an exciting development for the Islanders for two reasons. If Connolly (VIDEO) continues to prove his health, he is a guaranteed top-5 pick. They could have the option of drafting him at 5 or moving up to grab him. Connolly’s selection at 3 or 4 by another team would result in the Islanders staring right at one of the leftover top defensemen: Cam Fowler or Erik Gudbranson.
Fowler is the first-pair defenseman who would thrive in the Islanders’ system and eventually run their power play. Gudbranson is the first-pair defenseman with the ability to throw around opponents – according to McGuire – like Zdeno Chara.
“This would be quite the enviable situation for the Islanders,” said McGuire. “In completely different ways, Fowler and Gudbranson are special talents.”
Connolly battled a hip injury all season, starting back in August while playing for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament for players under 18. He managed to play in only 16 games for Prince George of the Western Hockey League this season, scoring ten goals and adding nine assists.
He did finish on a good note. The 6-2 left wing demonstrated his first-line ability while playing the final four games of the Cougars’ season. Playing before two dozen scouts that included a representative from the Islanders at each game, Connolly had three goals and three assists.
Like the rest of his team, Connolly’s play at the U18s in Belarus did not yield positive results. Islanders assistant GM Ryan Jankowski and top European scout Vellu-Pekka Kautonen were in attendance. Although Connolly only had an assist through four games – he sat out the relagation round victory over Latvia yesterday with what one of his friends told me was a “brutal case of food poisoning” – his hip has not been a detriment. Scouts that watched him score 30 goals in 62 games as a 16-year-old in the Western League are, cautiously, very excited.
“There is a lot of confidence that Connolly’s hip injury is not serious. There are no signs that it is a degenerative condition,” one Eastern Conference scout emailed to Point Blank. “The main theory is the kid was guilty of coming back to the lineup this season when he wasn’t in game condition. He seems to be answering most of the questions now. We still have him high on our list. Very high.”
The NHL Scouting Combine is often a much-ado-about-nothing event. Teams host ten-minute interviews with draft prospects. The top draft-eligible players undergo rigorous conditioning tests before hundreds of scouts, sometimes even vomiting before a riveted audience.
But this year’s Scouting Combine, conducted in Toronto during the last week in May, is crucial for Connolly. In addition to meeting with the brass of most of the teams picking in the top 15 – including the Islanders, who will send Jankowski, Eric Cairns, Trent Klatt and Ontario scout Tim McLean, among others – Connolly will make himself available to a battery of doctors.
The NHL will have an independent medical staff evaluate him. The Islanders, one would expect, will have representatives from their training and medical staff in Toronto to visit with Connolly.
For the player and the team selecting this potentially game-changing talent, so much is at stake. For the Islanders, it could mean having either Fowler or Gudbranson fall into their laps.
Or it could result in a future first line of Connolly, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
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