"I love this kid," a scouting director for an Eastern Conference team slated to pick in the middle of the first round told NHL FanHouse back in March. "I know this sounds a little warped, but it's gotten to the point where I don't mind it if Connolly misses games. I figure there's a better chance he'll slip down to us."
The scout can forget about it. Despite a serious hip injury that forced the 6-2, 190-pound right wing to sit out all but 16 regular season games with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League, Connolly will be selected early when the draft begins on Friday night, June 25.
"I hope so," Connolly said in Philadelphia last week when he was an invited guest of the NHL at the Stanley Cup Final. "I understand teams have some questions, but I'm doing everything I can to answer them."
In the end, Connolly is too good to pass up -- risk be damned. He will be picked in the top 10, almost certainly the top six and possibly as early as third by Florida. His package of skill, toughness, goal-scoring and leadership makes scouts salivate, even when he isn't playing.
He didn't play a lot last season. His personal nightmare began last August, when he injured the hip playing for Canada in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament for Under-18 national teams. Connolly missed the opening of Prince George's regular season. He was forced to sit out the Top Prospects game in Windsor in February. In the 16 games he managed to play, scouts rushed in to Prince George to get a glimpse of what could be when the young man is healthy. In those 16 games, Connolly had 10 goals and nine assists. He wasn't even close to 100 percent of his capability.
Scouts were provided another viewing in April at the Under-18 World Championships in Belarus. Although Team Canada struggled, the tournament was a showcase for Connolly.
"He was good, not great," said an NHL scout in attendance. "That's understandable, considering how much time he missed. He showed enough to make us all of think that his health is back. With this kid, that was enough to lock him in to the first half of the first round."
At the NHL Combine in Toronto in late May, Connolly met with 20 of the league's 30 teams. While his fellow prospects were being asked hockey and psychology questions in their 12-minute maximum meetings, the kid from British Columbia had to spend most of his time talking about his hip.
"I didn't mind it at all," said Connolly, a Vancouver Canucks fan growing up. "I encouraged the discussion. My hope was to leave the Combine with all of the teams satisfied with my health and my attitude."
"As far as I'm concerned, the injury is behind me," said Connolly, the Canadian Hockey League's top rookie in 2008-09 when he scored 30 goals in 65 games with Prince George as a 16-year-old. "I've gotten clearance from doctors and specialists. I'm not worried about it coming back. I'll meet with the teams and handle anything they want to challenge me with. At this point, I want to be drafted by a team that believes in me."
For the highly-skilled Connolly, this will not be a problem.