Connor Murphy went 20th overall to Phoenix last summer. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It goes without saying all draft prospects hope their first years of eligibility are magical campaigns filled with copious amounts of points, long playoff runs and maybe even a roster spot on the world junior team.
But reality has a way of slapping even the nicest folks in the face and the 2012 draft cohort has learned that the hard way this season. At least four elite prospects have sustained major injuries already this season – Martin Frk of Halifax, Ryan Murray of Everett, Alex Galchenyuk of Sarnia and Morgan Rielly of Moose Jaw. Thanks to knee injuries, Galchenyuk‘s and Rielly’s seasons are likely over, while Frk has yet to play a game due to concussion woes. Murray (sprained ankle) had already played 10 games when he went down and is expected to return soon.
That’s four of the possible top 10 picks for this summer.
Fortunately for those kids, they were all known quantities coming into the season and several had great turns at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August. For one NHL scout, Sarnia’s crafty Russian-American center shouldn’t worry too much.
“Going first overall might be a stretch now, but I still see him as a priority guy,” he said. “There’s enough respect for Galchenyuk out there that he’ll be a first round pick.”
A perfect example of this is Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly, who was starting to look like hockey’s Greg Oden before he got healthy and jumped into the Bolts’ lineup this season. Connolly missed most of his 2010 draft year due to a hip injury, but was still scooped up with the sixth overall pick by GM Steve Yzerman. Connolly’s upside wasn’t only seen by Tampa, however. Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney made sure to do his due diligence on the Prince George Cougars star as well.
“We actually brought him down to Phoenix,” Maloney said. “We were drafting 13th and thinking he might slide. As long as your doctors and trainers get a handle on him, you slot him where you’d slot him.”
Proving he’s not a revisionist, Maloney spent his 2011 first round selection on another player who was ravaged by injuries in his draft year, Team USA defenseman Connor Murphy.
“There’s always a risk,” Maloney said. “There’s usually 50 variables when you’re analyzing these guys and in Connor’s case, he didn’t play a lot of hockey the past two years. However, when he did play we liked his game, we liked his hockey DNA, we liked his growth potential and dedication to the game, so we thought if he could stay healthy and play for a couple years, we’d get a really good defenseman.”
Murphy’s father Gord was a longtime NHL defenseman and Connor is now in Sarnia with Galchenyuk – quite literally, too, as the blueliner was injured at a Team USA world junior evaluation camp, but is expected to return soon.
Maloney said injuries are just like evaluating skating or compete level. Coyotes doctors and specialists looked at Murphy in Phoenix before the draft and were satisfied he had healed from his wounds at the time.
And that will be the big decision for a lot of GMs this summer. Rielly was seen as one of the best defensemen in his class before his injury and Murray would have been a lock for Canada’s world junior team. Depending on his recovery, he may still crack the squad, especially with Carolina first-rounder Ryan Murphy out due to a concussion right now.
One thing’s for sure: woe be the team that passes on one of these kids without doing its homework.
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