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Juniors coach, scouts praise Tampa Bay Lightning top draft pick

LOS ANGELES — Dean Clark, coach of Prince George of the junior Western Hockey League, said Brett Connolly's most admirable trait is "he makes players around him better."

"Because of his abilities, he gives everybody else confidence," Clark said. "He raises their level of play."

Connolly, 18, selected sixth overall by the Lightning on Friday, will be a closely watched selection after a season shortened to 16 games because of flexor injuries to both hips.

But Clark, reached Saturday by phone, said Connolly was one of the most skilled players in the draft, evinced by his 30 goals for Prince George as a 16-year-old, something that hadn't been done in the WHL since now-Sharks All-Star Patrick Marleau in 1995-96.

"He's got a real sense of how to play the game offensively," Clark said. "He's got some great moves he can do at very high speed, and he has an accurate shot. There are a lot of things he can do offensively that you just can't teach."

Clark praised Connolly's character for his persevering this past season while missing 56 games. And Clark said it isn't the worst news that Lightning player personnel director Jim Hammett said he expects Connolly to return to Prince George for another year of juniors.

"He's a very determined guy," Clark said of Connolly. "He's ready to prove he's fine. That's the biggest thing."

MORE CONNOLLY: E.J. McGuire, head of NHL Central Scouting, said Connolly could one day be considered the steal of the draft.

"Our western scouts who saw him at full speed and full strength said we'd be talking about Taylor Hall (taken No. 1 overall by the Oilers), Tyler Seguin (taken second by the Bruins) and Brett Connolly all in the same breath as kind of a triumvirate at the top of this draft. That's (Connolly's) high-end potential," McGuire said.

"In five years we might be looking back and saying, 'How could he have slipped? How come he wasn't mentioned with these other two?' "

YZERMAN'S FIRST: Steve Yzerman was in on four drafts as a Red Wings vice president but called his first as Lightning GM "exciting" and "fun."

He said he fielded several calls that made him think about trades, but he was committed to keeping his draft picks.

"In order to move up in situations, you have to give up picks, and if we were going to give up picks, we'd better have a player we love at that spot," Yzerman said. "Ultimately, we didn't move up and kept the picks we had, and we felt good about the players we would get."

COMING FAST: The most intriguing Lightning pick might be D Teigan Zahn in the seventh round at 186 overall. Zahn, 20, was back in the draft after failing to sign with the Blackhawks, who took him in the fifth round in 2008.

"I really think he's going to challenge for a spot with (AHL) Norfolk," Hammett said.

Zahn, 6 feet 1, 214 pounds, had three assists and 84 penalty minutes last season for WHL Saskatoon.

"I'm really excited to get him where we got him," Hammett said. "He's a big, strong guy who plays a shut-down style. He's physical, and he can skate."

MORE RUMORS: Reports said Tampa Bay is interested in the negotiating rights to potential unrestricted free agent Sharks G Evgeny Nabokov. Others said the team acquired the rights to Blues G Chris Mason.

Yzerman said he generally does not comment on rumors — "So, I'm not saying they're true or not true" — but he did tell ESPN.com's Pierre Le- Brun that the Mason rumor was false.

ODDS AND ENDS: There were 18 trades during the draft. Only seven involved players, none of whom were big names. … A draft-high 68 defensemen were selected.

Juniors coach, scouts praise Tampa Bay Lightning top draft pick 06/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 11:51pm]

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