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LIGHTNING LOOKS BEYOND HIP 'BLIP'

It drafts wing Brett Connolly at No. 6, saying recent injuries can't mask his skill.

The 2009-10 season was a serious setback for Brett Connolly.

When you play just 16 games because of flexor injuries to both hips, you lose a year of development. When it happens the season before the NHL draft, you are looked at by scouts with caution rather than anticipation.

In the end, though, Lightning player personnel director Jim Hammett said Connolly has "skill we just couldn't turn down," and Friday night at the Staples Center, Tampa Bay took the right wing with the No. 6 overall pick.

"I honestly think if this kid was healthy, he'd be challenging for No. 1 and 2 in this year's draft," Hammett said.

"I can't wait," Connolly said. "I'm so excited to get to Tampa and show what I've got. I feel like I've got a lot to prove."

It wasn't supposed to be this way for Connolly, 18.

In 2008-09, his first season for Prince George of the junior Western Hockey League, Connolly became the first WHL16-year-old to score 30 goals since NHL-bound Patrick Marleau, now a three-time All-Star with the Sharks, in 1995-96. He also was rookie of the year.

But Connolly injured his right hip in August 2009 playing for Canada in an under-18 tournament. He played 12 games for Prince George before hurting his left hip because, he said, he was "overcompensating" for the right.

Rest was the remedy, and Connolly, 6 feet 2 and 181 pounds, played the season's last four games. He still managed 10 goals and 19 points and was ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the No. 3 North American skater.

"He has a very soft set of hands," Hammett said. "He has excellent vision and the ability to slow down the pace of the game and make things open up for him."

Hammett said Connolly likely will return to Prince George next season to continue his development, with a conditioning program that includes yoga and is designed to increase his overall flexibility.

"I've never been the most flexible guy ... and it just caught up with me," Connolly said.

"When I'm going to the gym, I have to stretch before and after. I have to really look after myself. It's going to be part of my daily routine."

Hammett said Connolly's last checkup, early this month with an orthopedic specialist in Vancouver, produced a clean bill of health. Hammett said Tampa Bay's doctors also checked the data.

"We feel like we did our homework," Hammett said. "We're real confident this was just a blip on the screen for him and he will fully recover."

Still, you can never be too sure, and Connolly said general manager Steve Yzerman "grilled me pretty good" in Thursday's interview.

"He came across as a respectful teenager," Yzerman said. "He was himself."

As a result, Yzerman said, he turned down a couple of trade offers for the No. 6 pick. The team also bypassed defensemen Brandon Gormley and Cam Fowler, both believed to have been high on the team's list.

"I told them I'm a guy who is going to compete every night," Connolly said. "I want to learn and get better. I'm going to give it everything I've got and leave it on the table."

And start moving forward.

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Bio

Meet Brett Connolly

Position: RWHT/WT: 6-2/181Age: 18

Hometown: Prince George, British Columbia

Need to know: Ranked the No. 3 overall skater in North America by NHL Central Scouting. ... Limited to 16 games this past season for Prince George of the Western Hockey League because of hip injuries but still had 10 goals, 19 points. ... Had 30 goals and 60 points in 65 games for Prince George in 2008-09, when he was the first WHL 16-year-old to score 30 since the Sharks' Patrick Marleau in 1995-96. ... Models his game after Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash. "(Nash is) a big, strong, skilled forward," Connolly said. "We have similar traits."

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