No significant player has more riding on the world under-18s and, in particular, the NHL combine than the teenager at the very bottom of NHL Central Scouting Service's mid-term rankings. Two-hundred and ten players are ranked ahead of Connor Murphy. Dozens of kids, some of them in the top 100, won't get drafted. There might not be twenty kids in this draft class who have more talent than Murphy -- maybe not even ten.
Murphy has pro size at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. He has bloodlines: His father, Gord, was a 14-year NHLer and these days is an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers. Connor Murphy established his first-round credentials at the USA Hockey 17-Select Camp last summer, which he just tore up. On the basis of that performance he was named captain of the USA team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial under-18 tournament last summer and was likely the most impressive prospect on a team that lost to Canada 1-0 in the final. In August you'd have bet on him a top-20 pick.
The most remarkable aspect of his performances at the Select Camp and the Ivan Hlinka is that Murphy skated into these events virtually cold: He missed almost the entire 2009-10 season with a back injury. In fact, the most difficult aspect of projecting Murphy is that he went down with back and neck woes after the Ivan Hlinka tournament, remaining off skates for months and out of the U.S. under-18 lineup until late January.
That's how Murphy ended up at the bottom of the CSS mid-terms (along with another U-18 player RW Austin Wuthrich, who went down with a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the line-up in Ann Arbor). Murphy and Wuthrich get INCs on their season so far.
Murphy made it back into the U.S. National Team Development Program lineup after CSS released its mid-terms. A survey of 10 scouts indicated that, while Murphy has top-10 talent, nothing short of an exceptional of a dynamic world under-18 tournament and a clean bill of health will move him into the top 30. But if he manages to get his game back to where it was -- or better -- and passes inspection, he might be a home run anywhere from No. 15 to No. 45.
Two scouts provided representative takes on Murphy's draft stock:
Scout No. 1: "Murphy started great at the Four Nations. First game, against Sweden, probably the most talent team [the USNTDP] played, Murphy looked like a dimensional talent. [He had] an immediate and sustained impact on the game, every shift he played. But with each game in the tournament, the level of his play dropped off a bit. There's no doubt that the injury was the single factor in that. He was trying to jump back into play against top kids who are in mid-season form after he had been skating barely even a month. Timing, conditioning ... he was thrown in the deep end. The remarkable thing is that he played so well at the start of the tournament. He was put in a position that you'd expect him to struggle or even fail. Instead, at his very best, you would have projected him as the best defenseman in the tournament. The fall-off was dramatic but expected. He got through the first games at the Five Nations on adrenaline. Later games he was affected by a lack of conditioning -- he wasn't able to recover playing back-to-back games.
Scout No. 2: "Where he goes is entirely based on how he checks out [medically], more than how he plays the rest of the way. A lot of the guys, practically someone in every organization, knows and respects his father and a lot have watched Connor grow up. Those who know Gord joke that the only thing holding his son back is that he inherited his father's attitude. Really, Connor gets the highest mark you can give for character. He knows what it's going to be like at the next level. There would be questions about what how his development will be affected by the loss of a full season-and-a-half, especially when he was still growing, filling out and maturing. You can't get that time back. But the talent he has shown in that little window, you'd think that he'll play at the next level and maybe, maybe, as a top-two defenseman ... if healthy. That's always going to be the question. It's not like a broken arm or leg where you can project recovery and what isn't like to recur -- a back or neck can be a chronic condition, especially if it's there for a teenager. It's a high risk to put all your chips on a player with that type of injury, at least with your first-rounder, if you have just one of the pick [in the first 30]."
Stockwatch: Went from taken off the board to an intriguing, but risky investment