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Tampa tuned in to Connolly

Steve Thomas doesn't expect to see Brett Connolly back in a Prince George Cougars uniform until next year.

Steve Thomas doesn't expect to see Brett Connolly back in a Prince George Cougars uniform until next year.

After seeing him play again during the recent Cougar homestand, Thomas is confident the Prince George Cougars right winger will earn himself a spot on Team Canada and join the country's elite under-19 team over the Christmas break at the world junior hockey championship in Buffalo.

"He's got a real good chance of making that team but that is totally up to Brett," said Thomas, a player development consultant for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I know (Team Canada head coach) Dave Cameron very well and I know the type of system he likes to employ with his teams. It's a defensive system, so he's got to buy into that and pay attention to detail and a lot of things that Cameron wants and he's got to do that at the evaluation camp."

The camp starts Saturday in Toronto for 40 players (four goaltenders, 12 defencemen and 24 forwards) competing for 22 roster spots. Before he leaves, Connolly is expected to play with the Cougars Friday night in Portland.

Leading the Cats in goals (22) and points (36), Connolly is having exactly the kind of season the Lightning had hoped when they selected him in the first round, sixth overall in the 2010 entry draft.

"He's doing well, I think it's one of those things where you pick up where you left off and the thing with Brett is he only played 16 games last year, so this is a big year for him," Thomas said.

"He was off a lot last year (with hip injuries) and this past summer I don't know how much he was able to train."

Connolly stood out as one of the better forwards playing for Team WHL in the Subway Super Series game against Russia Nov. 18 at CN Centre and Thomas was not at all surprised.

"We all know he's capable of it -- when you're 16 years old and you put up 30 goals (and 30 assists) that's a pretty good notch to have on your belt, especially in this league," said Thomas.

Thomas reminded Connolly of some of the elements of his game the Lightning would like to see improve, the same things Thomas says that would enhance Connolly's chances of making the world junior team.

"Seeing him away from the puck doing the circles, it's an opportunity to kind of save yourself, instead of stopping and starting, which is a lot tougher to do," Thomas said. "I'd like to see him do a lot more of that, and I know Dave Cameron would like to see him do a lot more of that too."

Connolly, the 18-year-old Cougars captain, attended his first NHL rookie camp in Traverse City, Mich., and impressed his future bosses enough to stick around for a few exhibition games.

"He finally understands it's gut-wrenching,and it's six days a week," said Thomas. "I want him to get his head wrapped around that so he can be a good professional, because that's what it takes. I'd like to see him get stronger, I'd like to see him have a real good summer workout.

"The best part about Brett's game and his mentality is he doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low. A lot of guys can get too high or too low and it affects their game. He's a very even-keeled guy and mature beyond his age. We're looking for big things from Brett Connolly, hopefully next year."

One other Prince George native son - Chilliwack Bruins left winger Ryan Howse - will join Connolly at the Team Canada evaluation camp. Cougars defenceman Martin Marincin will join Team Slovakia at their world junior camp on Dec. 16, and will be available for the Cougars' home game Dec. 14 against Swift Current.

Thomas joined the Lightning staff in September. Known as "Stumpy," the English-born, Markham, Ont.- raised Thomas retired in 2004 after a 20-year NHL playing career with Toronto, Chicago, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Anaheim and Detroit.

He lives in Toronto where he watched former Cougar Dana Tyrell play the Leafs. Tyrell, a second-round Tampa pick in 2007, now has three goals and three assists in his rookie NHL season.

"I had a good opportunity to spend some quality time with Tyrell after the game and he's a great young guy," Thomas said.

Thomas also serves as a part-time assistant coach with the Norfolk Admirals, Tampa's AHL affiliate. Two other former Cougars - Vladimir Mihalik and Ty Wishart - play for the Admirals.

"I've gotten to know Ty very well and he's a big guy who can make a difference," Thomas said. "He plays a simple game. Mihalik is a big salami - I've never seen a guy that big (six-foot-eight 246 pounds) in my life. He just has to work on his footspeed."