A couple of high-profile, draft-eligible players rebounding from serious injuries this season were in the spotlight at the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month in Toronto.
Even though Peterborough Petes left wing Matt Puempel and defenseman Connor Murphy of the U.S. National Team Development Program were forced to miss significant time this past season as a result of their aliments, each player came away with high marks.
Puempel, who underwent surgery to repair a bone chip on his hip in March, wasn't able to participate in all the fitness tests but did endure the grip strength, bench press, push-ups and push/pull strength exercises. He also was interviewed by 28 NHL teams and given the mandatory medical examination.
By all accounts, everything went well for the native of Windsor, Ont.
"There were a good amount of questions on the hip," Puempel told NHL.com. "Teams wanted to make sure it was good to go and there were no lingering effects. But most teams were pretty good with it and even told me they're not worried about it.
"I was out in Colorado recently and kind of got the clearance to start skating again. The hip just has to build the muscle around it to be back as strong as it was."
Puempel played his last game Feb. 21, and the Petes won just two of their final 11 games to missing the playoffs by three points.
"He's been cleared to skate, so the surgery and recovery are going well," Central Scouting's OHL scout, Chris Edwards, said following the Combine. "I have not heard anything about his medical report, so I would guess he's not in danger of missing time next season. I don't think the surgery will affect his draft status … we've all seen enough of him to make a good, positive evaluation."
One highlight of Puempel's season was during the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Skills Competition in January, when he won the shooting accuracy event by knocking out four of five targets.
Murphy suffered from spondylosis, a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae, during the first week of his season and missed five months.
"Surgery wasn't needed for this type of injury," Murphy said. "I was just wearing a back brace, sitting out and doing core strength, allowing the bone to heal itself. The trouble is it's not like an arm, where you can put it in a splint and relax. With a back, you're always using it. So once it's in a brace and in therapy, then it just needs time."
Unlike Puempel, who missed the end of the season, Murphy was able to return to the lineup in February and have a strong finish to his season. That included a full showing at the fitness testing portion of the Combine
"It definitely took a little time," Murphy told NHL.com of coming back to play. "I had to get up to game shape. I got better every game coming back; it probably took five or six games to get up to speed. After that, I felt I was able to focus on different parts of my game and then full speed after that."
Murphy, born in Massachusetts but now living in Dublin, Ohio, is committed to nearby Miami University next fall.
"He definitely came on strong for not playing a year and half," USNTDP Under-18 goalie John Gibson told NHL.com. "When he had an opportunity, he made the most of it and was a big part of our success. I'm really happy that it all worked out in the end for him."
Despite needing hip surgery, NHL Central Scouting moved Puempel up one spot from the mid-term rankings to No. 28 on its final list of North American skaters. Murphy, who wasn't even ranked at mid-term due to limited viewing, checked in at No. 25 (eighth among defenders) on the final list.
"The most impressive thing for me about Connor Murphy was no matter if he played on an Olympic-size rink or the smaller (North American) ice surface, he had so much poise, patience and confidence," NHL Central Scouting's USNTDP scout Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "He was able to take control of high-pressure situations without any lack of any one of those three ingredients. I'm thinking to myself, 'This kid has missed so much hockey, but he's still as good a player as I've seen all around this season.'
"Right now, Murphy is better than Rob Scuderi in his draft year (1998). He can join in the offense so much, but can also dilute his opponent with a spin-o-rama or that long reach and body. People were worried his play would drop because of his conditioning, but that wasn't the case."
In his limited playing time, Murphy proved to be quite the gamer. He started his season in August with 3 assists and 4 points in five games while serving as captain of the U.S. team that finished second at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He also helped the U.S. win its third straight gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship in Germany in April, notching 3 goals, 4 points and a plus-7 rating in six games. He scored twice in the gold-medal game against Sweden, connecting for the clincher 6:06 into overtime to lead the Americans to a 4-3 victory.
"When you're sitting out, it's all mental because you're not able to do anything," Murphy said. "I just made sure I stayed positive. Obviously, it was a downer having to sit out in a big year like this, but I knew I could come back strong and have a good finish and it wouldn't matter in the end missing that much time. I know in the future I'll be healthy and better than ever."
Puempel has the same hopes. He led first-year OHL players in scoring with 64 points in 59 games en route to capturing both OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honors in 2009-10. He bested those marks this past season in four fewer games, finishing with 34 goals and 69 points.
"It was a big concern of mine when I got injured and it's pretty important to me to be playing hockey again real soon," Puempel said. "I'm happy it's going to be back to 100 percent and I'll be able to perform, and I'm happy that teams weren't putting too much emphasis on it (at the Combine).
"I think if you're not going into their camp with the right mindset, I think there's something wrong. My goal has been to play in the NHL, but, at the same time, I know there's a development part of it, too, and I'm just ready when the team thinks I'm ready."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale