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As we approach single digits, we move into players who have established themselves as professional hockey players, save two. One of the two prospects ranking this high is Conner Bleackley, coming in at #12.
Bleackley was the first round pick of the Avalanche in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Touted as a strong two-way center who possessed size, speed, and skill, Bleackley was a solid selection who gave promise as a future cornerstone of the team. His on-ice intelligence, strong character, and versatility certainly made him a natural fit for the organization.
Who is Conner Bleackley?
After an impressive draft season with the WHL Red Deer Rebels (29g, 39a in 71 games), including an appearance for Team Canada in the U18 World Junior Championships, Bleackley showed up to the Avalanche training camp with all eyes on him. Unfortunately, camp could have gone much better for him. He was an early cut in preseason, with coach Patrick Roy pointing to conditioning as a source of concern. Despite that, Bleackley had moments in which he shined, showing why the Avalanche selected him 23rd overall.
Bleackley does all of the little things right, things that make him stand out. Much like Ryan O’Reilly, he has an exceptional sense of the game, allowing him to shine defensively. While not known for his offensive presence, he has an innate ability to be where the puck is going, giving him that unique trait that translates to points on the board.
Moreover, he plays with an edge, using his size and strength to push others off the puck—either through possession battles or big hits—while keeping his own skates under him. Bleackley will drop the gloves when needed, both for himself and his teammates. He also doesn’t intimidate easily as evidenced by unceremoniously upending Erik Johnson in training camp, and then taking exception when Johnson retaliated.
When he returned to the Rebels for the 2014-2015 season, Bleackley got off to a slow start. Perhaps his confidence was shaken after his time in Denver, but once he returned to form, Red Deer’s captain shined. Despite seeing only 51 games due to a lower body injury (sustained immediately prior to him scoring a goal—heart and soul, indeed), the young center still scored 27 goals and 22 assists for a 0.96 points-per-game average.
What is the future for Conner Bleackley?
While the skills are clearly there, Bleackley will benefit from another season in the WHL. The Rebels are looking to be a serious contender next season, and giving the 19-year-old the opportunity to refine his game as he leads a team through a playoff season will only benefit him. There’s no doubt he’ll be an NHL player. Where he fits into the Avalanche, though, depends a great deal on what happens to the current centers on the roster.
It’s possible that Bleackley could be moved to wing given the logjam of Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, and Joey Hishon up the middle in Colorado, but that would be a disservice to Bleackley’s skills. He’s a center at heart, and that’s where he’ll be most valuable. Given his similarities with O’Reilly, Bleackley could be seen as a future replacement if the upcoming UFA chooses not to sign with the Avalanche or is traded.
However, unless Bleackley comes to camp with guns blazing, we shouldn’t expect to see him with the big club for another year, at which time his place on the Avalanche will be a bit more clear.