Choosing 23rd, Colorado watched as the big ticket names were gobbled up until there seemed to be the perfect story emerging. Without much hesitation, Joe Sakic, executive vice president of hockey operations for the Avalanche, walked up on the stage and called out the name of 18-year-old center Conner Bleackley, welcoming him as the newest addition to the club.
Captain of the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League, Bleackley had an outstanding 71-game campaign—his second with the team—as he finished with 29 goals and 39 assists last season. His play not only earned him a role as an on-ice leader, but also showcased a 50-point improvement over the year previous.
“One thing that attracted us to Conner is his hockey sense and strength on the puck,” said Avalanche director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey in a press release. “We like his versatility, as we have seen him play all three forward positions. Being a right-handed shot, he potentially addresses a need on the right side on our organizational depth chart. We think he is a responsible two-way payer, and his leadership qualities were a positive factor.”
The 6-foot, 197-pound Alberta native knows that he can play any role he’s tasked with and that his utilitarian nature will be a perfect fit in Denver. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t also like scoring goals.
“I think, on the ice, I have a versatility where I can play lines one through four and on the wing and at center but I want to be a top guy and I think I have the skill and determination to do that,” said Bleackley during a conference call. “I’m more of a two-way center. I pride myself on playing against the other team’s best players but, at the same time, I like to be relied on heavily offensively.”
“I like to go to the dirty areas and the corners and go to the net to score goals. That’s definitely a part of my game.”
The drive to play in the NHL is something that fueled Bleackley to improve between seasons with the Rebels. He knew that he had weaknesses—such as his skating—that could be improved upon and he went after them with the determination that pervades his play, something he plans on doing now following the draft.
“Last summer was huge for me. I started training at Crash Conditioning in Calgary, it’s called. The work they did for me as far as my skating and my lower body and core strength was huge as far as getting me to get to that next level as far as my skating goes,” said Bleackley. “It’s the same focus this summer again. It’s to improve my quickness and I think that had a great deal to do with my spike in offensive numbers.”
Bleackley is trending in the right direction and may provide the Avalanche with some much needed depth in the near future. Yet he brings more than just his skills to the Avalanche system. He also brings with him the attitude and buy in that can only come from having grown up a fan of the club he could soon play for. Being drafted is great but being drafted by your idol is something else altogether.
“It’s pretty surreal. I’ve idolized the Colorado Avalanche and Joe Sakic for as long as I can remember. To have him call my name and just the whole thing, it’s real special and definitely a good dream come true,” said Bleackley. “Obviously very ecstatic. For a while now, I’ve been really thinking about that pick and, if there’s one place I had to go, that was the place I wanted to go. Now that it’s happened, it’s really a dream come true.”
“I’m going to do every single thing I can to bring a Stanley Cup back to Colorado.”
There’s a long way to go yet for the beaming 18-year-old but being drafted by Sakic and the Avalanche is going to be a moment that Bleackley will always remember. Adding to the excitement of the day, Bleackley admitted that he’d already heard from a few players on the team.
“Gabe (Landeskog) and (Matt) Duchene and those guys, they tweeted me,” said Bleackley. “That was pretty cool and I got a text from Matt Duchene and Max Talbot and I talked to Gabe briefly on the phone. It was pretty cool.”
The 2014 NHL Entry Draft continues on Saturday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.