The calm after the storm
Conner Bleackley and Red Deer Rebels teammate Haydn Fleury were relaxing Saturday, less than 24 hours after experiencing one of — if not the most — exciting evenings of their young lives.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” said Bleackley, who was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round – 23rd overall — of the NHL entry draft Friday in Philadelphia, 16 picks after Fleury was nabbed by the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s been unreal, a great experience . . . a great weekend for me and my family,” added Fleury. “It’s a bit of a relief that it’s over. I was nervous the whole day Friday. Just having it all over now and knowing where I’m going to be in the future is both exciting and relieving.”
Both players went back to the draft Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center for rounds two through seven.
“I hung out with the guys who have been drafted and the guys who were waiting, then myself and my family went out for a meal with Haydn and his family,” said Bleackley, the Rebels star centre and team captain.
The High River product was hopeful of being selected by the Avalanche. When his wish was granted, he wasn’t surprised considering he had a productive interview with team representatives at the recent NHL draft combine.
“I felt that they were the front-runners and it was kind of what I was hoping for,” said Bleackley. “It kind of seemed too good to be true, but when it happened I couldn’t have been happier. It was definitely a dream come true.
“They’ve been my favourite team forever, so it was really cool to say the least.”
Having Avalanche GM and Hockey Hall of Fame member Joe Sakic call his name and then welcome him at the draft podium was an extra thrill for Bleackley.
“He was my favourite player growing up. It was a pretty surreal moment,” said the 18-year-old. “It was a pretty proud evening for Haydn and I and it made it that much more special that I could share it with him.”
Bleackley had discussions with Colorado director of player development David Oliver following the draft and on Sunday flew to Denver to meet with the Avalanche team staff and local media.
“I’ll come home Tuesday and then fly back July 7th for their one-week development camp,” he said. “It’s shaping up as a busy summer.”
Rick Pracey, the Avalanche director of amateur scouting, likes Bleackley’s smarts, puck-possession ability and leadership skills.
“One thing that attracted us to Conner is his hockey sense and strength on the puck,” said Pracey. “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 player, and his leadership qualities were a positive factor. It is very rare to see a 17-year-old captain of a major junior team.”
Most NHL mock drafts had Fleury being picked just outside of the top 10, but the six-foot-three defenceman wasn’t surprised when he was selected seventh overall. The Hurricanes, after all, were his team of choice and, obviously, vice versa.
“I interviewed with Carolina and thought I had a really good chance of going there,” he said.
The ‘Canes were clearly tickled with their choice.
“They said they were very excited, that they really like the way I play and that I’m going to get a really good opportunity in their organization,” said Fleury, in reference to his post-draft conversations with ‘Canes senior vice-president/GM Ron Francis and assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“Our guys really liked him,” Francis told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He’s a very big, mobile defenceman. He’s got a lot of upside. We were very pleased he was sitting there at seven when we were picking.”
Fleury, who will turn 18 on July 8, was named the top defenceman in the 2014 World Under-18 Championship in Finland, a tournament Francis attended. Francis said the rearguard’s play overseas wasn’t necessarily the major reason they selected him.
“The upside, we think, is unlimited,” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting. “He’s just scratching the surface as a player.
“It’s so difficult to get defencemen today who can play the NHL game and this guy can do that. That’s why we stepped up and took a defenceman.
“Can he come in and run your power play in his first couple of years? No. But he could develop into a guy who can play on your power play. He’s a guy who will log a lot of minutes. The way he skates and with his size, he should be a guy who can maybe play 25 minutes a game. Those guys are hard to find.”
Fleury will attend the ‘Canes prospects camp starting July 20.
“So I have a couple of weeks to get back to Calgary and train before the camp,” he said.
• Carolina selected defenceman Josh Wesley from Plymouth of the OHL in the fourth round. He’s the son of Red Deer native and long-time ‘Canes rearguard Glen Wesley, currently the team’s director of defencemen development.
• Olds Grizzlys defenceman Nikolas Koberstein was picked by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round Saturday. He was one of two AJHL players selected, the other being Spruce Grove Saints blueliner Brandon Hickey, taken in the third round by the Calgary Flames.
• The Canadian Hockey League import draft will be held Wednesday.