Maybe, just perhaps, the clutch goal that Conner Bleackley notched Tuesday night at the Centrium was a harbinger of more consistent production from the High River product.
Bleackley, a first-round selection of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2014 NHL entry draft following a 29-goal, 68-point season, dropped off to 27 markers and 49 points in 2014-15 — albeit in just 51 games — but that paled in comparison to the struggles he has experienced this season.
The goal that Bleackley sniped in Tuesday’s contest ignited a come-from-behind win over the Seattle Thunderbirds. It was ultra-timely, as has been the case with many of his WHL career tallies, but it was also just his second of the season to go along with nine helpers in 15 outings.
However, because the goal helped the Rebels to one of their more emotional victories this season, maybe it was a signal that bigger and better things lie ahead for the 19-year-old centre.
“Let’s hope so,” he said Thursday, prior to the team departing on a five-game road trip that opens tonight in Prince Albert. “The last few games I’ve been getting my chances. It’s been unfamiliar for me to not score, but it was nice to get that one and come back to win.”
What has ailed Bleackley this season is unclear. Perhaps he’s not shooting enough?
“I don’t know. Obviously, being a shooter any chance you get you want to get a shot off, but maybe it is that,” he said.
“But the team’s winning and we’re not having problems scoring goals. That makes it a bit easier, but I think I can start contributing offensively a lot more than I have. I think that will only benefit the team and hopefully we can continue winning.”
Bleackley lost his captaincy to Wyatt Johnson last month, and while he kept a letter — he’s one of the club’s three alternate captains — the unsigned Avalanche prospect wasn’t necessarily on board with the decision of GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“It wasn’t a mutual (decision). I wasn’t very happy when it happened, but Brent figured it was in my best interest to … he thought maybe it would get me going and playing the way I can,” said Bleackley. “It was a pretty tough thing for me, although letters are more and more becoming not as important. My demeanour, the way I carry myself around the rink, hasn’t really changed. It is what it is.
“Johny is a very good leader in his own right and the core group and leadership group here hasn’t changed at all. It was a little bit of a (personal) sting, obviously, but I’m just kind of going forward from there.”
As Bleackley noted, the Rebels are not lacking in experienced leadership. Take-charge abilities are not restricted to the players wearing letters.
“For sure, you look around the National Hockey League and there are teams without captains,” he said. “It’s more a matter of who the person you are rather than the letter you have on your jersey. We do have a strong core group and an older team. The leadership in the room isn’t just from one guy, its coming from everybody.
“I think for us to be successful every player has to be a leader in his own way.”
The Rebels’ jaunt through the East Division should be interesting. Three of their five opponents — the 12-3-1-1 Raiders, 11-3-0-2 Brandon Wheat Kings and 8-5-2-1 Moose Jaw Warriors — over the next nine days are off to good starts, although the Warriors have slipped somewhat in recent games.
“For sure, it will be a real good test to play Prince Albert (tonight),” said Bleackley. “They’re doing real well, as are most of the other (East Division) teams.
“It will be good for our team to get away on the road. It’s a 10-day trip and we’re looking forward to it. We’ll take it one game at a time and see how it goes.”
The trip will be extra wearing for Bleackley and teammates Haydn Fleury and Ivan Nikolishin. Bleackley and Fleury will suit up with Team WHL in the CHL Super Series that includes games in Kelowna and Kamloops Monday and Tuesday, while Nikolishin will be with Team Russia.
“For myself, Haydn and Ivan, it’s going to be a busy period,” said Bleackley. “For us it will be seven games in nine nights.”