As one high-profile captain prepared to make his exit this week, another official team leader returned to the Red Deer Rebels.
Of course, New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter is a baseball legend, while Rebels skipper Conner Bleackley is just beginning what should be a long and successful career on the ice. But the 18-year-old first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in June’s NHL entry draft is arguably as important to the Rebels as Jeter was to the Yankees.
“He’s our captain and we expect him to take another step this season,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said Thursday. “There are things he needs to continue to work on with his game and Colorado has talked to him about that.
“He’s going to be a pro player. He’s a first-round pick, now hockey has to become his priority and we expect big things from him.”
The Denver Post reported that Avs bench boss Patrick Roy wasn’t happy with Bleackley’s fitness level in training camp, hence his earlier than expected return to the Rebels.
“I don’t really have a comment on that,” said Bleackley, coming off a breakout WHL season in which he sniped 29 goals and piled up 68 points.
“It was obviously disappointing to be sent back so early, but I’m just excited to be back here in Red Deer and get my season going. We have an exciting group here.”
Bleackley admitted his first NHL camp was an eye-opener.
“It was good to get up there and see what life is like in Colorado, play against older guys and measure myself against them,” he said.
The High River native got into one preseason contest with the Avs.
“The speed of the game was faster and obviously the guys at that level are a lot bigger, faster and stronger, so it was a good experience,” he said.
Another aspect of the pro game that stood out to Bleackley was the structure of play.
“Everybody is kind of in the right place, there’s not as many mistakes as in junior,” he said. “It’s almost an easier game, per se, but definitely a lot faster and guys are a lot stronger. Those are the biggest things I noticed.”
At six-foot-one and 198-pounds, Bleackley plays a power game while equipped with high-end skill and a heavy shot. He’ll be aiming to put everything together on a consistent basis this winter in the hopes that he’ll sign an NHL contract sooner than later.
“It’s a goal of mine,” he said, in reference to the deal that’s sure to come in the near future. “I was hoping to get it done in camp, but obviously I have some work to do and that’s something I’m focused on.
“I think that taking care of the on-ice things first and winning here directly correlates to that and to individual success. That’s my focus.”
Bleackley is eagerly awaiting his WHL debut — Saturday’s 7 p.m. meeting with the visiting Kootenay Ice. He’s also jacked up about the potential of his team.
“For sure, I watched the first game (last Friday’s 5-3 home-ice loss to Kootenay) on internet and it was good to see them win in Calgary (4-1 the next night),” he said. “That hasn’t happened very often since I’ve been here. Obviously we have a lot more depth now than we used to, especially on defence. I’m real excited about Saturday’s game and being a part of it.”
While Bleackley wasn’t willing to discuss Roy’s problems with the young forward’s conditioning, Sutter wasn’t mum on the subject.
“We’ve addressed this with Conner in the past,” said the Rebels boss. “It’s not what he does in the winter, it’s how he’s been training through the summer and obviously it hasn’t been where it needs to be.
“I had a good talk with him the other night and told him ‘this is where you’re at in your career now, you’re a first-round pick and this has to be your priority — doing what you can to be the best player you can be. If you want to make it a career, it can be a healthy and wealthy career, but you have to key in and be very disciplined in everything you do.’
“It’s just his personality, just the way he is, but he has to change some of that. But that being said, it doesn’t change the type of person he is . He’s a great kid. He’s a very good player and we’re just trying to make him better.”
Bleackley, who last season lined up at centre, will patrol the right wing Saturday on a line with Scott Feser and left wing Evan Polei.
“Colorado envisions him as a winger at the next level,” said Sutter. “Bleacks has played right wing in the past and he was there at Colorado’s camp. We have lots of centres and we’re a man short on the right side.”