As the captain of the Red Deer Rebels ship that sunk with Tuesday’s 5-3 WHL tie-breaker loss to the Prince Albert Raiders, Conner Bleackley feels like he’s more than partly to blame.
The 18-year-old, however, was the club’s best forward during the majority of the season and along with the likes of goaltender Patrik Bartosak and defenceman Haydn Fleury, was a big reason the Rebels even got close to a playoff berth.
“Any time you don’t make the playoffs it’s obviously a disappointing year,” Bleackley said Wednesday, roughly 17 hours after Red Deer’s season came to a sudden end. “It really sucks right now and you just wonder what more you could have done to change things. It stings and I think everyone just has to learn from it.
“I’m already looking forward to next year because I just want to try and make up for this season. Not making the playoffs is unacceptable, a disappointing end to what was kind of an under-achieving year.”
While they were an above-.500 road team this season, the Rebels struggled at home, sometimes mightily.
“I don’t what it was. I wish I did know,” said Bleackley. “Having a younger team might have played into it, but there are no excuses. Our road record was fine, but the home record was a concern and that’s going to be one of the biggest things we have to turn around next year.
“Teams coming into Red Deer should face a tough game every night and we kind of wavered from that this year. We’ll try and shore that up.”
When it became apparent that Mathew Dumba was not going to be returned to the Rebels by the Minnesota Wild, Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter appointed the then 17-year-old Bleackley as the team captain.
The High River native, in just his second season with the club, embraced the role and Wednesday admitted that he’s still learning as a team leader.
“Obviously, it’s pretty disappointing to not make the playoffs and I take a big responsibility in that,” he said. “This was a learning year for me, there’s still a lot hockey to play here in Red Deer.
“This year is over and down with and I’ve learned a lot about myself and about being a leader and what it takes. I just have to take that knowledge into next season. What I do from now on is what really matters.”
Bleackley’s hockey season won’t be over until the NHL entry draft in late June at Philadelphia. It’s likely he’ll be a first- or early second-round pick.
“That’s a day I’ve been looking forward to ever since I was a kid and it’s getting closer,” he said.
Bleackley experienced the devastating High River floods in June of 2013. A few months later he was named captain of the Rebels and with the NHL draft looming he could experience a wide range of emotions in a space of 12 months.
“You look back on all of it, the whole year from June to June . . . it’s crazy to think of what happened and what’s going to happen,” he said. “Hopefully (the NHL draft) caps what’s been a crazy year. Hopefully that’s just a great end to the year.”
Teammate and defenceman Haydn Fleury is projected as a definite first-round pick in June’s draft. In fact, Central Scouting ranks him sixth among North American players for the draft, as opposed to 31st for Bleackley.
“It’s going to be a pretty exciting few months (waiting for the draft),” said Fleury, who insisted he doesn’t have any preference as to which team picks him.
“It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in a good development situation and the team cares about the way you develop,” he added. “That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Like Bleackley, Fleury didn’t have any definite answers as to why a team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference last spring failed to make the playoffs a year later despite minimal turnover in on-ice personnel.
“It was just little things all year,” he said. “Preparing for our home games wasn’t there right from the start. We never established that dominance like we should have at home. Most playoffs teams have that and we didn’t most of the year.
“When our team was on the road we were fine, we played the way we needed to play. The games weren’t always the prettiest, but we often found a way to get two points. When it came to home ice, it just wasn’t there. It’s tough to pinpoint one thing, but a bunch of little things became big things.”
• The Rebels will pick sixth in the WHL bantam draft May 1. That was determined during Wednesday’s draft lottery that involved the six non-playoff teams.
Saskatoon won the lottery and will pick first overall, followed by Lethbridge, Kamloops, Moose Jaw, Prince George and Red Deer.