It was a dream come true for Conner Bleackley to have his name called by his favorite team this summer in Philadelphia at the NHL Draft, but if Colorado's first-round selection wants to crack the Avalanche roster it will be his versatility that will help him get there.
Picking at No. 23 overall, the Avalanche executive and scouting staff waited patiently for nearly two hours hoping that Bleackley, the player the team felt had all the skills it was looking for in a prospect, would be there when it was the club's turn to pick.
When the Red Deer Rebels captain was still available after the Penguins selected at No. 22, it was a sigh of relief for the club.
"He was a player that we identified and had anxious moments waiting," said Avalanche director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey after the draft. "We believe he is a competitive player with good instincts. He is a strong player on the puck. We like his leadership qualities. He was a player that clearly [we set out for at the start of the day]. We're really excited that we were able to land him."
Bleackley has some decent size at six feet and 192 pounds and already has a leadership pedigree at the age of 18. He was named Red Deer's captain last November as a then 17-year-old and was one of only three first-time draft eligible players to hold the captaincy of their junior club in the entire 60-team Canadian Hockey League. He also was an alternate captain for Team Canada at the 2014 IIHF Under-18 World Championship and for Team Pacific at the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
He led the Rebels of the Western Hockey League last year in goals (29), points (68-tied), and power-play goals (10), while also registering 39 assists and 48 penalty minutes in 71 games. Bleackley began the season on a hot stretch by tallying eight goals and 19 points in his first 15 contests, surpassing his entire total from his rookie campaign in 2012-13 (18 points on nine goals and nine assists).
"I want to be a top guy, and I think I have the skill and the determination to do that," Bleackley said this summer. "I'm more of a two-way center. I pride myself playing against the other team's best players, but at the same time I like to be relied on heavily offensively."
Though he has mostly played center in his career, the High River, Alberta native's right-handed shot and ability to play on the wing may benefit him in making the Avs roster in the future. Adding more right-hand shots in the organization was something Colorado was looking to do this past summer, and Bleackley fits the bill.
"We did look at need," Pracey said of the team's draft strategy this past year. "We did take into account the depth chart, and certainly some attributes as well."
Bleackley has two more years of junior eligibility so there isn't a rush to get him ready for the professional ranks at this year's training camp.
However, it doesn’t mean the forward isn't going to do all he can at camp to make it tough for the Avs to send him back to Red Deer.
"I want to make this team as soon as possible," Bleackley said this offseason. "Not only make the team, but be an impact player. I want to stay here, whether that is next season or two seasons from now, I'm not quite sure…I'm going to do every single thing I can to make this team."
He'll have his chance soon enough.