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Conner Bleackley eyes redemption with Blues

Forward prospect says he has 'a lot to prove' to St. Louis after rough junior career

by Louie Korac / Correspondent

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Conner Bleackley was selected by the Colorado Avalanche with the 23rd pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, it was the thrill of a lifetime.

However, the thrill didn't last.

Two years later Bleackley is taking part in his first St. Louis Blues development camp and ready to start fresh.

"It still is a great memory that I have with my family," Bleackley said Tuesday. "It didn't go the way that I had hoped, but I'm happy to be here today and being with an organization that wants me. I'm just coming here ready to prove that I'm ready to play."

The Avalanche traded Bleackley's rights to the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 29, and when the Coyotes opted not to sign him he went into the 2016 draft and the Blues selected him in the fifth round (No. 144).

Being picked by the Blues was a rare highlight in a dim 2015-16 season that went beyond being traded and unsigned by two NHL organizations.

He started his fifth season with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League by losing his role as captain, which he had held the previous two seasons. Then he had 13 goals and 46 points in 55 games. He missed six weeks because of a fractured left kneecap sustained in January, and then he missed two months after sustaining severed tendons in his wrist in the final game of the regular season. He was able to return for the Memorial Cup, which Red Deer hosted, but he had two assists in four games as Red Deer finished third in the four-team tournament.

"It is what it is," Bleackley said. "Obviously it still stings today, but like I said I'm ready for the future. It was a tough last season, but sometimes you don't quite know the impact it will have on you until a couple years later. For myself, a couple years down the road hopefully I can look back on it and say that I was better. That's what I think will happen and will work every day towards that."

Keeping that perspective wasn't always easy.

"There were times harder than others," he said. "Obviously [2015-16], I had a little bit of a tougher start and then started playing really well. But then I went into the boards and fractured my kneecap. That injury was different; I had a timetable to come back and that was a goal of mine to come back and play, but I got traded to Arizona in the middle of that. [I wanted to] come back and be ready in the [WHL] playoffs and show what I can do. Last game of the year I fell on a skate and cut my wrist open. Sometimes it's just the way it goes."

Things already have started getting better for Bleackley. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blues on July 2 and is expected to play with Chicago, the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate, this season.

"The knock against Conner in the past, and he's recognized it, was a lack of work off the ice, so we put the past behind us," Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said. "Physically he looks really good. He's going to be a guy that we're going to give every opportunity to crack that Chicago lineup. I think there's huge upside for him. He's shown his work ethic has changed, and sometimes young players, they come in and they don't understand, they don't get it. But one day the light clicks on and they do get it.

"... Sometimes it takes that fall down before they get up as a better person and player. I think with Conner, we got that early in his career. So I'm pretty excited with Conner, and obviously we just signed him so the organization is very excited to have him on board."

The Blues have shown they have a merit-based system to their roster that goes beyond age. Forward Robby Fabbri was 19, and defensemen Colton Parayko was 22 when they made their NHL debuts last season. Bleackley, who turned 20 the day he signed his contract, hopes to follow suit.

"I have a lot to prove," he said. "I feel that I'm a lot better player than when I was a first-round pick. It just kind of serves as motivation with all the adversity I've had to go through the last season, season and a half.

"With me signing right away, I think that's a message that they like me and it feels pretty good that I could get that over with and I can play hockey. I'm going to come here trying to make the Blues and I think that's the only way to approach it. If I go down to the [AHL] then I'll work every day to come back up. I'm excited to hopefully start my pro career off in St. Louis."

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