In this week's list of players we can't wait to see in the NHL one day, we profile Conner Bleackley of the Red Deer Rebels.
On Friday, I reported that the London Knights were looking into bringing German defenseman Tim Bender over as a replacement for Olli Maatta, the Finnish import who had earned an NHL job in Pittsburgh. Well, the deal is done now and Bender is a Knight, meaning London gets some talent back and the German kid gets an opportunity to show NHL teams they shouldn’t have passed him up in last year’s draft. Now let’s take a look at some of the other players we’re excited to see in the big time one day.
Conner Bleackley, C – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
The line of legacy in Red Deer is such that the top kids learn from each other. Matt Dumba played with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, while Bleackley, this year’s top prospect from the Rebels, has played with Dumba. The fact a battle-hardened hockey mind such as Brent Sutter is behind the bench has played a big role in that lineage for Bleackley.
“It’s been huge,” he said of his coach. “He’s won at every level. I try to soak up knowledge and ask him questions whenever I can.”
So far, that studious nature has been a boon for Bleackley, whose 19 points through 14 games has him top-20 in the Western League, tied with NHL first-rounders such as Curtis Lazar and Morgan Klimchuk. A big fan of the Bruins’ David Krejci, Bleackley prides himself on his quick release and has worked on his skating in order to foment some deceptive speed.
Off the ice, he faced adversity when his hometown of High River, Alta., was devastated by flooding.
“We had to be evacuated for two weeks,” Bleackley said. “We had four feet of water in the basement and a lot of mud. But it could have been worse.”
That positive attitude also came into play when recovering from the flood and Bleackley is very proud of his town.
“The community really came together and the response was phenomenal,” he said. “We even had people from the States come up to help. My brothers and I would help some of the older folks, too.”
With 11 assists and counting, Bleackley has been helping out his hockey team in Red Deer a lot, too. Draft eligible in 2014.
Willie Nylander, C – Rogle (Swe.)
Sweden’s hottest prospect coming into the season is beginning to heat up with four points in his past four games, largely playing a bottom-six role. Offensively gifted with a great hockey mind and the ability to either dish or bury, Willie has sometimes played alongside dad Mikael, the former NHLer now with Rogle. Draft eligible in 2014.
Anthony Florentino, D – Providence College Friars (Hockey East)
The Friars fended off a dangerous Miami squad with a win and a tie over the weekend and Florentino is part of a solid Providence product. The freshman has three points in four games, but more importantly was trusted with penalty-kill time and shifts against the RedHawks’ insane Riley Barber line. Drafted 143rd overall by Buffalo in 2013.
John Gibson, G – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Gibson is starting to heat up and that’s trouble for opposing shooters. In his past four appearances he’s given up just three goals, bringing the big netminder’s numbers to a fiendishly low 1.44 goals-against average and stout .953 save percentage. Drafted 39th overall by Anaheim in 2011.
Joshua Jacobs, D – Indiana Ice (USHL)
Though he’s known more for his defensive prowess, Jacobs has put up offense in the past and has three points in two games, giving him six in 10 on the year. The Michigan State commit brings great size and a sharp defensive mind, using his stick to fend off attackers. Draft eligible in 2014.
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
A wizard with the puck and a player not afraid to make a mad dash up the ice with it, Ehlers has been on fire lately with five points in his past three games. The Danish national earned a Quebec League three stars accolade this week and leads all rookies with 22 points in 19 games. Draft eligible in 2014.
Colton Parayko, D – University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks (WCHA)
The Nanooks are off to a surprisingly good start and Parayko has pulled his weight and then some. The towering 6-foot-5, 218-pound defender is adept at disrupting enemy attacks, but has also shown his offensive hops early with five points through six games. Drafted 86th overall by St. Louis in 2012.
Dylan Malmquist, C – Edina Hornets (Minn. HS)
Playing in autumn’s all-star Upper Midwest Elite League, Malmquist potted what turned out to be the game-winner for Team Southwest as they romped 7-2 over Team Wisconsin for the league title. The Notre Dame commit, a quick and talented offensive threat, also notched an assist on the evening. Draft eligible in 2014.
Nikita Scherbak, RW – Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Combining vision, a wicked shot and physical play has been the key to Scherbak’s early success in Saskatoon, as the Russian import has been a revelation for the Blades. The right winger leads the team – and all WHL rookies – with nine goals and 23 points in 15 games. Draft eligible in 2014.
Robby Fabbri, C – Guelph Storm (OHL)
Incredibly skilled and blessed with a sizzling shot, Fabbri has a slight frame, but that hasn’t slowed him down yet this season. The sophomore center has six goals and 19 points through 15 games, helped by the fact that two of his past three outings have netted him three points each. Draft eligible in 2014.
Bleackley photo courtesy Dave Brunner Photography.