Yesterday was June 1, the annual deadline for North American, non-college NHL Draft picks from two years ago to sign with their clubs or opt for other options. While the usual deluge of mid-to-late round picks from the 2014 NHL Draft will go back into the draft pool, a bigger splash was made in the form of the Arizona Coyotes deciding not to sign Red Deer Rebels forward Conner Bleackley.
Bleackley, 20, was originally selected in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2014 Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. From that point, he had a few bumps in the road. From our friends at NBC Sports:
Upon getting drafted, Bleackley’s Red Deer coach, Brent Sutter, said the kid wasn’t ready for NHL hockey. Bleackley then arrived at his first Avs camp out of shape, and was sent packing early. Colorado balked on signing him, and shipped him to Arizona as part of the Mikkel Boedker trade at this year’s deadline.
It doesn’t sound good. Bleackley’s return to the draft pool nets Arizona a compensatory second round pick, which will be 53rd overall – the same spot Bleackley was chosen in 2014, but a round later – and push everybody’s subsequent picks back by one. The Flames will now select sixth, 35th, 54th, 56th, 66th, 96th, 126th, 156th, 166th and 186th overall, pending the inevitable trades.
With all those picks on the docket, might the Flames consider taking a flyer on a player from High River?
The short answer is “maybe.”
After playing at just shy of a point-per-game pace during his draft year – he had 68 points in 71 games while serving as team captain as an 18-year-old – Bleackley has had issues staying healthy and staying productive. He missed 38 regular season and 17 playoff games over the past two seasons and saw his production dip from 0.967 points per game in his draft year and 0.961 the next to just 0.836 this season – in a time-span where you’d expect a 20-year-old player to be increasing his scoring rate, not standing still or back-sliding.
Let’s compare his points-per-game to a recent Flames pick, Morgan Klimchuk:
I don’t want to cast judgement, but his numbers aren’t exactly encouraging – particularly when you take into account that Klimchuk didn’t light the world on fire offensively in his first pro season.
Two years after being a first rounder, Bleackley is (at this point) a slightly better Turner Elson. Both players wore the C in Red Deer and were lauded for their tenacity, hard work and leadership abilities. Elson was never drafted and was signed as organizational depth by the Flames, while Bleackley’s slightly better nose for the net and offensive totals earned him first round accolades. Now he’s 20 and has had a couple good but not great seasons and it’s really difficult to suss out his career trajectory.
As it stands, he’s a player with some baggage who’s in that second and third round mix. If you’re the Flames, do you take a 20-year-old with a shorter development runway – at most another season in the WHL and then off to the pros – or invest your pick and your time in a younger asset? When you consider the rather low relative NHL success rates of drafted players once you exit the first round and head into the muck of the remainder of the draft, you probably want to give your prospects as much development time as you possibly can.
Here’s the 25th-to-45th ranked North American skaters on Central Scouting’s list.
If you’re just comparing WHL players, would you rather have Bleackley or take Johansen, Clague, Steel, Hajek, Dube, Lajoie or Gregor and see how they develop? All of them are young and talented. But most importantly, they all have perceived upside and are potential assets that have yet to depreciate in value.
Bleackley’s a fine junior hockey player, but I (for one) am worried that choosing him with one of the team’s four second or third round picks would be stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.