With the Western Hockey League season in full swing, draft eligible players from Brandon to Portland have had their chance to make some early impressions on scouts as they work towards the 2014 NHL Draft.
One player that has quickly solidified his status as a first round prospect is Conner Bleackley of the Red Deer Rebels.
Bleackley is a strong two-way center that has shown growth in several areas of his game. Playing under the watch of Brent Sutter seems to have really ignited the forward who has jumped, not only to the Rebels’ first line, but also to the top of the team’s scoring list.
His impact hasn’t been limited to the score sheet though. He consistently shows astute commitment to the defensive zone and plays in all situations. He is an intense battler along the boards and uses his strength and smarts to quickly transition the puck in the offensive direction. Bleackley is always the first guy over the boards whenever his team needs to kill a penalty or win a key faceoff.
Bleackley is playing with more and more confidence as the season goes on and his excellent puck skills and strong shot are shining brighter every shift. With his strong two-way play and emerging offensive talent, Bleackley is certainly propelling himself up the draft rankings.
Another player making the most of some early season opportunity is Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Aaron Irving.
Irving is coming in a little off the radar as he enters his first full season in the WHL on a consistently strong Edmonton team. A few early injuries to other defensemen have allowed him to play on the Oil Kings second pairing while pitching in on some power play and penalty kill chances.
None of Irving’s attributes really stand out when he plays, but he does a lot of the little things right.
He is always moving his feet and shifting towards different defensive zone responsibilities. He plays with a chip on his shoulder; always punishing his opponents on the boards and protecting the crease after the whistle. Irving isn’t an elaborate offensive player but he does a good job of throwing crisp outlets passes up ice and taking hard shots in the offensive zone.
If Irving can continue his strong start and outplay some of his teammates to maintain his position on the depth chart, he could be a mid-round riser when all is said and done.
While injuries may have helped Irving get a chance to shine, they have slowed the start to Reid Duke’s season.
An upper-body injury caused Duke to miss five games and lose some of the momentum he had from last season. He has since recovered and now the Lethbridge Hurricanes center is beginning to work back to his old self.
Duke showed flashed of being a dynamic skill player last year putting up 24 points as a rookie. While he is off to a bit of a slow start this year, he has shown development in several key areas.
Duke looks a lot more responsible in the defensive zone and still has the elite hockey sense that had scouts buzzing about him over summer. He is slowly becoming a more complete and dangerous hockey player.
While the points haven’t yet come for Duke, he has shown something more important than goals and assists: growth. If he can continue this trend over the course of the season, the points will surely come. I have no doubt that Duke’s game will have scouts talking once again.
As the season slowly grows older, the competition for draft attention is sure to intensify. It will be important for Bleackley, Irving, Duke, and the rest of the 2014 class perform to their highest standard into November and beyond.