The WHL is currently meandering steadily toward the midseason mark, and as more games are played teams start to separate themselves. Some prove they're contenders and others... well, there's always next year. For Avalanche prospects in the WHL, the first part of the year has been kind.
Connor Bleackley finds himself back with the Red Deer Rebels - returned after the season started - and without the C he'd worn for the last two seasons. In a somewhat mind boggling move, Brent Sutter promoted Wyatt Johnson (who had severed as captain in Bleakley's absence) and Bleackley assumed a new position as Alternate captain. Sutter's movement of the C is an effort to free Bleackley up to have the best final season possible, and not a condemnation of Bleackley's leadership abilities, as Bleackley still has an important leadership position on the team.
Bleackley's point totals aren't reflective of this change, as he's only managing .072 points per game, which amounts to 18 points in 25 games. Bleackley's play, however, hasn't seemed to suffer the same way. His Red Deer Rebels sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 19-8-0 record. Since WHL pundits had the Brandon Wheat Kings dominating the Eastern Conference this year, the Rebel's position at the top of the heap comes as a surprise to many. Beyond that, Red Deer has been an imposing and difficult team to contain. Much like Bleackley, they are a combination of skill and size which has caused their opposition problems from opening day.
Bleackley is an integral part of a strong Rebels squad, but still has managed to contribute at opportune moments. Bleackley's production in November doubled his October production, a positive sign for those worried about point production. Bleackley remains a frustrating player for opposing teams to play against and this was recognized when Bleackley was named Team WHL for the CHL Canada Russia Series. Bleackley's inclusion on the team marks him out as one of the best players in the WHL and a consistent force on ice. Despite not being a stand out player, Bleackley is currently positioned for a consistent and productive season, a playoff run, and to challenge for the Memorial Cup this May.
Another notable Avalanche prospect is Gustav Olhaver. Olhaver notability isn't based in production - he has only four points on the year - but on size. At 6'7", Olhaver is notable for size alone. Olhaver's skating, if one is being honest, is reminiscent of Keegan Kanzig. He lacks in foot speed and the ability to react quickly to changes in the play. Unlike Kanzig, Olhaver's draft position does not put undue pressure on him to be something he is not.
When Olhaver is on the ice, it becomes impossible not to notice him. His sheer size causes him to stand out. However, unlike many players as large as he is, Olhaver's game isn't based in the physical. He has only 17 PIMs on the year which is equivalent to Trevor Cox of the Vancouver Giants who is 5'8". In fact, Cox has managed to accrue his PIMs in fewer games than Olhaver, explaining why Olhaver finds himself ranked below Cox at 165th in the WHL for PIMs accrued so far.
There is hope for Olhaver yet, however, as this is first year playing in North America. Having spent his last year in Sweden, he may just need some time to get used to the smaller North American ice surface. His less than impressive October gave way to an even more lackluster November, and Olhaver will have to change some part of his game shortly if he is going to make an impact. If he can't add a physical aspect to his game though, his career with the Avalanche looks to be a short one. Olhaver needs to be able to use the size he brings to the table to truly carve out a place for himself in the WHL if he hopes to make it any further.