Konowalchuk aiming to build off 2021-22 season with new faces, returnees
As August prepares to shift into September with the thermometer reading 30 degrees Celsius, it can be hard to fathom that hockey season is just around the immediate corner.
But it’s basically here, with the Red Deer Rebels veterans reporting for medicals on Thursday at Red Deer Polytechnic and then undergoing on-ice fitness testing on Friday before hitting the Peavey Mart Centrium ice for practice sessions later in the day.
“It’s very exciting to be here. I’m sure the players are chomping at the bit to get going and we’re excited about the new acquisitions,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said Wednesday.
“Junior hockey is fun. You’re waiting to see which guys are going to step up, who’s going to be your next go to guys both offensively and defensively.”
Konowalchuk praised general manager Brent Sutter and associate GM Shaun Sutter for a series of off-season moves that garnered defencemen Mats Lindgren and Tanner Brown, forward Craig Armstrong and goaltender Kyle Kelsey. As well, the team signed 16-year-old Czech rearguard Vojtech Port.
“You have to give Brent and Shaun a lot of credit for bringing in some good acquisitions and a lot of different key pieces to our team,” said the coach. “We want to build off last year and they have certainly put us in the best situation to succeed.”
The Rebels enjoyed a relatively successful 2021-22 WHL season, finishing third in the Eastern Conference and then falling to the eventual league champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the second round of the playoffs.
Regardless, the season ended on a sour note with the Rebels being swept by the Oil Kings.
“We weren’t satisfied last year with the way it ended in the playoffs, and we didn’t hide the fact with our players,” said Konowalchuk. “Edmonton was a really good team, they traded everything to try to win. But we expected to have a chance to win every game and in that series we didn’t live up to that.
“We weren’t happy with it and we want to move on. We have learning experiences from last season and some other situations to build off of.”
The acquisition of Kelsey may prove to be of prime importance with Tuesday’s announcement that projected starting goaltender Chase Coward (pictured below) won’t be in camp or with the team to start the season due to a medical issue — a congenital defect to his lower body.
As it stands, 18-year-old Kelsey likely moves into the starting role with Chase Wutzke, who turned 16 in July, the front runner for the back-up spot.
“It’s definitely a downer. We’ve been in contact with Chase and are working through it with him,” said Konowalchuk. “But once we get here tomorrow we can’t focus on that as an organization.
“It obviously had to be very hard for him to find out that news. He’s a big part of our team, but it’s no different that when we had injuries last year and we have to move on as a team.
“We do believe we have two good goalies coming in. Kelsey is already skating and I’m hearing good things. Our goaltender coaches worked with him in the summer and he looks pretty sharp. Losing someone like Chase is never good but we’re excited to have a new opportunity with new goalies.”
There is a chance, although it’s not a given, that Coward will be back during the season.
“At this point, as a coach I’m focused on what we have,” said Konowalchuk. “I don’t know the exact details (of Coward’s ailment) or whether he’s seeing more doctors, but we have to look at what we have and move on.
“If things work out that Chase can play, great, but I’m not focused on that situation right now. We have two goalies trying for positions and we’re excited to see them.”
As Konowalchuk noted, junior hockey is about opportunity and which players will flourish as linemates Arshdeep Bains and Ben King did last season, finishing one-two in league scoring.
“With King and Bains, at the start of last year I don’t know if anyone would have predicted that they’d lead the league in scoring,” said the Rebels bench boss. “We all knew they were good players but I don’t know if anyone could have predicted that.
“Every year you want to have guys not necessarily lead the league but step up. We’ll have two new power play groups this season and we’ll have more depth going back to Shaun and Brent.”
Bains aged out this year and will play pro in the Vancouver Canucks organization and the Rebels may also lose King, 20, to the pro ranks. King scored a league-leading 52 goals in ’21-22 and was selected by Anaheim in July’s NHL entry draft.
That’s a lot of points to make up.
“Maybe we have guys with 80 points, maybe we get more from our second and third lines,” Konowalchuk countered. “Maybe we have two power play units that get equal opportunity, or instead of two 100-point guys we have four guys who get more points than last season. It’s about regrouping and getting going.”
Even with Bains and possibly King gone, the Rebels’ roster should feature plenty of offensive potential with the likes of Talon Brigley, Jhett Larson, Kalan Lind and captain Jayden Grubbe, among others.
“We bring in Armstrong (from Prince George) who was a high (bantam draft) pick at one point, maybe he has another level to his game,” said Konowalchuk. “There’s a lot of improvement with the guys up front.”
Lind won gold with the Canadian team in the recent U18 Hlinka Gretzky tournament at the Centrium and will play a major role with the Rebels this season after scoring 20 goals as a 16-year-old.
“I think he took a big step the second half of last year, all of a sudden he was finding his way on that top line,” said Konowalchuk. “He’ll play in the middle this season so he can handle the puck more. He’s 17 and bigger, stronger and faster, and that will slow the game more for him. I expect him to be a big part of the team.”
The Rebels’ offence will get another boost with the addition of Lindgren, a fourth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in July who was acquired from the Kamloops Blazers this week in exchange for fellow defenceman Kyle Masters and a first-round bantam draft selection in 2025.
“It’s hard to create offence without having a defence that can move the puck and have a special dynamic,” said Konowalchuk. “From what I’ve seen and from his history, he has a special ability to move pucks and create offence from the back end.”
Training camp set to get underway
On ice sessions at the Peavey Mart Centrium begin Friday and all main camp and rookie camp practices through next Tuesday are open to the public.
Training camp wraps up Wednesday with the Black and White intrasquad game at 7 p.m. Fans are invited to attend with admission being a donation to the Red Deer Firefighters Children’s Charity.
There will also be a garage sale featuring Rebels equipment and apparel from years past, and an open house for fans to check out what season and nine-game packs are available for 2022-23.
(See training camp schedule here).