Rebels boss trusts his troops heading into regular season
With depth and experience both on the back end and up front, Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter is heading into the 2017-18 WHL regular season in an optimistic state of mind.
Adhering to the popular — and often proven — theory that successful teams build from the net out, the Rebels reconstructed their defence last season while bringing in two new goaltenders.
Now, with the exception of Colton Bobyk, who aged out, and Jared Freadrich, recently dealt to Victoria, the blueline corps heads into the new season intact.
“We have all our defence back and when you add in two promising 17-year-olds in Hunter Donohoe and Sam Pouliot, we feel like we’re eight deep on the back end,” Sutter said Friday. “Six of those guys are experienced. We have good size and mobility on defence and guys who move the puck well.”
Riley Lamb, who was slated to enter Saturday’s season-opener versus the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings as the starting netminder, broke a thumb in practice early this week and will out of commission for six to eight weeks. But Sutter can take solace in the fact that Lasse Petersen — with occasional aid from rookie Ethan Anders — is more than capable of carrying the load in the interim.
The Rebels also boast plenty of major junior savvy, skill and speed in their forward ranks with the likes of Brandon Hagel, Lane Zablocki, Kristian Reichel, Jared Dmytriw, Grayson Pawlenchuk and Mason McCarty.
Toss in returnees Austin Pratt, Jordan Roy, Reese Johnson and Akash Bains (Dawson Martin is out six weeks with a broken arm), all of whom were solid during the preseason, and an impressive group of 17-year-olds, and the Rebels would also appear to have plenty of depth.
“You add a McCarty to the group (via an off-season trade with Saskatoon) and you’re able to get Reichel in the import draft . . . those are two big additions,” said Sutter. “Reichel is already North-Americanized because he speaks English so well and he’s going to be our No. 1 centre iceman.
“And then with a guy like McCarty, who had nearly a point per game last season (37 in 45 games with the Blades), including 21 goals, you’re adding someone with the potential to score 30-plus goals.
“And yet I also like the way ‘Carts’ plays. He’s an everyday guy who doesn’t cheat on anything. He’s got character, he plays hard and is competitive, and will contribute offensively.”
Hagel and Zablocki are NHL-drafted players, and now being a year older are rightfully expected to become major contributors on an even more consistent basis. Pawlenchuk, the team captain, missed most of last season due to injury, but is in the same category.
“You expect some of those older guys to have better years,” said Sutter. “You expect Hagel to have a better season, and now you have ‘Pawly’ for a full year and we’re going to need to get production from him as a 20-year-old.
“With ‘Zabo’, we put him in an offensive situation last season (after acquiring the gritty and talented winger from the Regina Pats) and he responded very well. He’s a gamer every night; you know what you’re going to get from him.”
Johnson, a 19-year-old who has missed large chunks of each of the past two campaigns, provides not only sandpaper but good speed. And Pratt, after being passed over in June’s NHL entry draft, is heading into a show-me season.
“You have to expect him (Pratt) to have a better year,” said Sutter. “He came to camp in great shape and he was very good (during the preseason).
“Another guy is Jordan Roy. He can skate and play a heavy game and, like Bains, for the most part he’s been good too this fall. These guys have experience and like all other teams, you expect them to be better.”
The younger set includes returnees Chris Douglas and Brandon Cutler and rookies Austin Schellenberg and Chase Lowry, all 17.
Despite their tender age . . .
“These guys are good hockey players who can all skate and play hard,” said Sutter. “When you look at our group of forwards (as a whole), we’re going to be a much quicker team than we were last year, and with more depth.
“Last year we didn’t get any production from our third and fourth lines. This season we’ll be a four-line team and should be able to get production from all four.
“You’re going to go through peaks and valleys with everybody and certainly with the younger guys. And while we have nine 17-year-olds on our team, they’re all good players.”
As such, they are fully deserving of their spots on the regular-season roster.
“They’ve earned that right to be here. They’ve proven it through exhibition and how hard they trained through the summer,” said Sutter, who witnessed his entire complement of athletes show up at training camp in peak physical condition.
“We were in close contact with all our players in regards to where we expected them to be come fall and not one of them in this group disappointed us,” said the Rebels boss. “Every one, to a tee, came to camp in phenomenal shape.”
While he’s confident that he has a roster than can continue to impress and improve throughout the winter, Sutter is fully cognizant of the fact that circumstances can be altered once the games become meaningful.
“Once you get into the regular season, thing can change. Everything, including intensity, steps up a huge notch and we’ll see how guys respond to that,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen (through the preseason), the kids have been able to handle it so far.”
While the 2018 Memorial Cup host Regina Pats, Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos are expected to be the class of the East Division and the Kelowna Rockets, Victoria Royals, Portland Winterhawks and Tri-City Americans are the popular picks to come out of the Western Conference, the Central Division should feature plenty of parity, and then some.
The Medicine Hat Tigers and Lethbridge Hurricanes promise to be strong, the Calgary Hitmen should be in the mix and the Kootenay Ice, with new ownership and coaching staff, can’t go anywhere but up.
The Oil Kings, according to most observers, will likely bring up the rear in the Central loop, but Sutter isn’t counting them out and clearly expects a pair of down-and-out battles this weekend, including Sunday’s rematch in Edmonton.
“Since I’ve come back (from the NHL, in 2012) the games between Edmonton and Red Deer have probably been the most competitive games between any two teams in this division,” he said.
“It’s just the way it is and you don’t expect anything less. You know they are going to be tough games, as I expect the games to be within the whole division this year.
“Once the regular season starts every team starts from ground zero and thinks they are going to be decent. Everyone feels like they can beat anybody, now it’s a matter of putting in into action and seeing how if unfolds.
“But the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Red Deer Rebels have always had very competitive hockey games.”