With completion of roller-coaster season, Rebels look to 2017-18
The landscape the Red Deer Rebels traversed during the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season was a rugged one, permeated with peaks and valleys.
It was not something that caught Brent Sutter off guard, considering where the Rebels had come from the previous spring, as hosts of the Memorial Cup tournament with an older, experienced squad.
“I wasn’t really surprised by the fact we had ups and downs,” said the Rebels GM/head coach, whose club finished third in the Central Division and lost to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the seventh game of a first-round playoff series.
“We brought in a lot of young players and it took a good part of the year to get our older players to understand that there’s a level of play and consistency they have to have to show the young players how to do it the right way.”
But the veterans did eventually display their on-ice leadership skills, resulting in a mostly impressive finish to the regular season and a strong showing in the playoffs against a ‘Canes team that was supposed to easily dispose of their Alberta rivals.
“I thought down the stretch that our older guys really dug their heels in and were really good players for us,” said Sutter. “And the younger players learned a lot through the whole process with the experience they went through.
“They were totally in shock and amazed at how the level of play late in the season rises like it does . . . and how intense it is in the playoffs compared to the regular season. The experience is going to be really good for all of them.
“Coming out of a Memorial Cup season we knew we had to bring in a lot of new faces, but the encouraging part of all this is we had a plan and haven’t wavered from it.”
Moving forward, Sutter takes comfort in the fact his blueline corps will be mostly intact next season with the likelihood of one, maybe two, incoming prospects contending for a spot, and his goaltending appears to be in good shape.
“We know our defence is established here and we have a couple more defencemen who will come in and push to be on the team,” said Sutter.
“We know we have returning players now who had pretty good seasons with the way they grew and the roles they took on and how they played.”
Netminder Riley Lamb was particularly sharp through the late stages of the season and will enter training camp in August as the No.1 stopper.
“Our goaltending got better, especially in the second half of the season and really solidified itself down the stretch and into the playoffs,” said Sutter. “When you retool your team you always want to make sure your goaltending and defence are established. We think we have that here now.”
One reason why the Rebels’ back end should be set for the foreseeable future is that Sutter refused to move any of the youngsters when trades talks surfaced during the 2015-16 season and during the past winter.
His biggest transaction of 2016-17 consisted of dealing forward Jeff de Wit and rearguard Josh Mahura — both veterans — to the Regina Pats, along with a third-round bantam draft pick, in return for 16-year-old blueliner Dawson Barteaux, impact forward Lane Zablocki and two first-round and one third-round pick.
“Part of the plan when we were building for the Memorial Cup was we didn’t want to move out any of our young defencemen,” said Sutter.
“Did we expect to move Josh Mahura and Jeff de Wit this season, no? But when you get offered something, when you get into a trade and the discussions we had with Regina . . . it seemed like the right thing to do for both teams at that point in time.
“We were able to fill the cupboard back up (in terms of draft picks) and we were able to get a guy like Zablocki who can be 30 to 40 goal scorer next year when you know you’re going to need more offence from your forwards and your defence is still going to be really good.
“Where we’re at right now we couldn’t turn it (trade offer) down. It’s been a good trade for both teams, with where they (Pats) are at now and will be next year (as Memorial Cup hosts) and from where we’re at. It worked out well for everybody.”
Up front, the Rebels are losing Evan Polei and Austin Glover to graduation and Adam Musil and Michael Spacek to the pro ranks. Meanwhile, utility forward Matthew Campese is unlikely to be back as a 20-year-old.
That’s a loss of 107 regular-season goals, and a good chunk of that offensive production will fall onto the shoulders of returning forwards Zablocki, Brandon Hagel and Grayson Pawlenchuk, while Austin Pratt will also have to contribute as a likely top-six skater.
The Rebels will further look to bolster their offence by selecting a forward in the CHL import draft in late June.
“We’ll definitely be looking at taking a forward. It’s an area we want to continue to add more skill to and grow,” said Sutter. “We’re happy with our young forwards yet we have to continue to add to that group.”
Competing for the open spots next season will be the likes of 17-year-olds Chase Lowry (Sherwood Park), Austin Schellenberg (Grande Prairie) and Reilly Funk (Central Plains, Man.), all of whom enjoyed strong seasons at the midget AAA level.
Add to the mix 16-year-olds Zak Smith (Central Plains), Justin Svenson (Rink Academy of Winnipeg), Jayden McCarthy (Pembina Valley, Man.) and Arshdeep Bains (Vancouver Northeast) and the competition could be stiff.
Sutter is also hoping the club can entice Jeffrey Bertram of Alaska — who along with Svenson and McCarthy were selected in last year’s bantam draft — to attend the Rebels spring prospects camp in June and then main camp in August.
On the blueline, the Rebels’ 2017-18 group will include seven returnees. Colton Bobyk, who aged out, is the only defenceman moving on.
Jake Thomson, who played midget AAA hockey in his hometown of Brandon this past season, and fellow 17-year-olds Hunter Donohue and Sam Pouliott — both of whom suited up the major midget Greater Vancouver Canadians — are the front-runners to gain employment next season.
The Rebels brought 2016 third-round draft pick Nick Draffin of Lethbridge to Red Deer late in the season to participate in practice sessions, but the 16-year-old likely needs more midget AAA seasoning. The same situation exists with 2016 fifth-rounder Ryan Gottfried of Winnipeg.
“It’s a tough league to play in as a 16-year-old, especially on the back end,” said Sutter. “With our defence being where it’s at, there’s no reason to have to force a 16-year-old into your lineup unless he’s ready.”
Lamb, as noted, will enter training camp as the incumbent starter between the pipes. Lasse Petersen, 20, 16-year-old Byron Fancy of Lethbridge, the club’s first pick in last year’s bantam draft, and Ethan Anders, who posted impressive numbers with Tisdale of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA loop, will also vie for a berth.
“Lamber has to continue to push to stay here and be a No. 1 goaltender,” said Sutter.
If neither Fancy nor Anders appear to be ready, the Rebels boss said he’ll have no qualms at keeping Petersen as one of the club’s three allotted overage players.
“Petey played well for us the last months. He came back from the world juniors (as one of two Denmark goalies) and he was good,” said Sutter.
“We rode Lamber in the playoffs, but that was no reflection on Petey.”
Sutter insisted that next season he’ll reward those who are team-first players.
“The biggest thing moving forward is that the players have to understand that there’s a big difference between entitlement and commitment,” he said.
“The definitions of those two words are dramatically different. Commitment has to be first and foremost.”