It was a season of surprise and disappointment.
The Red Deer Rebels zoomed out of the starting gate last September and combined for 14 Western Hockey League wins in October and November, their fast start creating whispers that perhaps they were playing above their weight.
“We went into the season not knowing what to expect because we were bringing in a lot of young guys,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
Red Deer at one time was securely atop the Central Division and ranked among the top 10 teams in the Canadian Hockey League.
Then came December, a break-even month with four wins and four setbacks, and suddenly the situation didn’t seem quite so rosy.
“When Alex (Alexeyev) left (to play for Russia at the world juniors), as a group we didn’t handle that very well from the defence side of it especially,” said Sutter. “And at that point in time our goaltending struggled a bit. Between the two it took some confidence away from us.”
The Rebels, to their credit, picked up the pieces in January and finished the month with a very respectable seven victories, and then . . .
“We went through a spell where we couldn’t score goals,” said Sutter. “It just seemed like there was always something going on.
“We just couldn’t score and some of our young kids struggled in the second half of the season. It was a grind for us, then when we got the four or five goals to win a game, it might have been a night when our goaltending was off a bit.
“It was just something that made it a real process. It was certainly a roller coaster year and hopefully our players all learned from it.”
The roller coaster started to make its descent in February and it ran through the final seven to eight weeks of the regular season, in which the Rebels posted a total of five wins.
Instead of fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Rebels had to battle and scrape to get into the post-season as the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference and were promptly swept by the powerhouse Prince Albert Raiders.
Brandon Hagel was the only constant the Rebels had up front through the second half of the campaign and the club lost Alexeyev, their No. 1 defenceman, to a season-ending injury before the playoffs.
Despite a 27-goal season from each of Reese Johnson and Jeff de Wit, 21 from Cam Hausinger and 20 courtesy of Brett Davis, there was a definite lack of secondary scoring, particularly over the final two months.
“Hopefully our young kids learned how hard you have to work. It’s a tough league to play in,” said Sutter, referring to the likes of forwards Alex Morozoff and Arshdeep Bains.
“But there’s a lot of work and commitment to be made and they had to adjust to a full year of it. They were on the ice nearly every day, there was the practising and playing, the travel and the accountability and expectations put on you very night to play up to your level.
“Some of our young kids struggled with that, especially during the second half of the year. But they’re young and there’s certainly lots of potential there. Now they all have to have good summers.”
Sutter swung a major deal with the Kootenay Ice at the end of November, bringing in 19-year-old forwards Davis and Hausinger while surrendering four draft picks — including a first and third this year and a second in 2010 —a prospect and three players who didn’t have a future in Red Deer.
While Hausinger didn’t disappoint with his hard-nosed play and a decent scoring touch, Davis, with the possible exception of the playoffs, didn’t approach the level expected of him as an NHL draft pick of the Dallas Stars.
“It was important in the sense we had to add a couple 19-year-olds to our forward group because it was so young,” said Sutter, who had only Hagel, Johnson and de Wit as bona fide seasoned veterans up front.
“I think there were adjustments for both of them, especially Davey, just with the expectations and the accountability put on players here, the way we go about things and our culture here.
“It was an adjustment for Davey and he has to have a big summer to get ready for next season. He has to get stronger.
“He has great offensive skills but he had to learn how to play with those offensive skills within the game. There was certainly more accountability put on him regarding his defensive game.”
Moving forward, the Rebels are set to return Hausinger, Davis and likely defenceman Ethan Sakowich as 20-year-olds. Zak Smith, Oleg Zaytsev, Chris Douglas, Morozoff, Bains, Josh Tarzwell, Dallon Melin and Blake Sydlowski will be the other veteran returning forwards, although with as many as seven to 10 new faces — including six forwards — expected to vie for permanent employment next fall, there could be some off-season or early in-season moves up front.
The new faces at the forward positions could include any combination of Jordan Borysiuk, who appeared in one regular-season and two playoff games with the Rebels, Ethan Rowland, Jaxsen Wiebe, Jace Isley, Keaton Sorensen and Jayden Grubbe.
Borysiuk and Rowland played at the junior A level during the past winter, as did the six-foot, 186-pound Wiebe, who as a 16-year-old turned in an impressive campaign with the SJHL Nipawin Hawks, scoring 13 goals and collecting 26 points in 48 regular-season contests and adding two goals and seven points in seven playoff games.
“He’ll be a real good right winger for us,” said Sutter.
Sorensen, a Red Deer native, had an outstanding 16-year-old season with the Saskatchewan midget AAA champion Notre Dame Hounds, finishing second in league scoring with 33 goals and 65 points in 42 games, while the six-foot-one Isley was a physical presence and point-per game producer with the midget AAA Sherwood Park Kings with 12 goals, 34 points and 80 penalty minutes in 34 outings.
Grubbe, the Rebels’ first pick in last year’s WHL bantam draft, was close to a point-per game player as a 15-year-old with the Alberta midget AAA champion Calgary Buffaloes. He also added six goals in 11 playoff games and had five assists in five contests with Team Alberta at the recent Canada Winter Games in Red Deer.
“Next season will probably be our youngest team up front coming out of the Memorial Cup year (2016),” said Sutter. “We said it would be Year 3 or 4 coming out of that season that we would have our youngest team.
“With that being said, they’re all good players. It’s a different talent level. Nearly every one of the top prospects in camp will have the opportunity to play here.”
On the back end, Sakowich and Dawson Barteaux will likely form the top pairing next season. Carson Sass turns 20 in May and will be in tough to come back as an overager, while Chase Leslie, Jacob Herauf, Hunter Donohoe and Ryan Gottfried are the other prospective returnees.
Blueliners Blake Gustafson, Garrett Valk, provided the Rebels can get him signed, Mason Ward and Kyle Masters are prospective newcomers for next fall. All three played at the midget AAA level this season, Gustafson, Ward and Valk as 16-year-olds and Masters at 15.
Starting goaltending won’t be an issue next season with 18-year-old Ethan Anders set to return.
“Down the stretch Andy was outstanding,” said Sutter.
As it currently stands, holdover Byron Fancy and Eric Ward, who played at the midget AAA level after being acquired from the Seattle Thunderbirds in December, will vie for the back-up position.
Brent Sutter recorded his 500th WHL win as a coach late in the season and yet it seems like it was yesterday when he recorded his first.
“How time flies. It’s crazy when you think it’s been 20 years since I purchased the team,” he said this week.
“It goes by quickly. You learn a lot along the way and I’m still adjusting and adapting.”
Even for a coach such as Sutter, who was an NHL bench boss — two years with New Jersey, three with Calgary — prior to returning to Red Deer after seven previous WHL seasons, the adjustments were necessary.
“The game has continued to change, the make-ups and personalties of the players have changed,” he said. “The game is different now. You and your staff have to adjust.
“That’s why it was important last summer to bring in a young coaching staff (including new assistants Ryan Colville and Brad Flynn). Assistant coaches are really important, they spent a lot of time with the players and our guys related really well to the players.”
While younger players these days are bigger, faster and perhaps even smarter, they are more complex than was the case, say, even 10 to 15 years ago, Sutter noted.
“It’s certainly different now with your 16s and 17s,” he said. “There’s a lot of things involved now that never used to be.
“Your try and manage as good as you can. The biggest thing for me with the players is to make them understand that you have to earn everything you get. It’s not handed to you like it might have been in minor hockey.
“You have your top level players, the studs, but that next group, that next layer of players, they have to earn it. It’s a challenge for them and that’s just the way our culture is here.
“Like I’ve said, Red Deer is not for everybody. If you don’t want to dig in, throw yourself into it and be committed both on the ice and off the ice with your schooling . . . there’s nothing handed here, you have to go after it.
“Not that every one of these players will move on to pro hockey, but you want them to be very successful in life in whatever they do. And there’s nothing easy out in the real world. You have to earn it.
“When they get dropped off to play here there’s a level of discipline and commitment that has to be there. Some of our young guys struggled with some of that this year, even though they were here half of last year. They come back thinking it’s going to be easy and all of a sudden it’s not as easy and it becomes a year about getting tougher mentally.”
In minor hockey, as Sutter noted, a player can have a handful of bad games during a 30- to 40-game schedule, but that can’t be the case in the WHL.
“A level of commitment has to be made and the young guys have to understand that,” said the Rebels boss. “And their parents understand that. They want that for their kids and it’s up to us to make sure we follow through on it.”
Notable: Brandon Hagel and Reese Johnson, both signed by the Chicago Blackhawks during the season, began their respective pro careers by playing two games with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League during the weekend. Neither player registered a point but Hagel had a combined five shots on goal, including four in a 4-1 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins . . . Alex Alexeyev left Tuesday for Washington, where Capitals team doctors will examine his injured knee and possibly determine when and if the Russian defenceman will play with the club’s AHL affiliate in Hershey this spring.