If Zak Smith can replicate his preseason success in the upcoming Western Hockey League regular season, the Red Deer Rebels’ growing pains won’t be as severe.
The 18-year-old winger scored twice and added an assist in three exhibition games and will be counted on to provide both offence and leadership for the rebuilding Rebels in the 2019-20 season.
The Rebels lost nearly 100 goals with the graduation of Brandon Hagel, Jeff de Wit and Reese Johnson and the likes of Smith, Arshdeep Bains, Chris Douglas and Josh Tarzwell, as well as 20-year-olds Brett Davis and Cam Hausinger, will have to carry the offensive load.
“Our older guys have to start producing more since we lost Hags, Dew and Johnny,” Smith said Tuesday, prior to a practice session at the Centrium.
While the Rebels will likely have to score by committee this season, the short list of second- and third-year players will also have to provide leadership for a mostly fresh-faced group.
“If I can become a leader to the younger guys I will and Dougy and Bainsy have to do the same thing,” said Smith. “The same with Andy (netminder Ethan Anders) and Tarz and the other boys. We have a really young group and I think the best we can do is just lead them each game and show them the way.”
After scoring 11 goals and recording 22 points in 46 games with the MJHL Neepawa Natives as a 16-year-old, Smith joined the Rebels’ for the stretch run of the 2017-18 WHL season and produced one assist in 11 games.
He notched 13 goals and added 11 helpers in 67 games last season and is now prepared to take the next step.
“This summer I practised more on shooting pucks, just getting extra shots in,” he said.
So far, so good, although most players — including Smith — don’t put a lot of stock in preseason results.
“A point per game (during the exhibition season) is something nice to have but you can’t look into it too much. You just have to keep doing your best every game,” said the Austin, Man., native.
The line of Smith, Bains and Douglas was the Rebels’ best unit in Saturday’s 5-3 home-ice loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers. The trio played together for much of last season and could very well open the regular season side by side.
“Bainsy and Dougy are quick with the puck. They’re fast, skilled guys and they can both shoot,” said Smith. “When you play with those guys it’s a fast game. They’ve played the game and they know how everything works.
“I like playing with them because they’re high tempo players and they want to play good hockey.
“We’ve carried our chemistry from last season over to this fall and we really connected against Medicine Hat. We were able to just find each other.”
Smith is a favourite of Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter due to the six-foot-two, 189-pound forward’s penchant for playing a well-rounded, two-way game.
“Defence is really huge to win hockey games, and will be this year especially with our leading scorers gone,” said Smith.
“We’re not going to depend on a guy like Hags to go out and score every game. We have to work on our defence and limit goals each game.”
The Rebels’ regular-season opener is Saturday versus the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings.