Sutter piecing together a contender

Here, now and hereafter.

Here, now and hereafter.

Red Deer Rebels general manager/head coach Brent Sutter has engineered a series of trades over the past two months with the intent of addressing his club’s present needs while building for the 2015-16 Memorial Cup-hosting season and protecting the future.

It’s been a daunting task, but so far the Rebels boss is right on track.

In the manner of forging a team worthy of hosting the Memorial Cup in 2016, Sutter has been able to add valuable pieces now instead of waiting for next season’s trade deadline.

In 2001, he acquired standout forward Martin Erat, large and mobile defenceman Darcy Robinson and back-up netminder Cam Ondrik in a deal involving the Saskatoon Blades. In one fell swoop, Sutter added talent and size and the Rebels went on to hoist the Memorial Cup in May.

Sutter will possibly add another major piece, say in January of next year, but for now he’s trying to get most of his homework done early, and for good reason.

“Certainly it’s something that you’d like to do,” he said, in reference to his early shopping spree. “It’s important to build your team the way you’d like as far as the chemistry it needs to have … with the players coming together as a team and getting to know each other like they need to both on and off the ice.”

Sutter acquired overage forward Riley Sheen from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in early December, then picked up forward Austin Adamson and key rearguard Nelson Nogier from the Saskatoon Blades. From there, he added defenceman Colton Bobyk from the Spokane Chiefs and obtained winger Connor Gay from the Regina Pats.

As a result, the Rebels, who currently sit fifth in the WHL Eastern Conference, gained three pieces for next season’s cup run while making the present team stronger.

“It is about this year, too,” said Sutter. “When we made the trade for Sheener, we knew that if we were going to be at the level we needed to be at and able to play with those top teams in our conference, that we needed to improve.

“You look at our conference and there’s not a huge point spread between third and eighth place. To be quite honest, Brandon and Medicine Hat are sitting where they are (first and second in the conference) because of the starts they had. They haven’t had any setbacks throughout the season and that’s really the difference between those teams and our team right now.”

“We were four games under .500 through our first 12 games and those other teams were six games above .500. That’s a 10-game spread. We’ve made up that ground to where we’re seven games on the plus side and now we have to continue to build off that. These acquisitions are going to give us the best opportunity to do that, plus going into next season, outside of Sheener, the guys we’ve added are all guys who could be on our team.”

There’s an age-old adage that successful hockey teams build from the back end out. Goaltending is still somewhat of a concern with rookie Rylan Toth and still-green second-year man Taz Burman, but Sutter is confident both are capable of protecting leads as they continue to gain experience.

The addition of Nogier and Bobyk to the blueline is nothing but huge considering top-end defencemen are the most sought-after commodity at the major junior level and beyond. Both defenders are large and mobile with puck-moving abilities, and both are intelligent players.

“Those are key additions,” Sutter insisted. “If you’re going to have a top team in your league and have a chance to win your league and then give yourself a chance in the Memorial Cup (tournament), your defence had better be very good.”

While building for this year and next, Sutter has also been able to restore his cupboard in terms of bantam draft picks.

Nogier didn’t come cheap, costing the Rebels forward Mason McCarty and, most importantly, first- and second-round picks, and Bobyk and a fourth-round selection were acquired in exchange for defenceman Nic Charif and second- and sixth-round picks.

The trade with Regina sent the Rebels’ top 15-year-old prospect, Jake Leschyshyn and a fourth-round pick to the Pats, with Red Deer getting Gay along with first-, second- and seventh-round selections. That trade, in particular, projects as a huge win for the Rebels.

The ability to execute a multitude of deals that will help your team now, next season and down the road is, of course, dependent on finding the right dance partner(s).

“It’s somewhat of an art to go through this. You have so many different things you have to look at,” said Sutter. “You sit down and go through the scenarios with Shaun (assistant GM/ director of player personnel Sutter), your office staff and coaches. You get everyone involved before you make the final call. You also have to communicate with other general managers. There’s a process you go through. You want trades to work out for both teams … for everyone involved.

“Every trade is a bit different. There’s a reason why teams are doing certain things. Saskatoon wanted to accumulate some draft picks to build towards the future. In Regina, they’re looking towards building their team around a certain age group, so they keyed in on a certain player they wanted from us and obviously there’s a price to pay when you do that. We were accumulating draft picks and we also wanted a player who could be good for us this year and possibly be a 20-year-old for us next season. Those are discussions you get into and at the end of the day, there are reasons why each team does certain things.”

While the likes of the Blades and Pats are heading back to the future, the Rebels are building around their 18-year-old players with an eye toward having three solid 20-year-olds next season.

“It’s important for us to have a strong team this year, a team that’s capable of making a push, because you have to have a winning attitude,” said Sutter. “It’s something that we’ve been working on.

“I like our team, I like where we’re at. We obviously need goaltending to have success and we need our two young goaltenders to continue to develop and grow and be good players for us. We score enough goals. We have to tighten it up defensively and part of that is acquiring the guys we have on the back end.”

Looking past this season and next, the Rebels should be in good shape considering they still own plenty of picks in the next three bantam drafts. Admittedly, some of that depth might be sacrificed in future trades, but as of now the Rebels are missing just a fifth-round selection this year, have all their picks as well as an additional selection in each of the second, third and fourth rounds next year, and own a pick in every round of the 2017 draft.

The bantam draft is, after all, the lifeblood of every WHL franchise. The Blades traded away oodles of early-round picks and prospects while building their 2013 Memorial Cup host team, missed the playoffs by a country mile the following season and are now early into what could be a lengthy rebuilding phase.

Sutter aims to avoid a similar Memorial Cup hangover, and by making several deals a year ahead of time hasn’t stripped the cupboard bare. In fact, he still has the assets needed to make another major move without mortgaging the club’s longer-term future.

“We don’t want to come out of the Memorial Cup year and be in a situation where we’re in a rebuild phase for four to five years,” said the Rebels boss. “We want to make sure of that, so you have to manage things properly. We’re doing the best we can with it and yet it’s a collective affair.

“Coaches live in the day, that’s just what coaching is. But from a GM’s perspective, you always have to think about the big picture and how everything fits in. That’s what we’ve been working on here the last two years and when we got the Memorial Cup (bid), the stakes got even higher. So we have to make sure this is all properly looked at the right way this year and next.”