Red Deer Rebels bench boss Jesse Wallin was wearing a smile Thursday, a sure sign that the Western Hockey League regular season was nigh.
Wallin’s upbeat mood was also tied to the news that No. 1 defenceman Alex Petrovic will be in the lineup for tonight’s season-opener versus the visiting Kootenay Ice after earlier reports had the six-foot-four rearguard staying with the Florida Panthers through the weekend.
And to add to the positive news, the Rebels GM/head coach announced that fleet-footed forward Turner Elson will also line up against the Ice after being assigned to skate with the Abbotsford Heat by the Calgary Flames Wednesday and signing a three-year deal with the Flames 24 hours later.
While Elson’s eventual return was never in question, getting him back this quickly can hurry along the concept of scoring by committee, a scheme that the Rebels will have to follow this season due to the loss of offensive stars Andrej Kudrna and Byron Froese and possibly superstar Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Ultimately, the Edmonton Oilers will decide if Nugent-Hopkins will return to Red Deer, and the phenom who possesses NHL-ready skills but is lacking in bulk will likely make it difficult for the Oilers to sent him back.
Whatever, it’s out of the Rebels hands and the club will move on with a deep group of talented, yet mostly unproven forwards in that they haven’t scored at a regular rate but should be capable of doing so, at least in time.
“It’s going to have to be a group effort, and again we feel there are certain guys who can step up and contribute offensively,” said Wallin, citing the likes of Daulton Siwak, Colten Mayor, Elson, John Persson — the prime piece in this group after potting 33 goals last winter — and Adam Kambeitz.
And add overage winger Josh Cowen to that list.
“I think Josh is a guy who can provide more than he has,” said Wallin.
Cowen was in tough last season due to injuries and league-imposed suspensions.
“But the previous year, up until Christmas he was on pace for a 20-goal season,” said Wallin. “He’s capable of that if he can stay healthy and stay focused.
“Yes, there are some question marks (in regards to potential scorers) but we feel there are answers in place for those questions. It’s just a matter of stepping up and doing it.”
The immediate presence of Petrovic, who played 23 minutes of an NHL preseason game early this week and appeared primed for a longer look from the Panthers due to his strong showing in camp, sets the Red Deer defence, a unit that also includes the dazzling and dynamic Mathew Dumba and overage big man Justin Weller, but also an inexperienced threesome in Kayle Doetzel, Stephen Hak and Cody Thiel. Whether all three will be used game in and game out is open for speculation, that scenario only likely to arise if Wallin makes space via the trade market sooner rather than later.
But we digress.
Petrovic is the Rebels’ top defender and the fact he’s back for the season-opener is nothing less than a blessing.
“He’s our top guy, a world-class player and a leader back there,” said Wallin. “He’s a guy who brings it all together and you just can’t replace those types of guys. It’s huge to know that he’s on his way back.”
Petrovic’s presence will be key to the development of 2010 No. 1 bantam draft pick Kayle Doetzel, and the better the Red Deer defence, the more success the goaltending duo of Patrik Bartosak and Bolton Pouliot will enjoy.
Neither stopper looked particularly impressive or comfortable during the early stages of training camp, but they both stepped up during the preseason, with Czech Republic product Bartosak posting a 1.97 GAA and .928 save percentage over 153 minutes and Pouliot, who played 81 minutes, checking in at 2.21 and a rather shiny .948.
“We knew that Patty would take some time to adjust and he went through that in camp to a certain degree,” said Wallin. “Continuing on in the regular season is the next step, but he’s a kid who gains confidence in his work ethic. He works extremely hard and he’s a very competitive kid.
“He’s feeling good about himself. He’s been on the ice here for just about a month and has a better feel for the dimensions of the rink and the pace of the game at this level. He’s adjusting well and we have no reason to think he won’t continue to do that. So far, he’s been everything that we were told he was and he has the right mindset and the right makeup to continue moving forward.”
Pouliot started the 2010-11 season with the Rebels but was reassigned to the midget AAA Calgary Royals five weeks later, the reason being that he simply wasn’t ready to perform at a consistent level and his development was being hindered with eventual WHL goaltender of the year Darcy Kuemper getting the call the vast majority of nights.
Clearly, the demotion of Pouliot was a wise call.
“He’s bigger now, he’s stronger and more mature and that’s shown in his game,” said Wallin. “He’s also more confident . . . all of those elements show up in his game right now. Bolton had a bit of a slow start to camp but he got better and better and we’ve got a pretty solid one-two punch by the looks of it now.”
Pouliot qualifies as a rookie and joins the aforementioned trio of defenders and new forwards Cory Millette, Brooks Maxwell, Marc McCoy, Joel Hamilton and Mason Burr in that category. They’re freshmen, but Wallin will be looking for results, and soon.
“Hamilton, Maxwell and McCoy had good (midget) seasons last year and now they’re a year older and stronger and they’re prepared to step in an make an impact,” he said. “And (16-year-old) Millette is young but talented. These are guys who can step up and help us become a solid team not just this year but next, as well.”
This year will do just fine. Starting tonight.
— copyright Red Deer Advocate