The Red Deer Rebels lost Brandon Sutter to the Carolina Hurricanes as a 19-year-old in 2008 and watched as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, just 18, joined the Edmonton Oilers three years later.
Minus their best players, the Rebels dropped off in the WHL standings in the seasons that followed and when defenceman Matt Dumba joined the Minnesota Wild as a 19-year-old this season Brent Sutter had to take action when it became apparent that Dumba would not be returning to Red Deer.
The Rebels GM/head coach set a deadline of Dec. 1 for the Wild to reassign Dumba to Red Deer. When the date came and passed and Dumba was still on the Wild roster, albeit relatively inactive, Sutter started searching for trade partners.
The Rebels got nothing in the way of WHL players/draft returns when they lost Sutter and Nugent-Hopkins to the NHL as under-agers and the Red Deer bench boss wasn’t about to let that happen again.
On Tuesday, he dealt Dumba’s WHL rights to the Portland Winterhawks for 18-year-old forward Presten Kopeck and a trio of second-round bantam draft picks. The draft picks will come to Red Deer only if Dumba is reassigned to the ‘Hawks following the world junior championship, and there’s reason to believe that may transpire.
In short, it was a deal that Sutter simply had to make.
“We’ve lost three underage players to the NHL in five years,” he said. “You’re proud of the kids for getting to that level and proud of the fact that as an organization we were impactful in developing them and getting them to that point.
“On the other side, it hurts your hockey team when you lose players at that age. It’s not simply because of how they play but the fact that they make everyone else around them better. It’s impactful, and usually not in a good way. It does affect the win-loss column.
“We had to look at a return (for Dumba) and we had to get a player who can make an impact both this year and moving forward.”
Sutter, after hearing glowing reports from Rebels assistant GM/director of player personnel Shaun Sutter and director of scouting/player development Randy Peterson, among others, decided that Kopeck was a perfect fit for his club.
The Medicine Hat native is a character player with leadership skills and Brent Sutter is hoping those traits will rub off on his team.
“We’ve had some inconsistencies this season and part of that is due to (a lack of) leadership,” said Sutter. “We’re trying to develop guys like Conner Bleackley and Haydn Fleury to become our true leaders but we’ve had some issues with some of our older players.
“Whether it be (Lucas) Sutter, (Brooks) Maxwell, (Rhyse) Dieno, (Dominik) Volek, (Brady) Gaudet, (Devan) Fafard . . . in the past they’ve been part of a supporting cast to a leadership group. Now with them moving into the head group of leadership it hasn’t been as smooth of a transition as we wanted to see. Nothing against those kids — it’s just something that’s not true and natural for them, so we’ve had to work with them on it.
“I think we’ve taken some strides in that direction, but it hasn’t happened as quickly as we expected and that’s part of the reason why we’ve been really good in some games and not so good in others.
“A player like this (Kopeck) can come in and really help our leadership group. It probably comes more natural to him. It’s important for all of our younger players, and important for the older group, too, to see a guy like that who every night is going to come and play hard and play the right way over and over.”
Kopeck, who has four goals and 10 points in 24 games this season, recently underwent hernia surgery and will join the Rebels in early to mid January.
Portland GM/head coach Mike Johnston is confident that Kopeck will help his new team.
“Kopeck’s a guy that coaches appreciate,” Johnston told the Portland Oregonian. “He’s a heart and soul guy and competes hard, and Red Deer saw that he could play anywhere in their lineup. It was a tough decision to make, but it was our only option to make this deal.”