Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter was the bearer of both good and bad news Tuesday.
The goods news? Forwards Lukas Sutter and Wyatt Johnson will return to the lineup for tonight’s Western Hockey League home game versus the Medicine Hat Tigers after being out several weeks with upper body injuries.
Unfortunately, the Rebels have lost Presten Kopeck for four to six weeks with a hand injury. The feisty forward, acquired from the Portland Winterhawks in December, has provided the Rebels with a hefty dose of energy and has also contributed 16 points — including six goals — in 16 games since joining his new club last month following his recovery from hernia surgery.
“It’s a tough loss for us. ‘Kopes’ has been probably our most versatile player,” said the Rebels bench boss. “He’s played really well for us.”
Kopeck suffered a fracture of his hand during the Rebels’ 3-2 overtime loss Feb. 4 at Vancouver and played with the injury the next three games of the four-game road trip. An x-ray Monday revealed the extent of the ailment and Kopeck will be out at least four weeks, hopefully back in time to play the final three regular-season games — March 12 versus visiting Kootenay and a home-and-home with Edmonton March 15-16.
Sutter and Johnson, who both play with an edge, will be welcome additions to the Red Deer roster.
“We’ve missed their heaviness and their grit,” said Brent Sutter. “You need that in your lineup and we’ve really missed their physical play, especially in the last five games. It will be nice to have them back, it’s just unfortunate that we’ve lost Presten.”
The Rebels boss is hoping the presence of Sutter and Johnson will provide his club with leadership and — with their experience — help take the load off some of the younger players who have struggled through the team’s current six-game losing streak.
“When you don’t have those veteran guys in the lineup we have to put a lot on our young kids. They’ve gone through experiences that you probably wish you didn’t have to put them through. But because of injuries we’ve put them in certain situations and they’ve had a tough time of it recently,” said Sutter. “They’re finding out how the game is played at a faster pace and with more intensity and emotion at this time of the season.”
The loss of Kopeck robbed the Rebels of the opportunity to ice a full lineup for the first time this season.
“I can’t remember a single game when we’ve had everybody (healthy),” said Sutter. “That’s the way the season has been and through injuries other players have had opportunities and have gone through a process of growing. But now it’s really important that we get in synch here about what we are as a team. We’ve gotten off track recently regarding how we need to play.
“We’ve had moments, like in Kelowna (a 4-3 loss last Wednesday) when we were the better team for two periods against the best team in the league, points-wise. When we want to show it we can, but it’s been erratic.”
Sutter isn’t impressed with the Rebels’ home slate, which currently stands at 12-11-0-3.
“Maybe it has something to do with being a young team, but our home record isn’t where it needs to be,” he said. “Are too many players not handling the distractions of playing at home? It’s stuff that’s been addressed with the players. We as coaches have talked with them about it, but you’re not with these guys 24-7.
“Like I tell them, this isn’t midget triple A or junior A hockey, this is major junior. You’re playing against kids who are going to be playing pro hockey next year. It’s going to be their living moving forward and they’re dialed right in. It’s important that you as an individual have to focus the right way and prepare the way you need to prepare. It’s a 60-minute game at this time of the year and we need everyone to play that way.”