When the 2014-15 Western Hockey League season started back in September, Red Deer Rebels rookie Rylan Toth never dreamed that he would one day be recognized as one of the league’s more productive goaltenders.
The 18-year-old was more concerned with how he’d adjust to the major junior game, never mind setting his sights on, say, being named the WHL goaltender of the month. But last week, the Rebels first-year stopper was recognized for his work in February when he posted a 4-3-0-1 record over eight appearances along with a 2.46 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
In five of the games he started, Toth held the opposition to two goals or fewer. Heady numbers, considering he didn’t even know if he’d be the club’s No. 1 guy this season.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Toth said Thursday, in reference to his earning goalie-of-the-month accolades. “I wasn’t really expecting it, but the guys (teammates) have played pretty well.
“It was a tough month. We were on the road a lot so I knew I’d have to be good. I just tried to be the best I could every night.”
The Rylan Toth who started the season as a nervous rookie is a far cry from the more confident and poised Rylan Toth of today.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, but, yeah, it’s definitely been a big change,” he said. “I’m playing with a lot more confidence and when you get used to the league you’re not so nervous every game. You know what to expect, I guess.
“A big part of that comes from Taylor (Rebels goaltender coach Dakers) helping me out a ton and Brent (GM/head coach Sutter) just believing in me and giving me a lot of chances to play games.”
Anxiety follows every rookie, especially a rookie netminder, around for weeks and sometimes months. Toth suffered from the jitters now and then, but no longer.
“I’ve pretty much figured out how to deal with the nerves,” he said. “It will definitely be something new when the playoffs roll around, but as far as regular season goes, now that I’m kind of used to the league it’s not something I experience very often.”
Toth, who owns a 2.85 GAA, a save percentage of .904 and a 27-16-8 record with one shutout, has clearly taken some large steps forward since the first game of the season.
Sutter agreed, and in fact gave kudos to both Toth and No. 2 stopper Taz Burman.
“Tother has come a long way, but not just him. I think both of our goalies have,” said the Rebels boss. “You might say that it was a question mark to some people at the start of the season as to where our goaltending would be. But we felt we had to develop our goalies. There’s a process with goalies as there is with anybody else. There’s a development procedure and we have to stay the course with it.
“To be quite honest, we’ve been happy with our goaltending. When you put two young kids into your lineup, and I know Burms was here last year but never played a whole lot . . . well, they’ve handled it very well. Just as it is with any other young player who comes into the league, it takes time, and maybe moreso with goaltenders.”
Burman’s numbers aren’t in the same neighbourhood as his teammate’s, but he’s been on the rise in recent weeks. The 18-year-old second-round pick of the 2012 bantam draft possesses a 3.15 GAA with an .886 save percentage and an 8-5-2 record. Sutter insisted he’s confident in the abilities of both netminders.
“Since after Christmas both guys have played well,” he said. “Tother had a good run up to Christmas, then had a little lull and got it right back after a couple of weeks.
“Burms came back after Christmas with a much healthier mindset and has played very well too. Like I said, we’re very comfortable with the two goalies we have moving forward here.”
Red Deer product Dawson Weatherill, a 2014 second-round bantam draft pick who this season blocked pucks for the Notre Dame Argos — a team that won just six games this season and finished last in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA League — is at least a year away from suiting up with the Rebels full-time.
As a result, Trevor Martin will join Burman and Toth in the battle for two positions next season. Martin, who turned 19 in February, was acquired from the Saskatoon Blades in January and this season has been a standout with the Melville Millionaires during the second half of the SJHL season.
Sutter will summon the Ardrossan native, who has a 2.15 GAA and .929 save percentage with Melville, if the Millionaires’ season ends before the Rebels’ season is over.
Martin appeared in 19 games with the lowly Blades in the first half of the season and recorded a 4.16 GAA and .886 save percentage while posting a 3-10-2 slate. But Sutter liked what he saw of the former Sherwood Park midget AAA standout when he turned aside 30 shots in his lone Rebels start — a 4-3 win at Saskatoon Feb. 18.
“He came in and played extremely well for us that night,” said Sutter. “That’s why we acquired him — because he can make a push to play here next season. Between Trevor and the two guys here now, two of them are going to play here next year. So it will be a good competition.”
The Rebels host the Calgary Hitmen tonight and welcome the Kootenay Ice to the Centrium Saturday.
“They’re both huge games. We kind of control our own fate right now,” said Toth, in reference to the fact third-place Red Deer trails both the Central Division co-leading Hitmen and Medicine Hat Tigers by three points.
“If we can win out, well, that’s all we can control. I think we have a good chance of finishing second or even first in our division, so that’s really exciting. Calgary has a really good team and you can’t underestimate Kootenay either.”
l Colton Bobyk is no longer on the injury list on the WHL website, but Sutter said the Rebels defenceman is still day-to-day, along with forward Conner Bleackley. Winger Austin Adamson is week-to-week with a lower body injury.