The Red Deer Rebels open training camp Thursday as a team that doesn’t appear to have many openings up front but could feature a new-look back end for the 2014-15 Western Hockey League season.
With the departure of graduating forwards Rhyse Dieno and Lucas Sutter and the off-season retirement of Vukie Mpofu, as few as three forward berths are up for grabs. Mason McCarty and Brayden Burke, both 17, are at the front of the employment line, along with 16-year-old Jeff de Wit.
“There’s a couple, maybe three to four spots available,” Rebels general manager/head coach Brent Sutter said Tuesday. “We brought in a lot of 16-year-olds last year (seven, including part-timers McCarty and Burke). As it stands, this year our only 16s will be Jeff and (defenceman Josh) Mahura and it will be interesting to see who else might be close.”
The Rebels’ 2014-15 roster will be top heavy with 17- and 18-year-olds as Sutter continues to build towards what he hopes will be a successful bid to host the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament.
“We’ll have probably 12 players who are still eligible to play at the midget level,” said the Rebels boss, “so we’re still going to be a young team. The difference now is that a lot of these guys have experience in our league. We went young last year knowing that it could affect us, but that was a decision we made when we were looking ahead to bidding for the Memorial Cup.”
Carolina Hurricanes first-round NHL entry draft pick Haydn Fleury will anchor the Rebels’ defence this winter, along with fellow veterans Kayle Doetzel and Brett Cote, acquired from the Victoria Royals in May. Mahura is a virtual pick for another blueline berth and imports Hugo Jansons and Mario Grman will both get every chance to crack the lineup.
Also in the mix are returnees Nick Charif, Kirk Bear, Devan Faford and Kolton Dixon, rookie hopefuls Austin Shmoorkoff and Austin Strand, both 17, and new face Alex Pernitsky, 18. Bear and Dixon are 19 and Fafard is 20, and with all three slotted in as forwards for main camp, they might have to find employment at that position.
Jansons, a native of Latvia and Red Deer’s first-round pick in this year’s CHL import draft, and second-round pick Grman arrived in Red Deer Monday. Sutter hasn’t seen either player skate but is impressed with their physical dimensions.
“They’re good-sized kids. Both are in the six-foot-one, 190-pound range,” said Sutter.
Pernitsky is a listed, unsigned player, but Sutter and his coaching staff gave the six-foot, 190-pound defender the thumbs up on the few occasions they watched him play last season. The Unity, Sask., native accumulated seven goals, 25 points and 30 penalty minutes in 35 regular-season games for the midget AAA Battlefords Stars, and another 12 points (3-9) in 10 playoff outings.
“We’re hoping he can push to make our team,” said Sutter. “Last year he was very dominant at the midget AAA level as a 17-year-old. He’s a big, solid kid who’s a pretty good skater and can really shoot the puck. We saw him play last year and liked him, but is he ready for this level? That’s what we have to see through training camp and practices.”
The club currently has four 20-year-olds in Fafard, Cote, Brooks Maxwell and Aspen Sterzer, meaning one will have to be traded or released by mid-October.
Maxwell, Sterzer and Colorado Avalanche first-round pick Conner Bleackley will be expected to put up 20-plus goals this season. Other potential 20-goal scorers include Adam Musil, Scott Feser, Grayson Pawlenchuk, Wyatt Johnson, Presten Kopeck and possibly Evan Polei, who was one of the club’s bright spots down the 2013-14 stretch and has been invited to attend the St. Louis Blues camp next month.
Of course, the Rebels’ offence will only improve if the defencemen move the puck to the forwards with authority. Of the potential blueline newcomers, Mahura is a talented puck mover and the two imports are advertised as such.
“The forwards are all a year older and you always want to see improvement from them,” said Sutter, who is well aware of the fact that a mobile defence will make a larger difference in terms of creating more team offence.
“If we’ve been told the right things about the European players, they’re going to add more ability on the back end and be guys who can go back and get pucks and move pucks. But there’s going to be an adjustment time for them.”
Just two goaltenders — returnee Taz Burman, 17, and 18-year-old Rylan Toth — are on the Rebels’ main camp roster. Clearly, they’ll be expected to carry the load in 2014-15.
“Hopefully they can give us some quality games. We’ll have to use them both which should make us that much better next year,” said Sutter.
With the heavy influx of new players this year and last, Sutter is hoping that the club has the proper building blocks to become a serious contender in the not-too-distant future, that he doesn’t have to wheel and deal to find the proper pieces.
“This is a year we’re hoping we can do a lot of building from within,” he said. “We don’t want to have to make a bunch of trades. There have been too many quick fixes made in recent years because of elements that just unfolded. We can’t be that way.
“We can’t be making a pile of trades, and that starts with having the right players come into your program from the get-go. I’m feeling more comfortable that way than I have the last couple of years.”
• Just notes: Fleury, who recently signed a three-year entry-level deal with Carolina, is currently in New York at an NHL licensing/skills event and won’t attend the Rebels camp. He’ll be back in Red Deer next week . . . De Wit will also miss camp after suffering an injury at the recent Hockey Canada under-16 development camp in Calgary . . . All players — rookies and veterans — will register for camp today and the first ice time is set for 9:15 to 9:45 a.m. Thursday (rookie goalies) . . . The camp will conclude with the Black and White intrasquad game at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Centrium.
Thursday — Rookie goalies, 9:15-9:45 a.m.; rookie scrimmage, 10-11:30 a.m.; alumni pro skate, 12-1:30 p.m.; main practice, 2-3:30 p.m.; rookie scrimmage, 4-5:30 p.m.
Friday — Main practice Group A, 8-8:45 a.m.; rookie scrimmage, 9-10:30 a.m.; main practice Group B, 10:45-11:30 a.m.; alumni pro skate, 12-1:30 p.m.; rookie scrimmage, 3-4:30 p.m.; main game, 5-6:30 p.m.
Saturday — Main practice Group B, 8-8:45 a.m.; rookie scrimmage, 9-10:30 a.m.; main practice Group A, 10:45-11:30 a.m.; alumni pro skate, 12-1:30 p.m.; main game, 4:30-6 p.m.
Sunday — Pre-game skate Team Black, 8:30-9:15 a.m.; pre-game skate Team White, 9:30-10:15 a.m.; Black and White game, 5 p.m.
Main camp roster (includes year of birth and hometown)
Goal — x-Taz Burman, 1997, Vancouver; Rylan Toth, ‘96, Saskatoon.
Defence — Alex Pernitsky, 1996, Unity, Sask; x-Kayle Doetzel, ‘96, Rosetown, Sask.; Brett Cote, ‘94, Oak Bank, Man.; Hugo Jansons, ‘97, Riga, Latvia; x-Nick Charif, ‘95, Edmonton; Mario Grman, ‘97, Topolcany, Slovakia; Austin Shmoorkoff, ‘97, Edmonton; Austin Strand, ‘97, Calgary.
Forwards — x-Evan Polei, 1996, Edmonton; x-Conner Bleackley, ‘96, High River; x-Brooks Maxwell, ‘94, Raymond; x-Meyer Nell, ‘97, Boissevain, Man.; x-Presten Kopeck, ‘95, Medicine Hat; x-Wyatt Johnson, ‘95, Saskatoon; x-Grayson Pawlenchuk, ‘97, Ardrossan; x-Adam Musil, ‘97, Delta, B.C.; Mason McCarty, ‘97, Blackie; x-Devan Fafard, ‘94, Carlyle, Sask.; x-Scott Feser, ‘95, Red Deer; x-Cole Chorney, ‘96, Beaumont; x-Kirk Bear, ‘95, Whitewood, Sask.; Brayden Burke, ‘97, Edmonton; x-Kolton Dixon, ‘95, Red Deer.
Rookie camp (includes year of birth and hometown)
Goal — Colby Entz, 1998, Churchbridge, Sask.; Linden Boulet, ‘99, Clairmont.
Defence — Carson Sass, 1999, Melville, Sask.; Cale Chalifoux, ‘98, Edmonton; Kyle Sargent, ‘98, Carlyle, Sask.; Tylor Ludwar, ‘99, Regina; Matthew Kasowski, ‘99, St. Albert; Austin Wagner, ‘99, Medicine Hat.
Forwards — Josh Logel, 1998, Calgary; Jake Lechyshyn, ‘99, Grasswood, Sask.; Austin Pratt, ‘99, Lakeville, Minn.; Chase Stevenson, ‘99, West Kelowna; Quinton McAndrews, ‘98, Edmonton; Brayden Labant, ‘99, St. Paul; Bronson Littlechilds, ‘98, Edmonton; Tanner Sidaway, ‘99, Victoria; Zachary Gladu, ‘98, Medicine Hat; Cruz Cote, ‘99, Falher; Luke Farrell, ‘99, Bruderheim.
Goal — Dawson Weatherill, ‘99, Red Deer; Alex Geddes, ‘99, Yorkton, Sask.
Defence — Josh Mahura, ‘98, St. Albert; Boo Grist, ‘99, North Saanich, B.C.; Ethan Sakowich, ‘99, Athabasca; Max Salpeter, 1998, St. Albert; Wyatt Arndt, ‘99, Weyburn, Sask.; Carter Brown, ‘98, Edmonton; Malcolm Thakurdeen, ‘99, Saskatoon.
Forwards — Chance Adrian, ‘99, Dalmeny, Sask.; Shane Sherban, ‘98, Lanigan, Sask.; Reese Johnson, ‘98, Saskatoon; Akash Bains, ‘99, Delta, B.C.; Tyler Kirkup, ‘98, Virden, Man.; Caleb Riess, ‘98, Rocanville, Sask.; Seth Benson, ‘99, Moorhead, Minn.; Austin LeDuc, ‘98, Okotoks; Jake Langenhahn, ‘99, St. Albert; Mason Issel, ‘99, Prince Albert, Sask.; Drayson Skulmoski, ‘98, Moosomin, Sask.