The Red Deer Rebels open their 2013-14 Western Hockey League season tonight at Cranbrook as one of the more glamorous groups in the Eastern Conference.
With the majority of their roster intact from a fourth-place finish in the conference in 2012-13, the Rebels have to be viewed as a potential front-runner. General manager/head coach Brent Sutter isn’t painting his squad with that brush, at least not yet, but you have to know he’s fully expecting a super season from his troops.
“Certainly we have to continue to make strides in the right direction,” he said Thursday, before boarding the team bus to Cranbrook for tonight’s regular-season opener against the Kootenay Ice, who will visit the Centrium Saturday for the second half of a home-and-home set.
“Expectations here are always high, it’s the way we are as an organization. So yeah, we want to be contenders but to do that we need to have a good start to the season. We need our veterans to be good players for us and we need our kids to learn and progress and get better.”
While this year’s lineup is minus eight faces from 2012-13 due to graduation and trades, the current roster consists of 11 newcomers . . . 12 if you count 20-year-old forward Lukas Sutter. Not all of the newcomers will stay, but clearly the Rebels are not simply a veteran-laden group.
“We’re kind of a mixed bag of older and younger,” said Sutter. “All of the new kids are 17 and under, except for (Kirk) Bear, so we have plenty of experience and youth this season.”
Up front, the Rebels will rely heavily on the likes Rhyse Dieno, Brooks Maxwell and Lukas Sutter and will need big-time contributions from fellow veterans Matt Bellerive, Dominik Volek and 17-year-old Conner Bleackley.
Returnees Haydn Fleury, Brady Gaudet, Devan Fafard, Kayle Doetzel and Matt Dumba — if in fact he’s returned by the Minnesota Wild — will anchor the blueline corps and the goaltending, of course, is top-end with Patrik Bartosak and promising rookie back-up Taz Burman.
The Rebels bench boss has the utmost faith in his more versed skaters and knows he’ll have to be patient with the rookies — the first-year players still on the roster two to three weeks down the road.
“For the most part, our veterans were good during the three exhibition games that most of them dressed,” said Sutter, whose crew was 3-3 through a preseason run that was totally void of the presence of Lukas Sutter and last season’s team MVP and CHL goalie of the year Bartosak.
“A lot of the negative things that occurred during the exhibition games were due to youth mistakes,” added Sutter, in reference to a bevy of goals allowed in wins over Edmonton and Medicine Hat. “That’s all part of development . . . those mistakes are going to happen.
“Now we as coaches have to teach and the players have to be good students of the game. They have to learn from each other, while they’re on the bench watching the game. They have to learn from what other players are doing, that’s all part of it. We want to be a smart team and you can become a smart player by watching and paying attention.”
And, as has always been the case with a Sutter-coached team, the first-timers and veterans alike will earn their stripes by displaying an admirable work ethic.
“We have to compete and play hard if we want to be a contending team every night,” he noted. “There’s a certain way the coaching staff wants this group to play and we have to play that way. If someone isn’t willing to do that, he won’t be in the lineup, it’s that simple.”
The Rebels were pushed around by the larger Calgary Hitmen during a second-round playoff ouster last spring. The Calgary crew hasn’t shrunk overnight and currently has to be considered as perhaps the team to beat in the entire conference; therefore Sutter will insist that his team display as much sandpaper as polish this season.
“We have to forge an identity here, a culture,” he insisted.
It’s a long season, but the sooner their WHL opponents view the Rebels in the same light, as say, a severe pain in the butt, the better.