Red Deer Rebels owner/GM/head coach Brent Sutter has been working behind the scenes to strengthen the Memorial Cup hosts as they head toward the second half of the Western Hockey League season.
Sutter took a significant step in the right direction during the weekend by adding 19-year-old forward Jake DeBrusk from the Swift Current Broncos.
The Rebels shipped 18-year-old forward Lane Pederson along with a first round draft pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and a third-round pick in the 2016 draft to the Broncos.
The trade paid immediate dividends as DeBrusk scored a goal and added an assist as the Rebels edged the Edmonton Oil Kings 5-4 in overtime before 6,037 fans at the Centrium Sunday.
DeBrusk also made an immediate impression on Sutter.
“He left Swift Current at 8 this morning and arrived about an hour and a half before the game and he handled himself real well,” said Sutter. “You can tell he’s a smart player who handles himself in his zone. It was also good to see him get that monkey off his back right away with the goal.”
DeBrusk had to smile when asked about the goal.
“That was really big, you don’t want to dwell on it too long,” he said.
DeBrusk redirected a perfect feed from Ivan Nikolishin during a power play to give Red Deer a 2-1 lead in the first period.
“I knew the puck was coming to me and all I had to do was put it in,” he said. “It was nice to get it right away and to do it at home makes it better.”
The trade is something that Sutter has been working on for some time.
“It’s a process, as are all trades,” he said. “There are no easy trades. There’s a lot of dialog back and forth … timing is everything. Jake got hurt earlier in the season and before we went there with the trade we needed him to be healthy and to see where his game was at.
“It’s always tough to make a trade of this magnitude as there are significant assets in draft picks going out and also Lane. His game improved a lot since he’s been here but to get a quality player like Jake you have to give up something. Jake will definitely help us and this year it’s even more significant because we’re hosting the (Memorial) Cup. We don’t want to just be a team that competes, we want to possibly win it.”
The six-foot, 181-pound DeBrusk, who was a first round draft pick (14th overall) by the Boston Bruins, had nine goal and 17 assists in 24 games this season. Last year he scored 42 goals and added 39 assists. Overall he has 67 goals and 81 assists in 169 games.
He indicated he expected to be traded, but it still came as a shock.
“I knew I would be moved, but it’s still a shock when it become a reality,” he said. “But I’m excited. I’m closer to home and with a really good team, a Memorial Cup team, and with Brent Sutter and all the above. I’m looking forward to being here. It’s a great opportunity for me as a player and as a person,”
DeBrusk, who calls Edmonton home, is the son of Louie DeBrusk, who played over 400 games in the NHL. He played major midget with the Southside Athletic Club and had a number of battles against Colton Bobyk the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs. As a result he knows a number of the Rebels, including Evan Polei, who also played with SAC.
He also roomed with Rebels centre Adam Musil at the prospects game. On Sunday they were on the same line with Polei.
“It’s tough to get chemistry right away and we were up against the other team’s top line all night, but we came together.”
Sunday’s contest was anything but perfect.
“It was the first game after the Christmas break, which explains a lot of it,” Sutter said. “We didn’t get off to a great start, but were fortunate to get the penalty shot goal and then got two power plays in a row and scored on both of them.”
Nikolishin got the Rebels on the board at 3:35 on a penalty shot after he was hooked on a break away. Anatolli Elizarov evened the count at 4:12 when he took a cross ice pass from Brett Pollock and scored into the open side on Rebels netminder Rylan Toth.
Although the Rebels were outshot 15-9 in the period, goals by DeBrusk and Musil, both on the power play and on cross-crease feeds by Nikolishin, gave Red Deer a 3-1 first period lead.
Brandon Hagel put the Rebels up 4-1 at 6:11 of the second period with a perfect shot from the right circle, high to the glove side of left-hander Patrick Dea.
However, Lane Bauer connected on the power play at 10:30 and Kobe Mohr, off the faceoff, at 16:36 and it was 4-3 heading into the third period.
The Rebels held together for most of the third period until Dyson Mayo’s point shot deflected in off Pollock’s leg at 15:26.
“It’s funny how the game works,” said Sutter. “We got a couple breaks in the first period and they get one in the third. Then we were able to win it in the overtime.”
Conner Bleackley got the winner at 1:26 of the five-minute three-on-three extra period with a screened snap shot from the top of the right circle that was just inside the post.
“It was a good win, but we need to be better,” said Sutter. “At times we spent too much times in our zone and were out-hustled to the pucks. We need to get better and improve those things.”
The Rebels finished with 24 shots on Dea while Toth faced 48.
The win gave the Rebels a 24-12 record and left them tied for second in the Central Division with the Calgary Hitmen, two points back of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
The Rebels may not be finished on the trading floor either.
“We don’t want to just be a good team in May (at the Memorial Cup), but a good team in our league,” said Sutter. “We want to push and work to be better. There are a lot of sleepless nights during the break and there are still a lot of discussions with the trade deadline just two weeks away.”
The Rebels are without defenceman Haydn Fleury and forward Michael Spacek, who are at the World Junior Championships.