Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter and forward Ivan Nikolishin are involved in an ongoing game of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’.
Coming off his finest WHL season in which he scored 16 goals and collected 62 points in 72 games with the defensive-minded Everett Silvertips, Nikolishin has already recorded 68 points — including 27 goals — in 51 contests with the Rebels this winter.
“It’s definitely different here, every coach has his own way of seeing the game,” the Moscow native said this week. “Back in Everett we played more of a defensive game where we thought we could score one or two goals and then just play defence.
“Here, Brent gives me more freedom offensively, which I’d like to thank him (for). “But we still made a deal that in the D (defensive) zone and neutral zone I play his way but in the O (offensive) zone I can play my way.”
Sutter confirmed that the two have an agreement.
“I have a one-third, two-thirds rule with him,”said the Rebels boss. “One-third of the ice he can do what he wants, yet two-thirds, in the neutral and defensive zones, he has to play the way we want him to play.
“He’s getting better at it.”
Sutter was confident that the off-season acquisition of Nikolishin would give the Rebels an offensive boost in a season that will culminate with the team hosting the Memorial Cup tournament. The 19-year-old has clearly lived up to expectations in that department, although he claimed that his individual numbers — which have him in seventh place in WHL scoring — are secondary in importance to team stats.
“I am really enjoying the year, but I don’t really pay any attention to how many points I have because it doesn’t matter,” said Nikolishin, who played two seasons in Everett before landing in Red Deer.
“I’d rather check the standings and see where we are as a team. That’s what matters to me.”
Accordingly, the importance of maintaining defensive responsibility is not lost on the five-foot-nine centre.
“For sure, defence wins you championships. Defence is really important,” he said.
Nikolishin is one of several skilled forwards on a team that should be capable of excelling down the regular-season stretch despite the absence of injured centre Conner Bleackley for roughly the next five weeks. But as the Russian pivot noted, on-ice expertise has to be coupled with commitment in order to achieve success.
“We have a lot of talent in that room but it only matters if we can work … if we can work with that talent,” he stated. “Talent doesn’t win you anything, only hard work wins. We’re just going to try and work hard and play our best every day and from there on just see how it goes.”
Sutter would prefer to see his top players — Nikolishin included — pay more attention to detail on a consistent basis. Certainly, he didn’t see that in last Saturday’s 2-1 home-ice loss to the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings.
“I would like them to play a better five-on-five game on both sides of the puck,” he said. “They’re great when they have the puck, yet at times they get to where they’re too creative with it, which leads to turnovers.
“They try to make things happen when there’s nothing there to be made. They have to be smarter players. They have to understand when the plays are there and when pucks have to be chipped in. When they don’t have the puck they have to be better players five-on-five by competing hard, backchecking hard and defending better.”
Sutter insisted there’s no need to enroll the likes of Nikolishin, Michael Spacek and Adam Helewka in a crash course in playing a 200-foot game.
“When they want to do it, they do it,” said Sutter. “It’s not an issue … they know how to do it when they want to do it. It’s just that skilled players like that like to pick and choose. For a winning team to have continued success you need everyone playing the right way.”
Naturally, Nikolishin has his long-term sights set on playing at a professional level. For now, though, he’s focused on the task at hand.
“Of course I would love to play pro, but I didn’t really think of where I was going to go next year,” he said.
“I am just trying to concentrate on this year because it’s a really big year for us. I will just play my best and see what happens.”
• The Rebels are in Cranbrook today to face the Kootenay Ice, then host the Moose Jaw Warriors Saturday at 7 p.m.