Harbouring a grudge is never healthy, unless you’re a Western Hockey League team that fell well short of expectations the previous season.
Red Deer Rebels general manager/head coach Jesse Wallin expects his veteran players to register for training camp Saturday evening at the Centrium with the mindset that they have a score to settle.
Wallin, who recently had his co-post changed to GM from vice-president of hockey operations, wants his returning charges to be in a vindictive mood when they open their WHL regular season schedule at home Sept. 23 against the Kootenay Ice.
“We certainly want to keep moving forward. We had a great (2010-11) regular season and yet we fell short in the playoffs,” said Wallin, whose squad finished first in the Central Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference before falling to Medicine Hat in the second round of post-season play in April.
“That was, quite frankly, devastating for everyone,” Wallin added during a media gathering Thursday.
“The guys we have coming back have to have a bit of a sour taste in the mouths and they have to use that experience to push themselves this season, get over the hump and push for a long playoff run. That will be our mentality — it will be one day at a time . . . just continue to get better each day and when we get to the playoffs look to make a good run.”
The Rebels lost defenceman and captain Colin Archer, gritty and talented forward Brett Ferguson and WHL goaltender of the year Darcy Kuemper to graduation.
In addition, 43-goal centre Byron Froese isn’t expected back as a 20-year-old, 82-point winger Andrej Kudrna has signed with a team in his home country of Slovakia and super skilled centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could end up in the NHL after being selected first overall by Edmonton in June’s entry draft.
“We lost some key guys but we have other guys who can step up,” said Wallin, who will rely heavily on the likes of forwards Turner Elson, John Persson, Josh Cowen and Adam Kambeitz, and also has high expectations for returning up-front skaters Daulton Siwak, Tyson Ness, Colten Mayor, Chad Robinson and Locke Muller, all of whom are ‘93-born players.
“These guys are 18 this year and it’s an opportunity for them to take a big jump,” said Wallin. “We had that happen last year with guys like Kambeitz, Persson and Elson, and we need these other guys to do that now.”
As for Nugent-Hopkins, the Rebels will move forward with the mindset that if he does return to the team, it won’t be until October at the earliest. The slick centre will likely start the NHL regular season with the Oilers and will be given every opportunity to remain in Edmonton.
Clearly, his return would greatly enhance the Rebels’ chances for success this season. It’s unlikely that there’s a single player who could replace the 106 points Nugent-Hopkins recorded in 2010-11.
“I don’t think any one guy is going to fit into that role,” said Wallin, addressing the possibility that Nugent-Hopkins won’t be available to the Rebels.
“You just don’t take over for that type of player. But looking at our roster and who’s coming back, there’s a number of guys we’re going to rely on regardless of whether Ryan’s back or not. The proven scoring that you’d like to have isn’t there, but there’s going to be a handful of guys who have to step up their performance and we think they’re capable of doing that.”
The veteran forwards will be pushed in camp and likely through the preseason by promising 17-year-old prospects Brooks Maxwell, Chase McMurphy, Marc McCoy, Mason Burr and Joel Hamilton, as well as 18-year-old listed player Tad Kozun and promising 16-year-old Cory Millette.
Meanwhile, ‘94-born Davin Stener, Danys Chartrand and David Heath, along with 16-year-old Kayle Doetzel, will be given the opportunity to crack a blueline brigade that already includes all-star Alex Petrovic, all-star in waiting Mathew Dumba, Matthew Pufahl, Lucas Grayson, Brad Deagle, Aaron Borejko and likely Justin Weller, who has signed with the Phoenix Coyotes but is expected to return to the Rebels as a 20-year-old.
“There’s going to be some new faces this year. It’s going to make for a real competitive and interesting training camp,” said Wallin.
Replacing Kuemper could be as difficult — or even more so — than replacing Nugent-Hopkins.
“There are some big shoes to fill (with Kuemper’s departure) and we’re going to give some guys a good look,” said Wallin.
Patrik Bartosak, 18, was selected by the Rebels in June’s CHL import draft and is the logical No. 1 stopper heading into training camp. Returnee Dawson Guhle, 17-year-old Bolton Pouliot and former Nipawin Hawk (SJHL) Steven Klein are the other contenders.
“The door is wide open, there is no preconceived notion of who (the starting netminder) is going to be,” said Wallin. “At the end of the day we want someone who can stop pucks and give us a chance to win.”
• Nugent-Hopkins will not attend the Rebels camp due to his attendance at an NHL Players Association photo shoot in Toronto. The three-day session, starting Sunday, is for players who have a chance to make their NHL debut this season and the photos will grace various hockey cards.
Nugent-Hopkins will return Wednesday but will not suit up for any of the Rebels’ preseason games, including their first two — Sept. 4 and 5 versus the Prince George Cougars and Swift Current Broncos as part of the Edmonton Oil Kings tournament at St. Albert.
• Training camp opens Sunday with a rookie session at 8:30 a.m. The remaining camp schedule is as follows:
Sunday and Monday — Main camp from 10:15 to 11:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; goalie session from 1 to 2 p.m.; rookies from 2:30 to 4 p.m.; main scrimmage from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Tuesday — Rookies from 8:30 to 10 a.m.; main camp from 10:15 to 11 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. to noon; Black and White scrimmage from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday — Team B pregame skate from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m.; Team A pregame skate from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.; McDonald’s Black and White intrasquad game at 7 p.m.