It didn’t happen overnight; it just seemed that way.
The Red Deer Rebels blueline was a mess during the 2013-14 WHL season, to the extent that GM/head coach Brent Sutter realized that a drastic make-over was necessary. With just two returning rearguards — confirmed keepers Haydn Fleury and Kayle Doetzel — on this season’s squad, the Rebels, arguably, boast one of the better back ends in the league.
“We knew that it was certainly a question mark going into the season. It was an area we felt we had to shore up,” Sutter said this week, as his club prepared for their first-round playoff series versus the Tigers opening Saturday and Sunday in Medicine Hat Tigers. “With the type of game we want to play, we had to add some skill and some mobile guys back there . . . more size and guys with experience.”
The facelift started last summer when Sutter dealt a second-round draft pick to the Victoria Royals for Brett Cote and nabbed a pair of blueliners in the import draft. Just one of the imports, Mario Grman, is still with the club and in fact currently lines up at a forward position, but Cote was a valuable addition.
The Rebels also confirmed that draft picks Austin Strand and Josh Mahura had worked their way onto the roster following training camp and a series of preseason outings.
“We knew they would both have a chance of making our team and Josh, as a 16-year-old, has really developed this year,” said Sutter. “And Strander came in as a question mark in training camp, but played extremely well and made our hockey team, so it was great to have those two young kids.”
But . . .
“We just felt that we needed to add something more,” said Sutter, who swung deals with the Saskatoon Blades and Spokane Chiefs in December to bring in Nelson Nogier and Colton Bobyk.
“To be able to acquire Nogier, both him and Bobs . . . was huge for us. It set us up on the back end for two seasons. Obviously we had to have next year in mind (as 2016 Memorial Cup hosts) while also trying to improve our team this year.”
As it stands, the Rebels boss is comfortable with the back end group he now has, a contingent that will likely remain intact next season, minus the graduating Cote.
The Rebels’ defence corps, quite simply, is the axis around which the team revolves, a nice mix of size and mobility with puck-movers and stay-at-home types.
“You’re always trying to find the right fit for the type of team you want to have,” said Sutter. “We felt we wanted to be a puck-moving team, a good skating team, plus we wanted to have hockey sense back there.
“You look at that group, they have good size. They all can skate and move the puck, and they’re all pretty responsible players. Our defence is certainly better today than it was at the start of the season. No question, when you look at our defence it probably is the strength of our hockey team.”
Fleury, who last June was selected seventh overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL entry draft, agreed with his coach.
“Throughout the year we’ve gotten a lot better and now we’re a group of six who feel like we can be among the best in the league and we’re going to have to show that in the playoffs,” said Fleury.
“Brent has made some trades that have helped us a lot and then brought in Strander and Mahura through the draft. It’s been a good transition this season.”
While the likes of Fleury, Cote and Bobyk are mainstays on the team’s power play, Nogier and Doetzel are rock-solid defensively and certainly appreciated by the coaching staff.
“They’re dependable guys,” said Sutter. “We’re not afraid to play any of our guys against the other teams’ top lines. Guys like Doetzel and Nogier are very defensive-minded guys but they can move pucks and are very positional players. They can skate and have some ruggedness to their game. That’s nice to have on your back end.”
How much does the coaching staff appreciate fourth-year veteran Doetzel? Enough to select the six-foot-three, 198-pound Rosetown, Sask., native as the team’s defenceman of the year.
The appreciation runs both ways.
“Considering the points some of these (fellow defencemen) have put up this season, hearing my name called as defenceman of the year was definitely a real big honour,” said Doetzel, in reference to the team’s awards presentations prior to last Saturday’s final regular-season game against the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings.
“It makes you feel good knowing the coaches think you’ve had a real strong year. It definitely makes you feel good as a person.”
Speaking of appreciation, Rebels netminders Rylan Toth and Taz Burman undoubtedly value the savvy of a blueline that collectively features 18 seasons of major junior experience.
“Another reason why we felt it was important to have experience back there is we have (inexperienced) goalies,” said Sutter. “We wanted to be better in our zone to help our young goalies out, with our back end handing the rushes the right way. I think it has done that and helped our goalies develop the way we want them to develop.”
Now, at the most important point of the season, the Rebels’ defensive corps has to prove it is worthy of taking the club on a lengthy playoff run.
Doetzel is firm in his belief that the blueline brigade is more than capable of delivering.
“We’ve definitely taken a lot of big steps as a group,” he said. “Overall, it feels like we’re taking our game to another level. Our defence is definitely one of the strong points of our team.”