There’s always next season.
Yes there is, and for the Red Deer Rebels the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season will be the most spotlighted and noteworthy in franchise history.
And yet, GM/head coach Brent Sutter reminded his players during exit meetings earlier this week that hosting the Memorial Cup tournament in the spring of 2016 won’t be the club’s premier focus next winter. He wants to go into the Canadian Hockey League championship through the front door.
“It’s going to be a big year for our team and organization. It’s great that (the Memorial Cup) is being hosted here, it’s great for the city, our fans and the organization,” Sutter said Wednesday.
“But the reality is, as I told them (players), we have to have the mindset that it doesn’t matter where it’s being played. We have to want to win our league next year, be an elite team in our league. We want to go to the Memorial Cup as an elite team and that has to be our motivation for the summer.”
To that end, the Rebels should be among the league contenders next season, armed with an emerging roster that, for the most part, can build off a disappointing yet somewhat impressive first-round playoff series versus the Medicine Hat Tigers this spring, a hard-fought set that lasted five games but could easily have gone seven.
“When you look at where the team was at the start of the year and where the team is now, we’re certainly in a better place today in terms of personnel,” said Sutter, who remade his defence with the acquisitions of Nelson Nogier and Colton Bobyk and watched the likes of Josh Mahura and Austin Strand develop into dependable blueliners with great upside.
The Rebels are in a better place in terms of experience, too. Netminders Rylan Toth and Taz Burman came along nicely as the season progressed and will be among three stoppers — with Trevor Martin joining the fray — battling for two positions next fall.
It’s difficult to imagine that Toth will draw the short straw, and in fact will come into camp as the No. 1 guy. But that doesn’t mean that he’ll be handed the job based solely on his 2014-15 performance. Sutter wants to see a leaner, meaner Toth.
“Like Tother, when a player gets through his first year here, he gets to understand what the expectations are,” said the Rebels boss. “So now there’s a different mindset when you’re training through the summer. Tother has to become a guy who’s more committed to off-ice training, become more fit that way. He knows that now.”
That message has also been delivered to and digested by the likes of Mahura and forward Jeff de Wit, both coming off their rookie season.
“Both of them understand this is not the midget level, this is major junior level and the next level is pro,” said Sutter.
“They have to train the right way and make sure everything they do off ice is right, including their eating habits.”
The Rebels will return the lion’s share of their roster next season, and the coaching staff will be looking for bigger things from Burman and forwards Meyer Nell, Adam Musil and Grayson Pawlenchuk, all of whom just completed their sophomore season and all of whom were somewhat inconsistent after showing such promise as rookies.
Pawlenchuk, on a positive note, was one of the club’s better players in the brief post-season, and Musil, strong through the first half of the season, was starting to turn the corner after a so-so second half when he suffered a serious ankle injury late in late March. Burman struggled until December, then, following a talk with Sutter, returned after the Christmas break and was a different netminder.
Sutter will miss graduating overagers defenceman Brett Cote and forwards Brooks Maxwell and Riley Sheen, all key components of the squad in 2014-15.
Filling their spots as final-season WHLers will be defenceman Kayle Doetzel and two of forwards Wyatt Johnson, Presten Kopeck, Scott Feser and Connor Gay, with Johnson and perhaps Kopeck the favourites to emerge from that foursome.
Of the 20s, whomever is deemed as expendable will undoubtedly find another locale in the league via the trade route. Regardless, Sutter won’t be required to make that decision until Oct. 20, or he could complete a deal or two through the summer.
The Rebels boss would also prefer to find more offence during the off-season. In a perfect world he would land two top-six forwards in the June 30 European draft, but if that scenario doesn’t look promising by the time the Rebels get to their turn in the second round, Sutter will keep Mario Grman, who plays a physical game and can play both forward and defence, as one of his two imports.
Sutter will also explore his trade options during the spring and summer, and then again — if necessary — at next January’s trade deadline. He’ll have two overage players and perhaps a goaltender to dangle, as well as the (2016) first- and (2015) second-round bantam draft picks he acquired from the Regina Pats in January.
For now, he knows Conner Bleackley will almost certainly be back as the club’s top forward — although he might be a bit late reporting back from the Colorado Avalanche — and he’ll expect Pawlenchuk, Musil and Reese Johnson, who showed great promise after being brought in late in the season, to play larger roles.
Evan Polei, one of the league’s top pugilists, will return as a power forward with the potential to score 20 to 25 goals, while six-foot-two, 205-pound American Austin Pratt, who signed with the Rebels, which will be announced Friday, will get a spot. Pratt, in fact, might be the lone 16-year-old on the club next season, a notion that Sutter, however, would not confirm as fact.
The back end is set with the likely return of Carolina Hurricanes 2015 first-round draft pick Haydn Fleury, who elevated his game to another level over the last two months of the season, Doetzel, Mahura, Strand, Bobyk and Nogier. Ryan Pouliot, who recently signed with the team, is a prime candidate to land another spot as a 17-year-old, and Cale Chalifoux, also 17, will be given a chance to fill the eighth blueline position.
“You never get over the fact you didn’t win your last game of the season,” said Sutter. “It’s always disappointing, but you have to be a realist too.
“We played a very good Medicine Hat team in the playoffs and were right there with them all the way, and they were certainly a lot older team than us. But we can take a lot out of the fact that was the best hockey we played the whole season. Because we knew we were facing a potent offensive team, we changed some things up before the series with some different ways of how we want to play, and we can carry that into next season.
“All of the experience we went though, especially the players, will be beneficial next year. We know where the expectations are, that we can be an elite team if we play a certain way and we have to use that experience to our advantage.
“All of the players were really good in the exit meetings. We had a great group, tremendously coachable, and now we just have to build off that and get ready for next season.”