In order to prosper, the Red Deer Rebels first had to suffer.
Rebels fans have certainly suffered in recent Western Hockey League seasons, with their favourite team failing to qualify for the playoffs three out of four years from 2006 to 2009. But those sorry campaigns paid off with early first-round picks in the bantam draft, from which the Rebels snagged Landon Ferraro, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Matt Dumba, in that order.
The fleet-footed Ferraro, who sniped 37 goals two years ago but eventually fell out of favour with Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin, was dealt to the Everett Silvertips this summer.
Nugent-Hopkins, the 2009-10 WHL rookie of the year, and Dumba, who is entering his maiden WHL season, aren’t going anywhere, although Nugent-Hopkins could be in the NHL as early as next year.
The duo provides a mix of aggression, intelligence and outright skill, and Wallin might be their biggest supporter.
“They’re both very, very talented players, and they’re both mature beyond their years with the way they carry themselves and with the way they play.”
“Obviously their skill set and ability allows them to be that way,” says Wallin.
National Hockey League scouts have had their eyes on Nugent-Hopkins from some time now. The 17-year-old Burnaby, B.C., product has not only flourished, but also dominated, at every level, his sublime skills a vurtual sight to behold.
Nugent-Hopkins collected six points in five games with the Rebels as a 15-year-old, and was honoured as the WHL’s premier freshman last spring after scoring 24 goals and accumulating 65 points in 67 contests. He was the lone WHL forward named to the Canadian under-18 team for the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament in August, then led the team in scoring and potted the lone goal in a 1-0 gold-medal win over the United States.
The flashy, elusive centre will be an early selection in next year’s NHL entry draft. Make that very early, like a top-three to top-five pick.
“‘Hoppy’ is a just an elite talent in all aspects. His physical capabilities and the way he skates, his acceleration, his ability to handle the puck and handle it in tight quarters and to make plays at top speed . . . it’s so rare for a player to have all of those attributes, including vision and creativity,” said Wallin.
“Plus, he thinks the game at a level that most guys never get to. You combine all of that and you have a pretty special package.”
The sky is clearly the limit for Nugent-Hopkins, a slightly-built but elusive skater who dodges checks and yet is always around the puck, often creating turnovers with his dogged determination.
“Again, his maturity and his character, in my opinion, put him over the top,” said Wallin. “He’s very focused he has a passion for the game. He wants to be on the ice very day and he wants to work to get better.”
That same work ethic is evident with Dumba, a strong and swift skater with a big shot and a penchant for delivering open-ice hits with his six-foot, 172-pound frame.
“Matty is the same as ‘Hoppy’, he competes all the time,” said Wallin. “And for a defenceman he has very good feet. He has great acceleration. He’s a powerful skater, very strong on his feet and very mobile.
“His movement from side to side and his ability to stop and go and change directions is at an elite level. The way he shoots and carries the puck and his ability to play a physical game are also special. He’s a pretty complete package on the back end.”
Dumba has yet to prove himself at the major junior level, but his performance during the preseason — when he was consistently among the top three players on the ice — was a good indicator of what is to come. Rookie rearguards are prone to errors and nerves, but Dumba has the skills to overcome both.
“No question, we expect him to be a big part of things,” said Wallin. “He’s 16, but we don’t look at him necessarily as a 16-year-old player. It’s going to be a step for him and there’s going to be a learning curve for him, but much like ‘Hoppy’ last year, with the type of player that he is and the ability he has, he’s going to be able to play in situations that most 16-year-olds are capable of doing.
“As he adjusts to the league and gains some experience and confidence, I think his game is going to progress very rapidly and certainly his maturity is going to allow him to excel on the ice. Expectations are high for him, but we have no doubt that he’s capable of handling that.”
The Rebels scouting staff has struck out on occasion with the club’s first-round pick. Connor Redmond, taken 11th overall in 2007, is now with the Vancouver Giants and has yet to prove he can contribute at the major junior level, and Cass Mappin, the 12th overall pick in 2005, is currently without a WHL home at the age of 20.
But Nugent-Hopkins and Dumba are big-time keepers.
“Both guys are special talents and we’re excited to have them,” said Wallin.