Onwards and upwards.
Upwards, not only in terms of moving up in the Western Hockey League standings, but also in height and weight.
Red Deer Rebels general manager/head coach Brent Sutter fully expects his 2013-14 club to improve on last season’s fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and advance further than the second round of the playoffs.
He likes what his veteran players offer, and yet he knows more that mere talent is needed if the team is to experience success this season. The club’s lack of size and grit was never more apparent than in last spring’s second-round playoff loss to the larger Calgary Hitmen.
“Our expectations are high, and yet you look at the makeup of our team and you certainly see good and bad,” Sutter said Thursday. “You see where your needs and wants are to get you to where you can be an elite team at this level and compete to win. I think we saw in the second round of the playoffs last season what we’re missing and it showed as different times throughout the year.
“We want to get bigger and tougher and bring in more character, yet we certainly want to have speed and skill too. But skill is over-rated if you don’t have the other aspects to go with it , and those are the aspects we had to improve on.”
To that end, Sutter acquired his nephew — 20-year forward Lukas Sutter, who last season played at 214 pounds — from the Saskatoon Blades in June, and this week picked up six-foot-four defenceman Spencer Morse from the Moose Jaw Warriors.
In addition, he’s invited six-foot-two, 181-pound rearguard Kirk Bear, six-five forward Ian Parker and six-one and six-three forwards Jordan Ross and Duncan Campbell to training camp, which opens Saturday at the Centrium with a 90-minute rookie session starting at 7:30 p.m.
Bear, an 18-year-old who has been listed by the Rebels, had 22 points (3-19) in 44 games with the midget AAA Notre Dame Argos last season. Parker, 17, played for the junior Seattle Totems and scored 15 goals and collected 40 points in 52 games, while Ross and Campbell, both 17, played midget AAA hockey in Tisdale and Brandon, accumulating respective totals of 26 points (14-12) in 35 games and 38 points (25-13) in 41 outings.
The club has additional size up front with the likes of 16-year-old Adam Musil, who’s a lock to be on the regular-season roster, and fellow rookie hopefuls Cole Chorney and Earl Webb.
“When you look at the group of players, we’re going to have some 17-year-olds and some 16s who are going to push to make the team this year,” said Sutter. “If they show us that they are where we think they are, we’ll probably have to make room for them because they will probably have passed some of the other guys on our roster.
“But that’s part of progression . . . that’s part of continuing to grow as a team. My job as a GM was to make sure I started filling those holes when the season was over. It’s a work in progress, but certainly with the guys we’ve added, the experienced guys we have coming back and the promising prospects . . . I like our team.”
Sutter was the recipient of excellent news when he was informed by the Los Angeles Kings following this year’s NHL draft that netminder Patrik Bartosak would be returned to the Rebels. The 20-year-old Czech, the top stopper in the entire Canadian Hockey League last season, will start at least 55 games in 2013-14.
“That’s the biggest key to anything. You can’t succeed at any level if you don’t have stability at that position and Patty certainly brings that,” said Sutter.
Bartosak’s return will also aid the Rebels long-term in that Sutter won’t have to rush 16-year-old Taz Burman — the club’s appointed ‘goaltender of the future’ — leaving 17-year-olds Rylan Toth, the possible favourite, and Grant Naherniak to vie for the back-up position this season.
Veteran Bolton Pouliot will check into main camp Monday, but at the age of 19 he might be a long shot to gain the No. 2 spot. It’s not often that a club will carry 20- and 19-year-old goaltenders, but if Pouliot has a great camp Sutter could be convinced to send Toth and Naherniak back to the midget AAA level for further seasoning, which might not be a bad thing.
“Naherniak is a kid who’s been part of our program for a few years, yet there have been some weaknesses in his game,” said Sutter. “There are areas he needs to improve in and if he doesn’t play here he can go back to Moose Jaw and play with a team (Generals) hosting the Telus Cup. That experience alone should benefit him going into the following season.
“I really like our goaltending situation. Patty returning to Red Deer was huge in the process of developing the goalies in our system. And having Taylor (newly-hired goaltender coach Dakers), who can spent a lot of time not just with our goalies but also our prospects, is significant, especially with the new (Hockey Canada) rules where you can no longer draft European goaltenders.”
Among the Rebels’ key returnees are forwards Rhyse Dieno, Brooks Maxwell, Conner Bleackley, Dominik Volek, Matt Bellerive and Wyatt Johnson, and defencemen Mathew Dumba — who will likely start the NHL season with Minnesota and might not be back — Brady Gaudet and Haydn Fleury.
Sutter will be looking for impressive camps from returning 18-year-old forwards Scott Feser, Christian Stockl and Cory Millette, who will be pushed by a rookie crop that includes Grayson Pawlenchuk, Meyer Nell and Mathieu Lapointe.
On the back end, the Rebels boss wants a bigger season from Kayle Doetzel, who was passed over in June’s NHL entry draft. Fellow returnee Devan Fafard is a virtual lock, while rookies Jake MacLachlan and Kaleb Denham, and second-year man Riley Boomgaarden are also in the picture.
“I really like our team. I like our prospects, I like what’s coming,” said Sutter. “Now it’s going to sort itself out over the next three weeks. Our expectations here are always high. Our veteran players all have to be better and yet they should be, being a year older and with more experience.
“It’s encouraging, and yet you want to see it. I think we’ve started to add the pieces we need regarding the way we want to play. As an organization you have to continue to move forward.”
• Rookie camp resumes Sunday with a goaltender session at 1 p.m. and a scrimmage at 3 p.m., and concludes Monday with the goalies on the ice from 2-3 p.m. and scrimmages at 3 p.m.. Main camps open Monday at 5 p.m., with scrimmages set for 1:30 and 6 p.m. Tuesday. Practices will be staged at 9, 10:15 and 11:30 a.m. Wednesday — followed by a Black and White preview scrimmage at 5 p.m. — and camp will conclude with the Black and White intraquad game at 7 p.m. Thursday . . . Five Rebels veterans will attend NHL camps, with Dumba off to Minnesota Aug. 31, Bartosak, Dieno and Doetzel departing for Los Angeles, Minnesota and Nashville Sept. 3, and Sutter leaving for Winnipeg Sept. 4.