With one eye on the future, Red Deer Rebels general manager/head coach Brent Sutter reassigned seven players Monday.
“Every one of the players reassigned today are all going to be pushing to play here next year, so we wanted to make sure we got them back to their teams,” said Sutter, who bid adieu to 16-year-old forwards Brayden Burke, Mason McCarty and Meyer Nell, 15-year-old forward Jeff de Wit, 17-year-old netminder Grant Naherniak and defencemen Josh Mahura, 15, and Austin Shmoorkoff, 16.
Burke is slated to suit up with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, while the other six are expected to play at the midget AAA level. Naherniak will rejoin the Moose Jaw Generals, de Wit will likely be with the Red Deer Optimist Rebels Chiefs, Mahura will play at the Okanagan Hockey Academy, McCarty (UFA Bisons) and Shmoorkoff (Edmonton Canadians) will stay in Alberta and Nell will play at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.
Nell might have been the toughest call of the bunch after showing well in the Rebels rookie and main camps and picking up an assist in an 8-4 preseason loss to the Prince George Cougars Saturday at St. Albert.
“He got better each day of main camp, yet there are still improvements he needs to make in his game to be able to be a regular roster player,” said Sutter. “He’s a very good hockey player, but at the same time we want to make sure we do the right thing with him and these other young kids and get them into the right programs.
“He (Nell) was in tough to play here this year as a 16-year-old, especially with the amount of games (40) you have to get these 16-year-olds into during the season. We’re doing the right thing by putting these kids in situations where they can succeed.”
The moves leave the Rebels with a 32-man roster, including five players who will have either left or are leaving for NHL camps this week. That list includes Mathew Dumba (Minnesota), Lukas Sutter (Winnipeg), Patrik Bartosak (Los Angeles), Rhyse Dieno (Minnesota) and Kayle Doetzel (Nashville).
Among the players remaining in camp are four 16-year-olds — forwards Adam Musil and Grayson Pawlenchuk, defenceman Austin Strand and goalie Taz Burman, who stopped all 13 shots he faced in a 2-1 preseason loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings Sunday. Bolton Pouliot, 19, and 17-year-old Rylan Toth are also battling for the back-up position behind Bartosak.
Toth gave up four goals on 15 shots in the Saturday setback, while Naherniak was touched for four goals on 18 shots.
“I thought both of our goaltenders would have liked a few of those goals back,” said Sutter, who dressed just two veterans — forwards Cory Millette and Christian Stockl — for the contest.
The Cougars, who had seven veterans in their lineup, got two goals from Tanner Lishchynsky and one from each of Joseph Carvalho, Jansen Harkins, Tyler Mrkonjic, Carson Bolduc, David Soltes and Austin Ferguson.
The Rebels got goals from Burke, McCarty, Kirk Bear and Cole Chorney while firing 22 shots at Prince George netminders Matt Kustra and Ty Edmonds.
Sutter was impressed with the play of his rookie-laden squad that included de Wit, who picked up three assists, and Muhara, neither of whom are eligible to play in the WHL until next year.
“Our kids battled and played hard. There were spurts in the game where they played very well,” said the Rebels bench boss.
“It was a tough game in the sense that we played just two veterans and Prince George had a little older lineup.”
Toth stopped 16 of 18 shots in the second half of Sunday’s loss at St. Albert, giving up third-period goals to Edgars Kulda and Cole Benson. Musil notched the Rebels’ lone goal — a power-play marker set up by fellow rookie Vukie Mpofu — at 12:39 of the opening frame.
Patrick Dea and Tyler Santos combined to make 24 saves for the Oil Kings in the penalty-filled outing.
“It was a really tough game for both teams in the sense that there were so many penalties called,” said Sutter of the 84 minutes — 43 to Red Deer — in infractions issued by referees Jonathan Spurgeon and Jon Stephenson.
“Every time someone was touched there was a penalty, so there was no flow to the game. It was crazy. They gave us a timeout when we didn’t even call one. But it’s exhibition and the young refs are going through the learning process too.
“Still, I thought there were times when we did a lot of good things well and our kids showed us a lot of positive things. Now they have that exhibition experience and they can go back to their programs and we can focus on the team at hand here. There are still some decisions to be made but now it comes down whether the (rookies) still here can push out some of the veterans. Now is the time that the veterans have to step up.”
Red Deer returns to preseason action Friday at Nanton against the Calgary Hitmen. The Rebels host the Lethbridge Hurricanes the following night at the Arena.