On the eve of the Red Deer Rebels’ Western Hockey League regular-season opener, Brent Sutter was counting the ways in which he’s comfortable with his opening-night group.
He came up with not one, not two, but three areas in which he’s already seen improvements over the 2013-14 non-playoff team that struggled due to a high number of fresh faces and a lack of administrative veterans, which, in turn, led to a somewhat dysfunctional locker room environment.
“No. 1, we have good leadership in our dressing room,” the Rebels general manager/head coach said Thursday, looking ahead to tonight’s 7 p.m. date with the visiting Kootenay Ice. “Our older guys understand and are more aware of what leadership is and how important it is to our team and how important it is inside of our dressing room and for the young players.”
How about No. 2?
“Our younger (second-year) players are now a year older. They’re still young, but they’ve been through the league, through the grind,” said Sutter. “They’re bigger, stronger and more mature athletes.”
As for No. 3 . . .
“Just the attitude and the work ethic that’s here,” said the Rebels boss. “The players are very coachable and take a hands-on approach in the dressing room as far as not having to have coaches in there talking about our systems all the time. It’s certainly a very focused group.”
Sutter is convinced that it’s also an arrangement of players that will look that much better down the road.
“Obviously it’s about wanting to win games, and yet you want to continue to develop players,” he said.
“I feel as good about the group we have here as I ever have (since returning from the NHL two years ago), and it’s not just about where they are today but where they’re going to be in three months from now and a year from now. There’s some very good players here in terms of top-end guys and there’s a very good support cast.”
That being said, patience will remain a virtue with the coaching staff. Sutter, who will learn next month whether his franchise will host the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament, kicked off a youth movement last season and is adamant that he and his staff will see it through.
“We have to stay the course that we started last year,” he said.
“It was tough that we didn’t make the playoffs and yet we knew what we were doing as far as how we had to set this up. We knew we were going to go through some tough times and as the season wore on it showed that there were areas we needed to improve.”
Tangibly, the club’s back end was first and foremost on the to-do list. Generally, last season’s blueline corps simply wasn’t a puck-moving, swift-skating bunch.
“Our defence was certainly the first area that needed to get better, and we’ve done that,” said Sutter. “We’re more mobile back there, we move the puck, we’re bigger.
“We have forwards who can really skate and make plays and you need your defence to get them the puck. We knew that last year, but it’s hard to fix right away, we had to be patient with it. We knew we had Josh Mahura coming, we knew there was a possibility that Austin Strand could play for us, and when we acquired Brett Cote during the off-season, that really added to it.
“Now we’re going into a year in which we have to continue to grow and move forward and take the strides needed for us to be an elite team.”
l Taz Burman will start in the Rebels net tonight, with rookie Rylan Toth available if needed . . . Forward Wyatt Johnson (Anaheim) and defenceman Kayle Doetzel (Toronto) returned from NHL camps this week and will be in the Red Deer lineup . . . Defenceman Mario Grman and forward Brayden Burke will sit out as healthy scratches . . . Forward Conner Bleackley and rearguard Haydn Fleury remain in the camps of the Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes. Bleackley could be possibly be back as early as next weekend, while Fleury’s return could be delayed another week or two . . . The Rebels are in Calgary Saturday to face the Hitmen, then are idle until Sept. 27 when they entertain the Ice for the second time in nine days.