Rylan Toth came into his rookie campaign just hoping to get a chance to prove himself in the Red Deer Rebels net.
Now, with the start of the WHL playoffs, he has a chance to establish himself as a star 13 months out of hosting the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
“It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to it,” said Toth, 18, knowing that mistakes and miscues are magnified that much more in the post-season. “It will be something different, I’ve never experienced the playoffs at this level before.”
Toth is one of five first year Rebels trying to carve out their own place on the roster as they prepare for a first round showdown with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
As starting goalie, however, few will have the chance to make as big an impact on the team. If he struggles, second year ’tender Taz Burman will jump into his place.
Toth posted a 28-18-4-5 record this season with a 2.84 goals against average and a .904 save percentage. Last year he starred for the Battlefords North Stars in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League, posting a 2.43 GAA and a .923 save percentage in the regular season and a 2.569 GAA and .914 save percentage in the playoffs.
“A lot of these Western League teams, they bring these guys a long slowly, but if you look at Rylan Toth where he came from last year to this year, my expectations are really high for him, I think he can carry the load,” said Rebels assistant coach Steve O’Rourke. “If he does falter, Taz has been extremely good for us down the stretch.”
Staring Toth down at the other end of the ice in the first round is a player in the exact opposite situation. The Tigers’ Marek Langhamer, 20, is an Arizona Coyotes draft pick and is in his third year in the WHL. It’s a match up Toth pays little attention too, though he is hoping to build a similar reputation ahead of the Memorial Cup nest year.
“It’s kind of in the back of your head, you definitely know you’re playing against a goalie that’s drafted, so if you can have a better game than he does, it looks good for you,” said Toth. “In games when you’re playing against a goalie like that, you want to be at your best.”
Austin Strand has as much to gain from a strong playoff performance this year. The six-foot-three, 193-pound blue-liner is one of the Rebels’ highest ranked prospect heading into the NHL entry draft this summer. But his focus is on the Tigers.
“It’s pretty important but I’m just going to try and stick to what I do, not try and do anything out of the ordinary and try to help them get as far as we can by bringing what I can bring,” said Strand, 18, who was a third round draft pick of the Rebels in the 2012 WHL bantam draft.
“I’m just looking forward to playoffs, it’s unreal. Growing up as a kid I just always wanted to play for the Rebels.”
Strand has played well in his debut WHL season, picking up 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 54 games while posting a minus-2 rating and 44 penalty minutes.
He’ll be joined on the blue-line by 16-year-old defenceman Josh Mahura who has also played well, despite his youth, scoring eight points (2-6-8) with 20 penalty minutes in 51 games.
But the playoffs will be a whole new animal for the six-foot, 165-pound St. Albert native.
“It’s been a great learning experience for me so far, I’m still learning things every day from the coaches and the experienced players around me,” he said. “I’ve just got to be ready to go (for the playoffs), I’ve got to be mentally there and physically there as well.”
Jeff de Wit made a home for himself on the Rebels fourth line, putting forth a respectable first year for his hometown team. While his numbers offensively don’t jump off the page — 13 points (3-10-13) in 65 games — he didn’t hurt his team.
This playoff run will be critical to his development.
“I’m excited, I’m expecting it to be a little more physical and a little more serious … you’ve just got to be ready each game,” said the six-foot-two, 180-pound centre. “It’s definitely huge if we can get through a few series and show us rookies what it takes to win in big situations. With the Memorial Cup next year, it will be huge.”
Reese Johnson, 16, was called up to the Rebels from the Saskatoon Blazers midget AAA team a month ago after the Blazers failed to qualify for the playoffs. Instead, he will be immersed in a much higher level of post-season.
He led the Blazers in scoring with 38 points (23-15-38) in 43 games this season, but has just two goals in 12 games with the Rebels.
“It’s been a lot quicker pace than what I’m used to, but I thought I adjusted to it real good,” said Johnson. “Hopefully I can get into the lineup and contribute as best as I can and try to win.”
While the Rebels do have an accomplished set of veteran forwards like captain Conner Bleackley, Riley Sheen Brooks Maxwell and Wyatt Johnson, O’Rourke says the playoffs are a prime time for young players to step up.
“This is the real true test of their character, we’ve known them all year, now what do they bring?” said O’Rourke, adding second year winger Grayson Pawlenchuk is due to break out. “This is where you really make it or break it, this is where you really jump your draft status for yourself with a big performance. We’ve seen it with the unsung heroes in the NHL who score five, 10, 12 goals in a playoff run, that’s what we need from these guys.”
The Rebels are firmly focused on a long run this year, but everything they have done roster wise has been with an eye to next season when they host the Memorial Cup, and a long run this year may be as beneficial than any new player they can bring in.
“As soon as the Memorial Cup was announced, Brent and Shaun Sutter went to work on building this team for next year, but the whole goal in mind was to win this year,” said O’Rourke. “Maybe we could have gone out and got a couple of 19-year-ols, but we got 18-year-olds in (Nelson) Nogier and (Colton) Bobyk to help us right today but with that eye on the future … We’re going to push this year to get as much experience as possible and hopefully win it this year.”