Rebels take steps in right direction, but more work to do

It’s Brent Sutter’s competitive nature that prevents him from labelling the Red Deer Rebels’ just-completed WHL season as a unconditional success. The Rebels shifted gears when Sutter replaced Jesse Wallin as GM/head coach in November, finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and reached the second round of the playoffs before falling to the Calgary Hitmen in five games.

It’s Brent Sutter’s competitive nature that prevents him from labelling the Red Deer Rebels’ just-completed WHL season as a unconditional success.

The Rebels shifted gears when Sutter replaced Jesse Wallin as GM/head coach in November, finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and reached the second round of the playoffs before falling to the Calgary Hitmen in five games.

Considering the moves in management and player personnel during the season and the club’s dart up the conference standings, the 2012-13 campaign was far from a failure. An unqualified success it was not, because the Rebels did not reach the ultimate goal of every WHL team.

However . . .

“The realistic view of it is we certainly took some strides. We saw a lot of improvement in players,” Sutter said this week. “I think there’s been some stabilization in that regard even though there’s still a lot of work to be done with what our identity and our culture is going to be moving forward here.

“As an owner I have expectations and I’ll demand a level of play that’s acceptable, not just to me but to our great fans and the people who support our team. We’ve certainly taken steps in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done and areas we have to continue to address.”

Patience will be a virtue — in fact, a necessity — as Sutter continues to reshape his squad and instill the qualities and characteristics he sees as absolutely necessary in order to become a perennial contender. The first changes will occur during the bantam draft and potential off-season trades.

“I said when I took over as general manager (last summer) that there are three areas this team is lacking in — talent, a combination of size and toughness, and speed,” said Sutter, who returned to his franchise last year after serving as head coach of the New Jersey Devils and Calgary Flames for a five-year stretch.

“The game has changed a lot in the last six years. You have to adjust and adapt to that, and not just in how your team plays but the personnel inside of it. That’s stuff that I’ve been addressing with Randy (director of scouting and play development Peterson) and Shaun (senior scout Sutter) on the scouting side of it — that when we’re looking at players you have to look at all of these elements. Those areas certainly need to be better. That’s part of your culture and identity as a team. It can’t be a mixed bag.

“I’m very firm in my belief that there has to be change and it just doesn’t happen in a three- to four-month period.”

Sutter feels fortunate in the fact he was able to detect some serious problems early last season, as the Rebels went zero-for-six in exhibition play and started the regular season oh-and-three.

“We lost our first nine games. There was no traction gained from the previous season which was a tough year with all the injuries and the team not playing well,” he said. “As the owner and GM I had to make some changes and unfortunately it affected Jesse. Jesse is a good person and a good coach, but for whatever reason it wasn’t working anymore and you have to address that quickly or it just continues to go deeper and deeper and takes a lot longer to get out of.”

Sutter, who had earlier swung trades that landed the likes of Brandon Underwood, Matt Bellerive and Brady Gaudet, replaced Wallin with himself and brought in former WHL and AHL head coach Jeff Truitt as an associate mentor.

And now he’s looking ahead to the 2013-14 season. The Rebels’ roster could remain mostly intact with the loss of three overage players and perhaps two more, and yet could also feature as many as six or seven new faces.

Clearly, the club will build around forwards Conner Bleackley and Adam Musil and defenceman Haydn Fleury, and Sutter is confident that the Rebels’ list of players turning 16 and 17 this year consists of at least a few players capable of being in the league next winter.

“Of the players in that age class, not one of them had a poor season in midget AAA,” he said.

Defenceman-turned-forward Vukie Mpofu will almost certainly be on the Red Deer roster next season, as will rearguard Kaleb Denham. Blueliners Holden Daly, Connor Hamonic and Jake McLaughlan are other possibilities

“They are all competitors, they have size and they can skate,” Sutter said of the blueline prospects. “They have different types of skills, but they all bring something that’s a big part of what we want to have in regards to the identity of our team.”

There will also be moves up front, with the likes Lynnden Pastachack, Grayson Pawlenchuk, Cole Chorney and Matt Lapointe expected to push for employment next fall. Some may even replace veterans eligible to return.

Red Deer’s goaltending will be set if Patrik Bartosak returns as an overage/import. The Eastern Conference netminder of the year will likely be selected in June’s NHL entry draft and could be back with the Rebels.

“Whether Patty comes back will depend on an NHL team. It will be out of our hands,” said Sutter.

Taz Burman is the Rebels’ front-running goaltending prospect — the club’s netminder of the future — and Grant Naherniak is also in the mix. It’s safe to assume that Bolton Pouliot won’t be back as a 19-year-old, but there’s a good chance he could play elsewhere in the league.

“Overall, if you look at the year as a whole, we some huge strides in where we want to go, although, again, there’s still lots of work to be done here,” said the Rebels boss. “Until we’re at the dance and pushing to be an elite team year after year, we should never be satisfied.

“That’s my responsibility as a GM — to make sure everyone understands that, and to make sure everyone is working at the level we have to work at to make sure that happens.”

Which brings us to the big question — will Sutter return as head coach next season?

“That’s something I’ll likely decide upon in June,” he said, explaining that if he does step down he wants to be sure a quality person — preferably a individual with head coaching experience at both the major junior and pro levels — is available.

“If I bring in someone to be head coach that person will also have to understand the importance of a culture within an organization and how you have to coach within that culture. He’ll also have to understand what our identity has to be here moving forward,” Sutter added.

It says here that Sutter will be back in his dual role. If he’s intent on developing a certain identity and culture within the team, now is not the time to step aside.

Sutter, to this day, regrets having to relieve Wallin of his duties, often blaming himself for not having another person in charge to aid Wallin while the Rebels owner was coaching in the NHL.

“No one was at fault for the team getting to that (low) point. A lot of different variables, a lot of different things, were in play,” said Sutter. “The fact is part of it happened because there wasn’t two people here.

“But we’re moving forward now and that includes getting everybody on the same page and holding everyone accountable, including our top players.”

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