He’s upbeat and enthusiastic, and according to Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, he’s not that far away from being a full-time contributor on the club’s blueline.
Ethan Sakowich, a third-round selection — 46th overall — in the 2014 Western Hockey League bantam draft, hasn’t looked out of place while appearing in three preseason games this fall.
“He’s been just really steady,” Sutter said Tuesday. “He’s not a flashy player by any means, but he understands the game and he’s going to be a really good defenceman. He has a great stick and he’s smart.”
Sakowich, a 16-year-old product of Athabasca, has been all smiles through the preseason.
“It’s been a great experience, definitely something different,” said the six-foot, 170-pound blueliner. “I’m enjoying all of it. It’s been nice to meet some new guys and I’m having fun playing hockey here.”
Sakowich was a combined plus-1 and was also assessed a minor penalty during the Rebels’ most recent exhibition outings, a 5-3 win over the host Americans and a 5-3 loss to the Spokane Chiefs last Friday and Saturday in the Tri-City tournament at Kennewick, Wash.
He was also a plus-1 and picked up an assist in Red Deer’s first preseason game — a 5-2 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings Sept. 5.
Sakowich quickly discovered that the speed and bang-and-crash play of WHL preseason contests are more intense than anything he experienced during Rebels training camp and even the Black and White intrasquad game.
“It’s definitely a lot faster and crisper and everything is done at a high pace,” he said. “The games have also been more physical than I’m used to, but I feel that I’m adjusting to it well enough.”
Sakowich was the top defenceman with the major bantam Fort Saskatchewan Rangers the year he was drafted by the Rebels and last season played with the midget AAA Rangers, collecting five assists and running up 10 minutes in penalties in 27 games.
He trained with a purpose during the off-season and his conditioning has helped him remain with the Rebels, at least to this point. With Red Deer hosting the Memorial Cup tournament next May and no fewer than seven blueline berths already decided, Sakowich might be a longshot to remain with the club beyond late September.
“I worked really hard during the summer and I definitely feel like I’m a lot stronger than I was at the start of the year,” he said. “Physically, I feel like I’m pretty close to playing here. I can work on my speed a bit because it’s very quick at this level, but I feel like I’m close.”
In the event that he’s reassigned, Sakowich will rejoin the midget AAA squad in Fort Saskatchewan and take on a major role.
“I’ll definitely be playing a lot if I go back to midget, but I’m just taking it day by day right now,” he said. “I’ll just keep working hard in practice and try to make a name for myself.”
• Sutter reassigned two players — forwards Zac Gladu and Tanner Sidaway — on Tuesday, 24 hours after sending 15-year-old defenceman Jacob Herauf of Sherwood Park and forward D-Jay Jerome, 16, of Lethbridge to the midget AAA ranks.
Gladu, 17, will join the Drayton Valley Thunder of the Alberta Junior League and Sidaway, 16, will suit up with the Westshore Wolves of the Vancouver Island Junior B League.
• There remains a strong possibility that none of the eight Rebels attending NHL rookie camps will be back earlier than next week.
Sutter confirmed Tuesday that Anaheim Ducks campers Wyatt Johnson and Lane Pederson, Winnipeg Jets prospects Nelson Nogier and Michael Spacek, Evan Polei (Detroit), Conner Bleackley (Colorado) and Haydn Fleury (Carolina) have all graduated to main camp.
The Rebels boss had yet to hear from the St. Louis Blues in regards to Adam Musil.
“It’s great experience for these players, but I hope to have at least a few of them back for opening weekend or we’ll be short-handed,” said Sutter, in reference to the Rebels’ regular-season opener Sept. 26 versus the Oil Kings and a rematch the following day in Edmonton.
The Rebels close out their preseason schedule with a Friday date with the Oil Kings at the Centrium and a Saturday engagement with the Medicine Hat Tigers at Stettler.