After showing his offensive prowess with a 13-point rookie season from the Red Deer Rebels’ back end, Austin Strand had to envision himself improving on those numbers this winter.
But as a member of the Rebels’ third blueline pairing, Strand hasn’t seen a lot of power play time and after finding the back of the opposition net on four occasions last season, he didn’t score his first goal of the current campaign until Jan. 20, in a 6-1 win over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors.
“The points haven’t been coming but I got my first goal recently and that was nice,” the 18-year-old defenceman said Thursday.
Not that having an occasional presence on the official scoresheet is of much importance to the Calgary native, whose primary duties revolve around keeping opposition forwards away from his goaltender and getting the puck up ice to the teammates who are expected to supply most of the offence.
The two Austins — Strand and Shmoorkoff — have quietly bonded into a reliable five-six defensive pairing, with both players having shown more consistency over the past two months.
“With me and Shmoo … our chemistry is coming along, we’re getting that together,” said the six-foot-four, 194-pound Strand. “We’ve been working on certain things with Truey (associate coach Jeff Truitt) and Lodgey (assistant coach Erik Lodge) after practice.”
Finding consistency is the secret to success for any defenceman and Strand has discovered a pre-game procedure that has helped him in that department.
“With me I think it’s mostly about focus,” he said. “I’ve found a new pre-game routine that I like in terms of focusing. Before the game I’ll just visualize a lot more and I’ve found that it has helped with avoiding those little hiccups.
“Being more consistent out there is definitely something I worked on last season and I think I’ve been better that way this year.”
Truitt has taken notice of the improved uniformity and overall development in Strand’s game.
“He’s not a player who you’re going to see huge improvements from at one time, but it’s a lot of little things along the way that he’s doing better than last year,” said Truitt.
“For him, in his role, he just needs to win shifts, but he’s got some sneaky offence which he proved last year. He has those types of capabilities, but he’s more a guy who just kind of quietly does his job. Sometimes mistakes are made but he does a lot of little things well, and you need those kinds of guys. They’re a big part of your program.”
Truitt, noting the growth in his confidence and passing ability and the fact he also performs with a physical edge, feels that Shmoorkoff has improved more than any Red Deer player from the start of the season.
Thus, he and Strand have provided the coaching staff with the confidence that the duo can play bigger minutes, if necessary.
“The nice thing about those two guys is that if any one of our top four (defencemen) goes down or is in the penalty box, we can throw those guys up against the other team’s second and third lines. We’re not afraid of doing that,” said Truitt. “They are great complementary players who have improved little by little as the season has gone along.”
Strand was ranked by Central Scouting last season but wasn’t selected in the NHL entry draft.
“It kind of shows that the rankings don’t really mean anything,” he said.
So far, his name hasn’t appeared on the 2015-16 Central Scouting list. Ironically, he might be appealing to an NHL team when this year’s draft rolls round.
“If I have a good second half of the season, a good playoff run and strong Memorial Cup showing, (getting drafted) might be a possibility,” said Strand.
Selected by the Rebels in the third round — 48th overall — of the 2012 WHL bantam draft, Strand is confident the team can put together a lengthy post-season stretch leading into the Memorial Cup tournament which Red Deer will host in May.
“It’s exciting to think about the potential here,” he said. “We haven’t had the full team together because of guys getting hurt, and now Bleacks (forward Conner Bleackley) is out of the lineup (for six weeks with a knee injury).
“We should have all the guys back at the right time. We should have a great team then and I’m looking forward to that.”
• The Rebels close out a five-game homestand this weekend, taking on the Kootenay Ice tonight and facing the Brandon Wheat Kings Saturday.