To state the obvious, the Red Deer Rebels’ 2013-14 season was a major disappointment.
Make that understated.
The Rebels returned the vast majority of the players who made up the team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and won a playoff round last spring, yet failed to qualify for the post-season a year later.
The turnover in on-ice personnel involved only three key players — forward Turner Elson and defencemen Mathew Dumba and Brandon Underwood.
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter brought in a large number of rookies, including the likes of forwards Adam Musil and Grayson Pawlenchuk, goalie Taz Burman and defenceman Nick Charif (via the trade route), and added established overage centre Lukas Sutter in a deal with the Saskatoon Blades.
With a proven cast that included forwards Rhyse Dieno, Brooks Maxwell and rearguards Brady Gaudet, Haydn Fleury and Kayle Doetzel and goaltender Patrik Bartosak, the first-year players were supposed to ease into the picture as the club picked up where it left off last season.
Expectations for the 2013-14 campaign, understandably, were high. Somewhere along the line, it all fell apart.
So, yes, the season was a failure in the sense that it ended March 18, one win short of securing the final playoff berth in the conference. But it fell short of being termed a disaster.
“In some areas and with some individuals, yes, we did under-achieve. But probably we took the strides we needed to take and we’ll be better for it down the road,” said Brent Sutter.
“We knew coming in we were going to be a young team. The youth certainly grew and got better, which is very encouraging, very positive for us moving into next season.”
Unfortunately, the first-year players were forced to mature too quickly, with not enough support from the older cast.
“Some areas we under-achieved in was the fact that we didn’t play as well as we wanted to at home and certain individuals, especially within our older group, never took the steps that we thought they would this year.
“That hurt us on different nights, especially when we were playing the upper-echelon teams and we had to play our youth against the other team’s 19- and 20-year-olds. It had an impact on us some nights.
“We’ll be a better team next season simply because of the fact our young kids have grown because they were placed in situations a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds don’t get put into. It’s not what we had projected going into the season. Obviously, we really thought we could ween these kids into it because we thought we’d have enough with our older players. It didn’t work out that way and the young kids got thrown to the wolves a lot of nights.”
The Rebels’ back end struggled mightily through the season. Veterans Gaudet and Devan Fafard both regressed after being positive contributors the previous winter. Only Charif, Fleury and Doetzel finished on the right side of the plus-minus ledger and the crew, as a whole, had problems moving the puck out of the defensive zone.
Most of the above will be back next fall and will be joined by one to three rookies. The club will likely be better defensively in two years time due to the presence of promising prospects like Josh Mahura and possibly Austin Shmoorkoff, Austin Strand and/or Wyatt Kalynuk, but in order to avoid another repeat of 2013-14, Sutter will attempt to upgrade his blueline during the off-season, through the CHL import draft for starters.
“As a general manager, one area I have to improve is our back end. We have to make our defence better,” he concurred. “But it just doesn’t happen overnight.”
After a so-so start to the season, CHL goaltender of the year Bartosak returned to form and kept the Rebels in the playoff hunt down the stretch. He’s gone now, already off to Manchester, N.H., to start his pro career at the American League level.
Burman, outside of his first start, didn’t inspire confidence in the coaching staff when he was handed the reins on the few evenings that Bartosak was rested, raising at least mild doubts that he’ll be capable of carrying the load next season.
Sutter, however, isn’t giving up on the club’s second-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft.
“Burms had an opportunity to play some and it was a tough year for him,” said the Rebels boss. “But I’m patient with our goaltending because we have to be. Not being able to draft a European goalie anymore, you have to develop your own and Burms has got to be developed. He just turned 17 (in February).”
If Burman isn’t ready to assume the starters’ job, Sutter will possibly look to Rylan Toth, a six-foot-one, ‘96-born stopper with the midget AAA Battlefords Stars who posted a 2.43 goals-against average and .923 save percentage during the regular season and has great numbers (1.76, .936) in six playoff games, all victories.
As for the club’s sub-par home record of 16-17-0-4, Sutter feels that boiled down to the immaturity of youth.
“It came down to understanding preparation” he said. “On the road everything is taken care of. You wake up and breakfast is there. You jump on the bus and go for a pre-game skate, then come back off the bus and go back to your hotel room. Then you go for a pre-game meal at 2 p.m., return to your room and a while later leave for the game.
“At home, things are different with various distractions and the young kids have to learn that throughout the year. Look at our record on Saturday. That was a bad night for the Red Deer Rebels to play in terms of wins and losses. We won three games all winter on a Saturday. We were better through the week and that’s because kids were going to school and they weren’t spending time doing other things . .. going to the mall, or whatever. But that’s a learning process with a young team, and yet that’s what bothered us as coaches — we needed more from our older group to help these guys through that process.
“That wasn’t where it needed to be, so it was always coming from the head coach or the assistant coaches who spend less time with them their own teammates do. I think some of our older guys eventually learned from that.”
It wasn’t far into the season when Sutter realized and accepted the fact that very few of his veteran players were versed in the ways of leadership, which led, in part, to trades for forwards Presten Kopeck and Aspen Sterzer.
“A lot of the older guys, in fairness to them . . . this was the first time they were asked to be true leaders,” he said. “They’d always been part of a support cast. But we thought that they could handle it and I think they had a tougher time with it than they would admit.
“It was very noticeable. We could see it almost from the start of the season. We had a lot of guys — Maxwell, Gaudet, Bartosak, Dieno, (Dominik) Volek, (Matt) Bellerive, and you can put Lukas Sutter into that mix — and probably to a man they had a tough time with it.”
Sutter eventually appointed second-year forward Conner Bleackley as captain and over the last few weeks of the season the younger corps of players assumed much of the team leadership.
“To be quite honest, you can look at one game here or there and say, ‘well we didn’t that game’, but it truthfully had nothing to do with the one game,” said Sutter, whose squad dropped a number of contests to teams below them in the standings.
“We went through a spell where we got four out of a possible 22 points when we had been sitting pretty well in the standing. We lost ground while other teams were going on runs and catching us.
“When the young players took over the room it changed the way we started playing and the last 11 to 12 games we took huge steps.”
That being said, most of the veterans will be back next fall and will be expected to show up at camp in the best possible shape and in the best frame of mind.
“We have some good, young players coming into our system now,” said the Rebels bench boss, who is confident that his nephew, Shaun Sutter, who now holds the dual role as assistant GM/director of player personnel, will improve the team’s draft record, which has been spotty — at best — over the better part of the past 10 years.
Already, the GM/head coach sees a bright future for the club, mostly based on the last two bantam drafts and the players who have been listed since. Burman, Musil, Vukie Mpofu, Pawlenchuk, Cole Chorney and Meyer Nell were all with the Rebels this season and there’s more than a few gems on the way.
“Mason McCarty, coming in as a 16-year-old and playing like he did in big games down the stretch, was encouraging for us,” said Sutter. “He’s going to be a good player here. Then we have kids like (Brayden) Burke, Mahura and Jeff de Wit. . . these kids are going to push to be on our team next year and they’re all very intelligent, highly-skilled players.
“I’m not going to deny that we under-achieved in certain areas, but that had more to do with individuals than other things. In other areas, I thought we over-achieved. You can go around the league and ask other teams where Red Deer will be down the road and they’re going to say some pretty positive things simply because of our youth and the amount of young kids we played this year.”