Coming off a successful weekend in Kennewick, Wash., Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter talked about how his club is “playing the right way” during the Western Hockey League preseason.
Sutter is tickled that each and every player is on the same page as the coaching staff, which should make for an easier transition once the regular season starts next week and the bullets are flying in earnest.
Presten Kopeck, entering his first full season with the Rebels after being acquired — along with three second-round bantam draft picks — from the Portland Winterhawks last December in a deal that sent Matt Dumba to the eventual Western Conference champs, has seen the same attitude attributes as Sutter has detected.
“Obviously, we weren’t happy with the way things ended off last year,” the 19-year-old forward said Wednesday, in reference to a March 18 tie-breaker loss to the visiting Prince Albert Raiders that kicked the Rebels to the sidelines and out of the playoff picture.
“But we came in this fall with the right mindset right from the get-go. From Day One of training camp, I think everyone has shown that they’re here for the right reasons, and that’s to have a strong season and go far in the playoffs.”
Kopeck played in both of Red Deer’s games in the Tri-City Americans preseason tournament last weekend and was impressed with the club’s performance in 4-2 wins over the host team and the Winterhawks. While Portland was minus the services of their top two forwards and starting goaltender, the Rebels were missing their best rearguard in Haydn Fleury, as well as first-line centre/winger Conner Bleackley and another top-four blueliner in Kayle Doetzel.
In the WHL, preseason games normally mean diddly squat, win or lose. But Kopeck has rather large expectations for the 2014-15 version of the Rebels based partly on last weekend’s success.
“I think we have a championship team . . . it looks that way early on,” he said. “I think we took a really big step forward in Tri-City. We have a bunch of young guys coming up who are really skilled and will help us out a lot, guys like (Mason) McCarty and (Adam) Musil. These younger guys will help us now and next year too, for sure.”
Kopeck scored six goals and collected 20 points in 27 games with the Rebels last season, and will be counted on to produce at both ends of the ice while providing a veteran leadership presence in 2014-15.
That’s just fine with the Medicine Hat native, who’s a definite assistant captain candidate.
“I pretty much play an all-around game, that’s always what I’ve been about,” he said. “I’ve always been a good defensive player, but this year I’m hoping to add some offence to the team and be a good older guy younger players can look up to . . . just an all-around player helping out in all situations.”
Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt is one of Kopeck’s biggest fans and expects the three-year WHL veteran to contribute in a major fashion this season.
“We expect an awful lot from Presten,” said Truitt. “We traded for him last winter. He came in from an organization that’s had success and we expect him to carry that over to our group.
“He did a great job with us last season and you can see the natural leadership that’s in him. He comes to work every day, he’s directed in everything he does. He practises hard, he prepares himself for games . . . he’s come in in great shape. Early on in the preseason he’s done a tremendous job. He’s a big difference in our dressing room.”
Basically, Kopeck is everything a team looks for in a veteran player.
“That’s what you hope for when making these types of trades,” said Truitt. “He has a resume of having some success, but with that he’s coming into a new group and how do you share that?
“He came from a good organization that’s had success, but how does that translate here? But he’s really done a great job of helping prepare guys and taking direction from the coaching staff in regards to new systems and stuff like that. This year he’s just taken another big step and has really established himself as a good leader.”
The Rebels, 2-1-0-1 in exhibition play this fall, conclude their preseason schedule with a Friday date with the Edmonton Oil Kings at the Enmax Centrium and a Saturday meeting with the Medicine Hat Tigers in Stettler.