The players and coaching staff have received a passing grade from the owner, who admittedly wouldn’t have been so generous with his marks six to eights weeks ago.
With his Calgary Flames on a hiatus while the NHL’s best competes in Vancouver, Red Deer Rebels proprietor Brent Sutter took in Friday’s Western Hockey League contest at the Centrium, where the locals bested the Prince George Cougars 3-1.
In Sutter’s opinion, the Rebels have come around nicely since the last time he viewed the club, which was just prior to Christmas.
“The biggest thing to me is the guys are playing a real good team game,” the Flames head coach said Sunday. “You notice that, and also the skill level. The team has some good, skilled players and the defence is playing and moving the puck a lot better. You can see that the team is playing with more confidence.”
The Rebels are not only close to nailing down a Western Hockey League playoff berth, the club is a mere two points removed from fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.
For that, Sutter tips his hat to head man Jesse Wallin and assistants Dallas Gaume and Bryce Thoma, as well as goaltender mentor Andy Nowicki.
“No question, the coaches have done a very good job. Jesse and I had a talk earlier in the season when the team had some obvious inconsistencies in their game. They would win two, then lose two, win three, lose three . . . you’re never going to get into the playoffs that way.
“But they’ve since found the consistency in their game and I give credit to Jesse and the coaching staff for staying with it and working with the players to get more out of their game. They’ve become a team that every night is accountable and responsible for playing a certain way.”
Sutter admitted that he hasn’t watched the Rebels via WHL webcam feeds with the same frequency this winter as was the case the past two years when he served as head coach of the New Jersey Devils and lived in a different time zone.
Of course, he’s also had his hands full with a Flames team that struggled big-time for several weeks just prior to the Olympic break. Sutter and his players — minus Olympians Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Niklas Hagman — will return to the ice Wednesday afternoon to begin preparations for the resumption of the NHL schedule next week.
“I feel good about the way we were playing heading into the break,” said Sutter, crediting the modest turnaround — the Flames are 3-2-1 in their last six outings — to the recent trades which brought in five forwards and defenceman Ian White in return for four players, the key skaters being Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen.
“It’s certainly been one of those years with lots of ups and downs,” said Sutter. “There were times when we thought we had turned the corner and then times when it looked like we were starting over.
“I probably have learned more this season than I ever have as a coach. You find out a lot about individuals and find out lots about the team and yourself as a coach, not only through the good times, but the difficult times, and we’ve certainly had our share this year. But we wanted to go into the break on a positive note and if the playoffs start today we’d be in.
“I think the changes that were made were changes that had to be made. We have more depth up front and it’s not a secret we’ve had trouble scoring goals.”
At the same time, the Flames are among the league-leaders in goals against.
“But it’s a tough league to play in when you have to win every game 1-0 and 2-1. It starts to wear on everybody,” said Sutter, who’s convinced that his team is better offensively with the additions of forwards Hagman, Ales Kotalik, Christopher Higgins and Matt Stajan.
“These trades have added more skill, more size and more speed and certainly intelligence to our front end. I truly felt that something had to be done.”