A win is a bonus during the Western Hockey League exhibition season, which consists mostly of a series of games showcasing players who are either on the cusp of breaking into the league or are at least another year away.
The Red Deer Rebels didn’t cash in any bonus points during the weekend, but head coach Jesse Wallin got a nice read on a number of prospects.
Despite falling 6-3 to the Prince George Cougars and 5-3 to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the latter club’s preseason tournament Saturday and Sunday at St. Albert, Wallin liked what he saw from his fresh-faced charges, most of whom will be playing at the midget level this winter.
“In both games we basically played all of our younger kids, filling out some spots with returning guys,” said Wallin, who dressed only five returnees versus Edmonton and two against Prince George.
“We wanted to let our kids get their feet wet, get them into games and get that experience,” continued Wallin. “That’s what we did and I thought they handled themselves very well overall.”
At no time did Wallin consider inserting the likes of 20-year-old forwards Turner Elson, Charles Inglis and Adam Kambeitz. Returning forwards Joel Hamilton, Colten Mayor and Tyson Ness also sat out both games and veteran defencemen Mathew Dumba, Kayle Doetzel and Stephen Hak never played.
No. 1 netminder Patrik Bartosak was also parked for the weekend.
“It was more or less experience for the younger guys. Some of the guys are competing for spots and those guys obviously have to show well,” said Wallin. “For the 15-year-olds, it was strictly experience, part of the development process . . . getting them out there playing against some veteran players.”
One day after being trounced 8-2 by the Swift Current Broncos, the Oil Kings dressed 12 returning players against the Rebels, who had five veterans in their lineup.
“Edmonton had quite a few veterans dressed and our kids got to play against some pretty good players at this level and they held their own,” said Wallin. “Early on, a lot of guys looked a bit overwhelmed and were kind of playing in awe.
“We gave up two early goals, but once we got our first goal we kind of settled down a bit and played pretty well from there.”
The Oil Kings jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Brett Pollock and Brandon Baddock, before Conner Bleackley and Trace Elson countered for the Rebels before the first period was over.
From there, mainstays T.J. Foster and Michael St. Croix scored second-period markers for Edmonton. Rebels returnee Marc McCoy cut the deficit to 4-3 at 14:26 of the third period, but Brandon Ralph sealed the deal with an empty-net tally in the final minute.
Wallin wasn’t impressed with the first two goals surrendered by Rebels netminder Bolton Pouliot, but liked the composure he displayed the rest of the way.
“Bolton didn’t allow the first two goals to rattle him. He stood tall from there and gave us a chance to get back into it,” said Wallin of Pouliot, who finished with 34 saves as the Rebels were outshot 39-21.
Wallin was impressed with 15-year-old forwards Grayson Pawlenchuk and Meyer Nell, who for some reason — only Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal would know for sure — were continually matched up against Foster, 20, and 19-year-old NHL draft pick St. Croix.
“Considering who they played against, Pawlenchuk and Nell had some pretty good shifts in the third period,” said the Rebels bench boss who liked his club’s compete level in both games, although rookie netminder Grant Naherniak struggled somewhat against the Cougars while stopping 17 of 23 shots.
“Grant didn’t have his best night, but again it was an experience for him and he’ll get better moving forward,” said Wallin, who praised Bleackley for his weekend play as well as fellow rookie forward Jesse Miller, who scored Saturday’s game-opening goal.
Dexter Bricker also tallied for the Rebels in Saturday’s setback. Tate Olson scored twice for the Cougars, who got singles from Jarrett Fontaine, Brad Morrison, Jake Mykitiuk and Joseph Carvalho, while netminders Brett Zarowny and Ty Edmonds combined to make 19 saves.
Forwards Brayden Burke, 15, and defenceman Jake MacLachlan, 16, were reasigned following Saturday’s game, with 15-year-olds Pawlenchuk, Nell, Austin Strand and Adam Musil sent home Monday.
The deletions left the Rebels with 29 players heading into the next two preseason games — Friday at Calgary versus the Hitmen and 24 hours later at Innisfail against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.