Some would call it a wasted season, a season in which the Red Deer Rebels were among the WHL’s top teams through the first two months and then were blind-sided with a severe rash of injuries that left the club short of a playoff berth.
But wasted would be the wrong term with which to label the Rebels’ 2011-12 campaign.
Perhaps frustrating would be better?
“Well, I always tell the players it’s easy to get frustrated, so I hate to use that word,” said GM/head coach Jesse Wallin. “It was certainly a challenging season. It posted challenges that I couldn’t have dreamt of.”
The primary test was dealing with more than 300 man-games lost to an assorted of injuries, many of which were season-ending.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Wallin. “There were nights in the second half of the season when we were scrambling to put together a lineup, having to get APs (affiliated players) flown in so we had enough bodies to play.
“So it was definitely a challenging season and at the end of it all it’s just disappointing. Coming into the season we had very high hopes for our club and what we could do and I think we saw through the first 20 games of the season what we were capable of.”
To repeat, wasted would not describe the Rebels’ season.
“I try to be a glass half-full type of guy,” said Wallin. “Despite the fact it’s disappointing, it’s certainly been a situation where everyone has grown through it as well. The season posted challenges to me that I’d never faced as a coach and I feel I’m a better coach because of it. And the players grew through the process. I know that at the end of the year meetings a lot of the players said they’d learned a lot through the experience.
“So that’s what we have to take out of it — that we’re all stronger for it. We’re better people and better at our progression because of what we went through.”
Indeed, the time lost for the injured players was time gained for the healthy. As a result, the development curve shrunk for certain players and the entire team grew in character.
“The guys who were out of the lineup were disappointed, but adversity makes you stronger and those guys all experienced that to some degree,” said Wallin. “But certainly, for the younger guys who did continue to play it was a real learning experience for them.
“They gained mental toughness through playing against players they normally wouldn’t be out against.
“But the biggest thing was just having to play with the amount of bodies we did . . . there were times we were down to 10 forwards and four to five defencemen. We played with four defenceman for two and half weeks and guys like (Stephen) Hak and (Cody) Thiel stepped up and played real well through that.
“They were our seventh and eighth defencemen as rookies at the start of the year and to ask them to all of a sudden play 20 to 25 minutes a night, including special teams . . . I thought they really handled that well. It was a sink or swim proposition for them and could have really crushed them, but they stepped up and took on that challenge. Hak played consistently well for a long period of time, until the last couple of weeks when he started to show a bit of fatigue, which was to be expected.”
Wallin was never proud of his troops more than the Feb. 19 evening they ventured into Vancouver and recorded a 3-1 win over the Giants. It was the Rebels’ fourth game in five nights — after gaining three points in the first three outings — with a depleted lineup.
“Our guys refused to take it as an excuse and went in against a good team in a tough building and pulled out a victory,” said the Rebels bench boss.
“They learned a lot about themselves and a lot about overcoming adversity. They didn’t allow the situation to hold them back and they gave everything they had right down to the wire.”
The Rebels can now look forward to a 2012-13 season in which they should boast plenty of depth up front. Any combination of overagers Turner Elson, John Persson, Charles Inglis and Adam Kambeitz should continue to produce, as will a healthy Colten Mayor, while more will be expected from the likes of Tyson Ness, Brooks Maxwell, Cory Millette, Chad Robinson and Joel Hamilton, all of whom stepped up this season.
“That was the message the boys left with, that we are in a position now where we’re bringing back a group of forwards who have a lot of experience,” said Wallin. “The older players are obviously experienced, but there were young players on our team who did not get an opportunity to play this season. They all got a ton of ice time and were all put into various situations they grew from.
“The important thing is that they’re not satisfied with that. The fact that we are on the outside looking in at the end of the day has to keep them hungry to come back and want to be a difference on the team as opposed to just thinking it’s going to happen for them. It’s important that each and every one of them have a good summer of training and get themselves stronger and prepared for a good start to season, that they come back in the right frame of mind and be determined right from the first day of training camp.”
The Rebels can return 12 forwards next fall, excluding Conner Bleackley and Dexter Bricker, who appeared in a staggering 16 and 19 games, respectively, this season as affiliates. Assuming both are on the 2012-13 team — and Bleackley’s inclusion is a certainty — and the likes of Trace Elson and/or promising prospect Scott Feser are also on the roster, then clearly one or more veterans will be replaced.
“We know that Bleackley and Bricker played a lot this season, but Feser also played nine games for us and Elson played five,” said Wallin. “So all of those kids will be coming in knowing what it takes to play at this level. It’s going to make for an interesting camp and some tough decisions.”
The Rebels blueline will be shorter on experience with the loss of first-team all-star and Eastern Conference defenceman of the year Alex Petrovic and graduates Justin Weller and Aaron Borejko. But considering that both Borejko and Weller missed basically half or more of the season with injuries, the club has already dealt with their loss.
“But losing Petro is going to leave a hole. He’s a kingpin and has been for a couple of years,” said Wallin. “Our defensive corps should be stronger for going through the situations we dealt with this season, but it’s an area we’ll look to improve.”
With a blueline consisting of No. 1 guy Mathew Dumba, Hak, Thiel, Kyle Doetzel, Devan Fafard and rookies Haydn Fleury and Kevin Pochuk, Wallin will pull on his GM cap during the off-season and attempt to land an older rearguard by way of a trade or the CHL import draft in late June.
Goaltending, it appears, will not be a problem area, not with the return of Czech stopper Patrik Bartosak, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early December, and back-up Bolton Pouliot, who rebounded nicely in February and March after struggling earlier in the winter.
“Patty should be a better goaltender for the experience he gained this season,” said Wallin. “He adjusted well after joining our team but I feel that the level of play surprised him a bit. He played very well for a long stretch and started to fall off a bit the last little while before he was injured.
“His work ethic is outstanding and he’s very competitive, but he can improve his strength and his conditioning.”
Pouliot, meanwhile, was a feel-good story for the manner in which he shrugged off his earlier problems to post three wins in relief over the final month.
“He finished the year strong, even when he went in cold he did very well,” said Wallin. “The key for him was to be mentally strong enough that he could be prepared to play. He has to use that this summer and come to camp and be ready to push for more ice time.
“If both guys come back prepared to make a difference, we should be strong in goal.”