Seventeen-year-olds are a unique commodity in the WHL.
Often pegged as the building blocks on which a franchise can stake their future, they usually aren’t the make or break factor for a team’s short-term playoff chances. It’s rare at 17, a player has a huge impact on a WHL team. Only four times in the last seven years league wide has a player that age put up more than 100 points.
When the Red Deer Rebels drop the puck on the new campaign Saturday, they will have nine 17-year-old players including goalie Ethan Anders, something that GM/head coach Brent Sutter apparently pays little attention to.
“I don’t get caught up in ages. I don’t look at a team that you have to have so many 19, 18 or 17-year-olds. I want the best hockey players,” Sutter said. “It’s whoever is going to play well, they deserve it. We have three 20-year-olds, if we end up down to two, there’s no need for us to get a third unless it’s the right type of player that fits in with the mix and can be an impact guy for us.”
With a top line of 19-year-olds and no 20-year-old on the blueline, the Rebels will likely have one of the younger rosters in the 22-team league.
Rather than fill the bottom half of their roster with older players who might only be around for a year or two, Red Deer has actively put younger players in those roles. That helps speed any rebuilding process that might occur. It’s a plan that the team has been working since before they hosted the Memorial Cup.
“Because we lost a lot of guys, you are forcing guys into certain roles,” Sutter said of last season. “Especially on our third and fourth lines last year. Some of them weren’t ready for that. Now they’re ready for that. They’re better players today. They’re bigger, stronger and quicker. They understand what the game is all about at this level.”
If a 16-year-old is lucky enough to crack a WHL roster, like the Rebels group of Jacob Herauf, Dawson Barteaux, Chris Douglas and Brandon Cutler did last season, they don’t always dress for a tangible amount of games. Each of those four played between 20-30 games in the 2016-2017 campaign, but stuck out the whole season on the roster. This year however, that experience will play a big role.
“Those are 17-year-old players, by Christmas time, they’re going to be like 19-year-olds. That’s what’s so cool about this,” Sutter said.
Douglas, a six-foot, 170-pound right winger said his stint last year taught him a valuable lesson about what he needs to do this season.
“Last year was about getting as much experience as I could and being a sponge as Brent likes to say,” Douglas explained. “I think with the 25 games I got into last year, it feels like a different league coming in this year.”