One year after a Memorial Cup run, there are supposed to be growing pains.
While the ups-and-downs of the Red Deer Rebels in 2016-2017 can be better described by the rise and fall of the world’s largest roller-coaster, there’s still optimism about how it all panned out.
There were lows in losing streaks and blowing a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the WHL playoffs to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, but the high of clinching a playoff spot with two convincing victories in the final week of the season.
There was the emergence of a rookie class that will carry the franchise forward, a cupboard of prospects and draft picks that looked likely to be empty if a deep playoff run was possible this season, but is instead somewhat full.
All that said, there was an extreme sense of hope as the players and coaches packed their bags and went their separate ways this week.
“We took strides over the year. Sometimes they didn’t always show in the end result. Our push down the last month of the season, it showed what our character is like, just not on the team now, but what it will be like one day,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“Overall, when you bring in a lot of young players, you hope they develop, you hope they grow not only to what you hope they can be now, but what they can be down the road. I think we took a lot of great strides in that, too.”
At the peak of the roller-coaster was what Sutter managed to do at the WHL trade deadline on Jan. 10, when most around the league figured the Rebels were done dealing.
A blockbuster deal that brought in two first round draft picks from the Regina Pats, draft eligible forward Lane Zablocki and 16-year-old Dawson Barteaux addressed a multitude of concerns for Red Deer.
Zablocki will now be a key part of the Rebels forward group next season as an 18-year-old, and Barteaux an anchor on the back end at 17.
Sure, the deal came at the price of two quality players like Anaheim Ducks prospect Josh Mahura and WHL first round selection and local product Jeff de Wit, but Sutter said sometimes that’s the price of doing business in the league.
“We needed to be able to add some offence to our team next year knowing that the forward group could be pretty young,” Sutter said.
“It was a good trade for both teams and the timing of it was really important for Regina and ourselves.”
Sutter said building from the back-end out, which will likely include Riley Lamb as the netminder next season, along with a defensive core that will return everyone is huge for the team and the development curve.
“Now, you’re looking at a cupboard that’s full again. We can continue to move forward with our plan,” he said.
“At the start when we decided we were doing this and hosting the Memorial Cup, we did not want to move any of our defenceman because we knew that if we can do this right that we can be building this team around new goaltending and young defence. We’re going to have them all back next year, and we’re going to have a couple others that are going to be pushing that we have on our list that our close.”
While on defence things seem to be all but secured, the forward group is an entirely different story.
Beyond the sure fire top unit of Brandon Hagel, Zablocki and Grayson Pawlenchuk, it’s a complete unknown.
Other forwards who will likely return could include Austin Pratt, Akash Bains and Chris Douglas.
“We knew we would have some carry over from our Memorial Cup team, then next season – outside of Hags (Brandon Hagel) and Pawly (Grayson Pawlenchuk), you’re basically starting fresh,” Sutter added.
“We’re definitely going to be bringing in some more young kids this coming season. There are some young kids that we feel really good about that can even push for a jobs that some of the older guys have right now. That’ll all sort itself out in the fall.”
On the Game 7 loss and failing to close out the playoff series with Lethbridge, Sutter chose to look forward.
“The year was about development and progression. It was a year about putting these young players through an experience that we thought could really help them down the road. Getting into a playoff experience like that, going into a Game 7 in an opposing team’s building, that was totally something new,” Sutter said.
“It wasn’t the end result we wanted but at the same time, I knew going in that everyone on the outside wasn’t giving us much of a chance, but we believed inside that if we did things the right way, we can make it interesting and I think we did.”