The Red Deer Rebels are all about momentum as they prepare to open the 2010-11 Western Hockey League season tonight in Edmonton.
Jesse Wallin believes that his club took positive steps last winter and the ultimate plan now is to build off of those gains. The Rebels look at the upcoming season and see a bull market.
“Ultimately we want to become a championship team again,” said Wallin, the Rebels head coach and VP of hockey operations. “There’s a couple of trophies on the line that we’d like to get back into contention for.”
For a team that was swept out of the playoffs last spring, Wallin might be setting his sights rather high with the current collection. Or maybe not.
“We took a step in the right direction last season and we have the majority of our group coming back, including most of the core,” said Wallin. “This is a group we’ve developed and groomed and we want to take that next step. That’s our goal and that’s what we plan to do.”
The Rebels should be packed between the pipes with Wednesday’s return of Darcy Kuemper from the camp of the Minnesota Wild, and there’s savvy and size on the blueline, not to mention mobility.
“Our defence is big and physical. We have three guys back there who have been here for a few years now,” said Wallin, referring specifically to captain Colin Archer, Justin Weller and Alex Petrovic.
Toss in nifty newcomer Matt Dumba, seasoned skater Aaron Borejko and any combination of 20-year-old Brad Haber and rookies Brad Deagle, Lucas Grayson and Matt Pufahl, and the club should indeed be more than respectable on the back end.
Up front, the Red Deer squad will need substantial seasons from the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, whose skill are supreme and whose accomplishments well-documented, proven newcomer Byron Froese, and Andrej Kudrna, coming off a team-high 30-goal campaign.
If winger Brett Ferguson piles up his share of points, he’ll earn one of the three overage berths unless Willie Coetzee is returned by the Detroit Red Wings.
Wallin isn’t abandoning hope that the Wings will realize that Coetzee could benefit from another major junior semester, and the reappearance of last season’s top scorer would greatly boost the Rebels’ offence.
For now, though, the Rebels are moving ahead with the notion that they’ve seen the last of Coetzee, which means that there’s even greater need for Adam Kambeitz, Turner Elson, John Persson, Lane Scheidl, Josh Cowen — who will sit out the first two regular-season games due to a suspension levied in last spring’s playoff series with Saskatoon — Daulton Siwak and Colten Mayor to improve on their 2009-10 numbers.
“We have some depth up front now and we’re strong down the middle with ‘Hoppy’, Froese, Kambeitz and then (Chad) Robinson on the fourth line,” said Wallin. “We have 11 returning forwards and we need those players to take steps for us. A lot of the guys are now experienced in the league, they have at least a year under their belts.
“Because of that, expectations rise and we expect them to all produce more. They can all give more, some more than others depending on the opportunities that they earn. I’d like to see these guys (Kambeitz, Elson, Scheidl, etc.) significantly increase their offensive output. I think they’re all capable of it. That’s going to be the challenge for those players.”
A year ago, Wallin’s expectations weren’t as noble. His team was green and at times made the head coach see red. But the younger players grew up, the older skaters paved the way and eventually the Rebels gelled into a decent squad.
“We’ve got more experience now and that’s a huge factor. The key for us now is we can’t take anything for granted, we can’t sit back and expect it just to happen,” said Wallin.
“That was kind of the same message last year. Early last season we were just an average hockey team finding our way because guys didn’t really believe in themselves yet. We were sitting at .500 in late November when we had some heart-to-hearts in the dressing room and the guys kind of figured it out. We went on a pretty good run from there until late in the year. We had that feeling in the room that we were going to win every night.”
And so, the Rebels are as much about confidence as they are about momentum.
“It was huge for us when our guys started to believe in themselves and each other and what they were doing,” said Wallin. “Our group this year is more confident coming in, and what they’ve gained confidence in is their work ethic and compete level. There’s accountability in the dressing room to expect that from one another and not let your teammates down.
“That’s going to be paramount for us again this year. We’ve taken strides but we can’t let off the gas. We have to push and drive and work to be at our best every night.”