Two of the more prominent members of the Red Deer Rebels received their just rewards Wednesday.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was named the Eastern Conference finalist for the Western Hockey League rookie of the year award and netminder Darcy Kuemper was appointed to the conference second all-star team. While their personal numbers were impressive, neither player anticipated the official recognition.
“It was nothing I really expected or even looked into, but to get that honour definitely means a lot and helps the confidence going into the playoffs,” said Kuemper, who will get the call when the Rebels open a best-of-seven conference quarter-final against the host Saskatoon Blades Saturday.
“It’s been my dream to play in the WHL since I was young, so to get the nomination for the rookie of the year is a big honour. It really means a lot to me,” said the superbly-skilled Nugent-Hopkins, a 16-year-old centre who was the first overall selection in the 2009 bantam draft.
Nugent-Hopkins bloomed big-time in the second half of the season and has 24 goals and 65 points in 67 games heading into his first WHL playoff series.
“It took a while for me to really get into the groove, but once I did it just felt normal, like the way I’ve always played hockey,” said the native of Burnaby, B.C.
Kuemper was also a second-half sensation after opening the season on somewhat of a negative note.
“The start was a little slow for the entire team and after we had a meeting in November we started to turn our season around,” said Kuemper. “It was a successful (regular) season for the organization and a step in the right direction after a few bad years.”
The Saskatoon native managed to put up some respectable numbers in his second season with the Rebels, finishing ninth in the league with a 2.73 goals-against average. He also recorded a .908 save percentage, posted three shutouts and racked up 28 wins.
“Last year I was more focused on just working hard so i could play at this level,” said the 19-year-old.
“This season I tried to better myself to the point where I could be a dominant player and I just want to keep working in that direction.”
Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin expected big things from Nugent-Hopkins during his inaugural major junior season and the youngster delivered.
“He came in and certainly met and probably exceeded our expectations,” said Wallin. “He’s a point-per-game player at 16 and he’s played on our top lines against guys who are much older than him. He’s not only good offensively, but he’s also held his own very well defensively.
“He’s a committed player at both ends of the rink. We’re happy for him and it’s a well-deserved honour.”
The Red Deer bench boss also appreciates the contributions from his starting netminder.
“We think he’s capable of being an elite goaltender in our league and early on I don’t think he met those expectations,” said Wallin. “But to his credit he dug in and made himself better. From mid-November to late in the season he was very solid, outside of a game here and there. He gave us a chance to win almost every night.
“For any team at any level to have success, your goaltender has to be very good for you. ‘Kuemps’ was a big part of our team during the regular season and he’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward.”
Just notes: Red Deer product and Kootenay Ice forward Matt Fraser is the Eastern nominee for the league’s humanitarian of the year award . . . Calgary Hitmen stopper Martin Jones is the Eastern Conference first-team all-star goalie . . . The WHL player of the year finalists will be announced April 14 . . . (See Scoreboard on Page C7 for the entire list of Eastern Conference awards nominees and first and second all-star teams).