After the 2009-10 Red Deer Rebels are introduced to their fans tonight and the puck hits the Centrium ice at, say, 7:40 p.m., one of the most important seasons in the history of the Western Hockey League franchise will be underway.
The Rebels entered the WHL in 1992 and experienced some lean years through the remainder of the decade. The club didn’t surpass the .500 regular-season mark until the 1996-97 campaign, and yet failed to qualify for the playoffs just once during the ‘90s — in 1995, at the conclusion of a woeful 17-win winter.
Now, with the current decade nearing an end, the Rebels have been a post-season spectator three of the last four years. The club hasn’t won a playoff series for five years and counting; since then it’s been one series and out, miss, one and out, miss and miss.
Accordingly, the fan base that supported a dominant team between 2000 and 2003 has dwindled noticeably over the last few years. Fortunately, this is hockey country and the fans will return if the Rebels can ice a product with true playoff potential.
This should be the year. In fact, this has to be the year. With the pious patrons becoming fewer and fewer, nothing less than a playoff berth will do this season.
There is certainly reason to believe that the 2009-10 Rebels can deliver and possibly advance a rung or two along the post-season ladder.
For starters, it appears that the Central Division has fallen off in terms of overall quality. Secondly, the Rebels should be a club capable of scoring at least 225 goals this season, which would be an improvement of 53 over ‘08-09.
In addition, Red Deer was a pre-season success with a 5-0-1 record, and while exhibition games are basically throwaways, the Rebels, for the most part, were minus three of their top six forwards while showcasing some impressive talent in 20-year-old off-season acquisition Nathan Green, 16-year-old sensation Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Swedish import John Persson.
Add NHL-campers Landon Ferraro, Willie Coetzee and Cass Mappin to the aforementioned trio and the Rebels have a top half-dozen set of up-front skaters that is comparable to most Eastern Conference clubs.
There may be, however, the odd blue-line concern, although the Rebels addressed one need — size — by acquiring six-foot-three Simon Witt from the Vancouver Giants this week. The Red Deer defensive corps suffered two blows with the loss of anticipated returnees Tommi Kivisto and Joel Kot — neither of whom were overly impressive last season but had experience and potential on their side — but a competent contingent is still in place, possessing mobility, savvy and skill.
The Rebels’ last line of defence should be a strength. Darcy Kuemper has all the physical and mental tools to excel as a No. 1 goaltender and fellow 19-year-old Kraymer Barnstable brings the experience that was lacking with 17-year-old Cam Gorchynski, who on Wednesday was reassigned to the Westside Warriors of the junior A BCHL.
Still, the focus will be up front, where Ferraro notched 37 goals last winter and will be in line to notch 45 to 50 this time around. Coetzee and Mappin will almost certainly improve on their respective ‘08-09 point totals of 42 (18-24) and 39 (17-22), Green could pop 30 goals or more, Persson will use his size and skill to make his mark and Nugent-Hopkins will defintely dazzle the locals and fans throughout the league with his massive talents.
The Rebels coaching staff detected a marked improvement in the team as the ‘08-09 season wound down and head man Jesse Wallin and assistants Dallas Gaume, Bryce Thoma and Andy Nowochin are confident that the upward trend will continue.
Is this all hyperbole? Time will tell, although the Rebels don’t have a lot of time on their side.
While it is not absolutely critical that the team busts out of the starting gate this fall, a fast start — including a win over the visiting Calgary Hitmen tonight — would certainly rekindle fan interest in a hurry.
The Rebels may be a year away from actually contending for a league title, but it’s imperative that they take that first step this season. Anything short of a playoff berth will be unacceptable to everyone involved.