Onwards and upwards.
After watching the Red Deer Rebels miss the Western Hockey League playoffs each of the last two years, head coach Jesse Wallin is adamant that the 2009-10 team will be a post-season participant, and perhaps more.
“We’ve been rebuilding here for a couple of years and as a group we’re expecting to take that next step to become a team that can contend,” Wallin said Thursday, while looking ahead to Sunday’s 8:30 a.m. opening of training camp at the Centrium.
“Last season I thought we took some real good strides that weren’t always evident on the scoreboard,” Wallin continued, “but I think we’ve added to our skill this year. We’re going to be able to score a little more easily than we did last season and we’re going to continue to have an emphasis on strong defensive hockey and keeping our goals against down. Hopefully that will allow us to win some hockey games.
“I believe that we can be a team that can have home-ice advantage in the playoffs. I want us to be a top-four team in our conference and I think that’s attainable for us, a realistic goal to shoot for.”
Wallin is pinning his hopes on the fact that he has a large group of returning — and apparently eager — players registering for camp on Saturday.
“We were in touch with everyone at least three to four times this summer and from everyone I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to a lot of guys in just the last couple of weeks, they are all very, very excited to get back,” he said. “A lot of guys are chomping at the bit. It’s been a long off-season and everyone is ready to go. They’ve all trained very hard and made big commitments to making themselves better.”
Wallin, naturally, expects large contributions from veteran forwards Landon Ferraro, Cass Mappin and Willie Coetzee, along with newly-acquired winger Nathan Green. Toss in the addition of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Swedish import John Persson, Daulton Siwak and perhaps Jordan Neduzak, and the Rebels should have some pop up front.
The Rebels have eagerly awaited the full-time addition of Nugent-Hopkins, who collected six points (2g,4a) in five WHL games last winter.
“How we handle his ice time will be of importance with him being a 16-year-old, but having said that he’s going to be an impact player as a rookie,” said Wallin, who’s also looking for bigger things from the likes of sophomore forwards Adam Kambeitz and Josh Cowen.
“Being a year older and experienced, hopefully they can continue on and contribute not just as checkers and defensive players, but also on the scoreboard,” said the Rebels bench boss. Wallin sees sophomore Darcy Kuemper as one of the league’s premier netminder in ‘09-10 and will rely heavily on each of his five returning defencemen — Cullen Morin, Colin Archer, Alex Petrovic, Joel Kot and Justin Weller.
Czech import Jindra Barak, Brad Deagle and Innisfail product Nicholas Bell are the front-runners to snare the two available jobs on the back end.
Deagle, 17, skated with the Brooks Bandits last season, collecting five (1-4) points and 59 penalty minutes in 45 games. Bell, 19, also played in the Alberta Junior League last winter, racking up nine goals and 37 points in 61 regular-season outings with the Okotoks Oilers.
“We’re excited about all of our returnees and we’re excited about what we’ve added,” said Wallin.
The coaching staff, also including Dallas Gaume, Bryce Thoma and goaltending instructor Andy Nowicki, will be under the gun if the Rebels falter for extended periods this season, but Wallin isn’t concerned about the possibility of taking heat.
“There’s pressure in hockey every year. You come to the rink and you’re expected to perform,” he said. “No one puts more pressure on me than I do. I come to the rink every day with the expectation that we’re going to get better and we worked really hard at that last year. I think there was a lot of work that was done last year that is going to become evident this year, and we’ll continue to push forward.
“I don’t look at it as pressure. I look at it as doing my job. That’s my approach, I come to the rink each day and put everything into it with the intention of getting better and continuing to climb the steps. As a coaching staff, we expect the same thing from our young men. We want to establish our work ethic right off the top and that will be the focal point of training camp.”
Rookie camp sessions are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. both Sunday and Monday, with the main camp players on the ice from 10:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and 4:45 to 6:45 p.m. both days.
On Tuesday, the rookies will scrimmage from 8:30 to 10 a.m., and the main camp participants will be on the ice from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Players competing in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. McDonald’s Black and White game will scrimmage from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Rebels first preseason game is Aug. 29 versus the Moose Jaw Warriors. The contest, to be played in St. Albert, is part of the Edmonton Oil Kings tournament.
Red Deer’s other exhibition outings are Sept. 2 against the Hitmen at Calgary’s Centennial Arena, Sept. 4 and 5 against the Oil Kings in Stettler and Leduc, and Sept. 11 and 12 versus the Kootenay Ice and Hitmen at Innisfail and Lacombe.
The Rebels will host the Hitmen in the Red Deer Advocate regular-season home opener Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Notebook: The Kootenay Ice were dealt a blow this week when Tylan Stephens informed the team that he will not return for his overage season. Instead, the 20-year-old forward will attend the University of Calgary with the intentions of becoming a pilot. Stephens, a Calgary native, had 27 goals and 57 points in 72 games last season . . . The Saskatoon Blades unveiled their new headquarters Wednesday at Credit Union Centre, an impressive 6,600 square foot complex featuring a new dressing room, business offices, a weight room, medical facilities and a players’ lounge. The cost of the $1.2 million project was shared by the Blades and Credit Union Centre . . . Jim Hiller was hired as a Tri-City Americans assistant coach seven years ago and returned to the organization this week as head coach. Hiller signed a multi-year contract, but the terms of the agreement were not disclosed. The 40-year-old, who spent the past three seasons as the Chilliwack Bruins bench boss, replaces Don Nachbaur, who after six seasons resigned last month to coach the Binghamton Senators of the AHL.