Just days after the Red Deer Rebels were eliminated from the 2023 WHL playoffs, head coach Steve Konowalchuk said there’s plenty to be happy about.
The Rebels finished second in the Eastern Conference with 43 wins in the regular season and added eight playoff wins. They also captured their first Central Division title in over a decade.
But the Rebels bench boss, who won a WHL Championship with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2017, added the experience of losing in the playoffs the last two seasons will only help them.
“There’s a lot of positives this playoff run. Such a good lesson to how tight playoff series are, how tight the games are, and the details you need to stick with all regular season to make sure they’re tighter in playoff time when the pressure’s on.”
Earlier this week the Rebels came out on the wrong side of hockey history blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Saskatoon Blades in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Despite that Konowalchuk is taking a glass half full approach.
“It’s a good season,” he said. “Anytime you can get that many wins it’s good. It was a seven-game series it could have went either way against a really good hockey team… Everybody wants to win the championship but only one team gets to do that.
“There’s certainly a lot of good hockey and a lot of positive things here to build off of.”
The Rebels saw plenty of players have breakthrough seasons and really came of age. Forward Kai Uchacz had a career season scoring 50 goals as a 19-year-old and graduating player Jace Isley became a regular contributor notching 30 goals.
“[Isley] played so well in the playoffs, so hard all year. With his point production and playing in all situations, we knew he was a solid player but he certainly took his game to another level,” Konowalchuk said.
“He has a chance to go pro now and two years ago I don’t know if anybody would of thought that.”
He also praised rookie goaltender Kyle Kelsey for his play in the regular season and through the playoffs.
“Coming from tier two to playing a ton of games this year to going through a little bit of ups and downs, but to go and play in a Game 7 like that and play as well as he did… The ability’s there and that’s gotta give him a ton of confidence to take his game to another level,” he added.
Looking ahead to next year the Rebels have a good chance to return most of the team as well as a new group of young players. Depending on how the upcoming NHL draft goes Kalan Lind could come back and captain Jayden Grubbe could return for his 20-year-old season.
Defenceman Luke Vlooswyk who was last year’s first-rounder and Matthew Ward, the Rebels’ second pick could also make the jump to major junior.
“There’s a good crop coming in that will fill a few holes and the other guys are a year older,” he said.
“The culture’s always been here. The last couple of years we’ve had some real good playoff battles and that only makes you better.”
“You’ve got to constantly develop at this level… We’ve got a really good solid core group of guys coming back for next year that are now two years playoff tested. That should be exciting.