There is always a certain amount of uncertainty when it comes to ranking and rating WHL prospects.
After all, most are just 15 or 16 years old, still growing and still finding their way through a young hockey career.
For the struggling Red Deer Rebels, who have made the WHL playoffs in each of the last five seasons, the gaze of many fans has shifted to that exact future.
The big club isn’t winning much, just three victories in the last 10 and they are admittingly letting the young talent play, including icing one of the youngest rosters in the WHL.
With those players, whether it is a 16-year-old Kyle Masters on the blueline or a pair of 17-year-old centres upfront in Ben King and Jayden Grubbe, it’s clear there’s promise there.
“We have so many examples on our present roster of guys that are maybe not being talked about as much. Then they come to camp and they bump other people out of spots,” said Rebels assistant GM Shaun Sutter, who is on a scouting trip in Saskatchewan this week.
“There’s the part where there’s guys that are doing it right now and then there’s the Mason Ward’s and the Arshdeep Bains’, the guys that are good players– we know as a scouting staff that they have potential to do, it but they don’t show our fans or everyone else around the team until they’re there.”
Down the depth chart, across Midget AAA leagues and a few Junior A circuits, there has also been a lot of encouraging signs.
There have been prospects knocking at the door, including Josh Medernach, who played a few games for Red Deer while a couple forwards were out with suspensions. Also, ‘03 defenceman Trey Patterson who played eight games while Chase Leslie and Masters were out injured.
“He came in, played quite well and was pretty steady,” Sutter said of Patterson.
“Josh came in and even though he only got to see a couple games, played real well. Those guys are real smart players, steady players that have good detail to their game so they can step in and play a role. That’s what they’ve been doing for a long time. So, they’ll only be better at our level playing with other good players.”
Defenceman Hunter Mayo, the club’s top pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft is having a strong year in Saskatchewan, as well as six-foot-four, 170-pound blueliner Jeremy Hancock, Red Deer’s fourth-rounder in 2018.
Along with Mayo, Sutter also pointed to defenceman Jace Weir, the Rebels other second-rounder in 2019, as players who could be in Red Deer as early as next season.
“Weir and Mayo were really good at the WHL Cup and have been good players all along, I think they’re guys that are going to push to play at our level next year,” he said.
Leading the charge at forward for 2004s in Jhett Larson. He was a 2019 eighth rounder but has 34 points in 37 games this year with the Notre Dame Hounds Midget AAA group. Hunter Brown, a 2018 seventh-rounder from Fort St. John, B.C., is also rising quickly. He has 29 points in 33 games as a member of the Cariboo Cougars in the BC Minor Midget Hockey League.
Red Deer also made some headway on the listed market this winter, adding forwards Caiden Gault and Josh Schenk. Gault is a 2002-born player from Oakbank, Man., with 41 points in 51 games with the Selkirk Steelers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Schenk is a 2004-born player, playing Midget AAA for the Notre Dame Hounds.
At goalie, the Rebels also have a breadth of options down the pipeline. From last year’s WHL bantam draft, Justen Maric is having a solid year. They have three 2003-born goalies that are also making a mark. Chase Coward, whose Moose Jaw Warriors team finished second in the Mac’s Midget AAA Tournament at Christmas, is having a phenomenal season.
Zane Winter of Carlyle, Sask. and Calgary’s Dylan Lacroix, both drafted in 2018 as well as 2019 pick Merik Erickson are having productive campaigns as well.
“We’ve got a group of goalies who we think all have the potential to play at our level,” said Sutter.
“Chase Coward came up and played, it was a learning experience for him. He’s been very good with his midget team, his numbers show that, on arguably the best team in his league. So he’s obviously a really good goalie.”
Coward, 17, has a 2.14 goals against average along with a 0.930 save percentage in 24 games in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA League.
The Rebels play game three of a five-game road swing through B.C. Friday, taking on the Kamloops Blazers. Saturday, Red Deer will visit the Memorial Cup host Kelowna Rockets, before an afternoon date on Monday with the Prince George Cougars. They are back on home ice, Feb. 22 against the Tri-City Americans.