Red Deer Rebels right winger Brandon Cutler was finally in the right place at the right time.
In the 22 games prior to Saturday, the 16-year-old rookie hadn’t had any luck in the goal-scoring department.
When the forward drove the net hard in the third period at home against Brandon that night, like he’d done a thousand times before since he was a young hockey player on the outdoor rinks in Spruce Grove, the puck hit his stick, and the red light went on.
Teammate Austin Pratt rocketed a pass from the corner to the rookie, who kept his stick on the ice, despite being tied up by a Wheat Kings defender, and he was able to secure himself, and a few lucky fans, an early Christmas gift.
“Takes a lot of pressure off my back. Felt good to get the first one. Hopefully, I can get a couple more,” Cutler said about his first career WHL goal. “I got the puck, probably going to give it to my grandparents for Christmas.”
Cutler has been in-and-out of the lineup this season, occasionally finding time on the Rebels fourth line, associate coach Jeff Truitt said, for a young player, there is an easy recipe to earning more playing time.
“We hope that he keeps things simple,” Truitt said. “It’s a learning year. All you want him to do is identify how our systems work. You want him to play well and excel. We just want him to keep it simple, and play with energy and some hardness. Good things will happen because of that. Good things will come because of hard work.”
Cutler has found his way into 24 of 34 games this season, and notched one goal and two assists.
Truitt was careful to project a future lineup spot for Cutler, but was quick to point out the young forward’s role depends on how willing he is to seize the opportunity in front of him.
“He’s going to determine where he fits in,” Truitt said. “If he continues to play at a high level, and use his speed and his hardness and intensity, good things are going to happen for him.”
While that opportunity at 16 may just be ice time, there is a significant void right now with the Rebels missing two of their most important offensive contributors, and Cutler recognizes there could be some minutes available if he continues to work hard.
“Those guys are a big part of our team,” Cutler said of veteran forwards Michael Spacek and Adam Musil who are away at the World Junior Championships representing the Czech Republic. “With them gone, it allows the younger guys to step up and show what we got. It’s going to be a good opportunity, and we’ll see what happens.”
The six-foot, 166-pound, winger seems to understand he can’t score every night as rookie finding his way in the WHL. He is, however, well aware of his responsibility to the team early on in his career.
“This year I just have to be a hard working guy that wins every battle,” he said. “A gritty guy. Maybe next year I can start contributing more (on the) offensive side. Right now I’m going to be a good guy that plays defensive zone and playing a heavy game.”
Perhaps his ability to embrace a role comes from being a ninth round selection in the WHL Bantam Draft in 2015, or the fact that in his midget season wasn’t the most successful with only two goals and four assists in 33 games. While those numbers raise more questions than answers at this point in his young WHL career, there isn’t any doubt about his passion for the game.
“I just remember loving it. Always in the garage with Rollerblades on, or always on the outdoor rink. Just couldn’t get away from it,” Cutler said.
“I just want to have a good debut year, promote myself. Looking forward to what I can do next year. Get comfortable in the league this year, and … hopefully excel next year, and have a good playoff run this year, and next year.”
As the gritty forward carefully plots his WHL path, his grandparents will undoubtedly look back on the Christmas of 2016 when their grandson delivered a gift for the ages in the form of a six-ounce piece of rubber.