Liam Keeler will enter Rogers Place on Saturday just hoping not to make a wrong turn.
After all, the 20-year-old forward was drafted by Edmonton Oil Kings back in 2016 and has played his entire five-year career with the franchise.
This summer, he was traded to the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for 19-year-old forward Jaxsen Wiebe, charting a new path for his final season in the league.
Red Deer will take on the Oil Kings in their first of five preseason games Saturday, ahead of the 2021-22 WHL season.
“It will be different. Obviously, I spent a long time with the Oil Kings and I have nothing but good things to say about their organization and what they did for me,” said Keeler, who has 26 goals and 74 points in 214 career WHL regular-season games.
“I’m happy to be here (in Red Deer) and happy to be a part of the Rebels organization. Going to do whatever I can to help this team win moving forward.”
With several players still fighting for a roster spot, Keeler is still waiting to see if he’ll be in the lineup against his old club. Even so, it’s already clear to Rebels’ new bench boss Steve Konowalchuk what the veteran brings to his new team.
“Works hard, has really good speed. Good skill to go with it. Very excited that he’s part of the team this year,” he said.
Keeler started off making a strong impression on his new team in the Black and White game Wednesday, finding chemistry on what will likely be the Rebels top unit, with Arshdeep Bains and Jayden Grubbe. That trio combined for 13 points in a 6-5 OT win in the game Wednesday.
“I think when you’re playing with two guys with that kind of skill, it makes it a lot easier,” Keeler said.
“For me, I was just trying to get open. I know Bainsy and Grubber are so good with the puck and so good at finding guys in open areas. For me, I was just trying to get open and use my speed and skill set to help the team and those guys out.”
Of course, going from the top team in the WHL’s Central Division to one of the bottom feeders over the past two seasons isn’t exactly a dream move. Edmonton has consistently been near or at the top of the division the past three years, including a league-best 20-2-0-1 mark last year.
Keeler hopes that he can bring that winning mentality into Red Deer.
“It’s just the belief in ourselves,” he said.
“Coming in here, I knew this team had so much potential, just seeing the way they played last year down the stretch. I understood that with bringing in a few key pieces and a new staff, that we could really turn this around.
“Having these guys believe in themselves and knowing they deserve to have success. They’ve gone through some hard times, early in my career we had some hard times in Edmonton, too.”
With the Rebels hoping to move past the rebuilding phase, bringing in a player of that calibre should instil some confidence in the rest of the group.
“He’s coming from a team that’s had success. I’m sure they had some pretty good habits there and still do,” Konowalchuk said.
“He can bring some of that. He’s a veteran player who also knows how to lead by example. I’m learning how vocal guys are in the locker room, but he leads by example every day. He’s been one of our best leaders as far as working hard in practice and in games. Really that’s what leading is all about, going out and showing everybody.”
Keeler added that with a couple of additions Red Deer made in the off-season and the group being a year older, he sees the potential.
“For me, I’m just here to help this team win. Obviously, it wasn’t the best year for this group last season, but I think with the new staff and bringing some guys in, I think we can really turn this thing around and I’m excited to be a big part of that,” he said.
“And do my job every night. I think if I do that, we’re going to have a really good team and really good opportunity to do something special.”
After the trip to Edmonton Saturday, the Rebels will host the Calgary Hitmen on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in their second preseason game. They’ll travel to Calgary the following night, before rounding out the preseason with a home and home against Lethbridge on Sept. 24 and 25.