Top 10 diamonds in the rough

By and large, Western Hockey League clubs depend heavily on the bantam draft to stock their pantries.

Brett Ferguson has developed nicely as an undrafted forward.

Brett Ferguson has developed nicely as an undrafted forward.

By and large, Western Hockey League clubs depend heavily on the bantam draft to stock their pantries.

But every season there’s a large number of players who are overlooked in the lottery of 15-year-olds, players who are either short on size or — in the eyes of the many major junior scouts — simply lacking in one or two other departments.

Often, a percentage of these snubbed skaters — and goaltenders — develop at a slower rate and eventually end up as not only WHL prospects, but big-time players, and the Red Deer Rebels have added their fair share of late bloomers to their 50-man protected list over the years.

Here then is an itemization of the top 10 listed players by the Rebels since their inaugural season of 1992:

1. Jeff Woywitka (1999-2003) — The big defenceman joined the Rebels out of midget AAA in Wainwright in 1999 and racked up 16 points, including four goals, as a raw 16-year-old rookie.

A year later he was one of the better ‘fifth’ rearguards in the league while helping the Rebels capture the WHL and Memorial Cup championships and the following season the Vermilion native was a top-four, power-play blueliner, displaying offensive capability with 14 goals and 37 points.

Woywitka, a fluid skater with superb puck skills, excelled in his final winter in Red Deer, accumulating 16 goals and 52 points while winning WHL defenceman of the year honours and earning a silver medal with Team Canada in the world junior championship.

A first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2001 NHL entry draft, Woywitka has played 229 games in The Show with the St. Louis Blues and now the Dallas Stars.

2. Arron Asham (1994-98) — The scrappy and skilled winger from Portage la Prairie, Man., made his Rebels debut in 1994 and showed plenty of promise right off the hop, racking up 27 points (11-16) and 126 minutes in penalties.

Under-sized considering the rugged and fearless style that he played, Asham put up big numbers — both in terms of points and penalty minutes — over the next three seasons.

In ‘95-96 he sniped 32 goals and collected 77 points, in ‘96-97 he contributed 45 goals and 96 points, and in his final season Asham potted 43 goals to go with 49 assists. In addition, he spent a total of 602 minutes in the penalty box during his time as a Rebel.

Asham, who had a great playoff run in the spring of ‘97 with 12 goals and 26 points in 16 games, was selected by Montreal in the third round of the ‘96 NHL draft and started his pro career two years later. He has played 684 NHL games with Montreal, the New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia and currently the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Asham still owns the Rebels franchise career records for points (292), goals (131) and assists (161).

3. Jim Vandermeer (1997-2001) — The Caroline native was a forward in the midget ranks but found himself on the Red Deer blueline during his rookie season.

He progressed nicely during his sophomore campaign, showing offensive prowess by scoring five goals and contributing 23 assists, and toughness in terms of his 258 minutes in penalties. New head coach Brent Sutter stressed more discipline with Vandermeer during the ‘99-2000 season, in which he garnered 38 points (8-30) and 221 penalty minutes, and the new-and-improved blueliner was the team captain the following year, leading the Rebels to a Memorial Cup title as a 20-year-old while recording 21 goals and 65 regular-season points and 16 additional points (3-13) in the playoffs.

Vandermeer signed a free-agent deal with Philadelphia and has since appeared in 415 NHL contests with the Flyers, Chicago, Calgary, Phoenix and currently the Edmonton Oilers.

4. Greg Schmidt (1994-97) — The North Battleford, Sask., product came to the Rebels with little fanfare and after scoring just four times and putting up 16 points in 58 games as an 18-year-old, didn’t appear to be anything special despite his superior skating skills.

But the deceptionally tough centre was a major hit the next season, exploding for 45 goals and 91 points while running up 154 minutes in penalties. As an overage performer in ‘96-97, Schmidt sprouted 98 regular-season points, which included 45 goals, and then sniped six goals and added 15 helpers in 16 playoff encounters as the Rebels advanced to the Eastern Conference final.

Schmidt went on to play five seasons of minor pro hockey in North America before heading overseas for seven seasons in Germany. He retired from active duty last year.

5. Lance Ward (1994-98) — The Lloydminster native was originally deemed too small by WHL scouts, but he experienced a major growth spurt and joined the Rebels as a 16-year-old with skills that were obvious but unrefined.

Ward came along nicely over the next two years and as an 18-year-old not only contributed five goals and 34 assists from the blueline, but also racked up 229 minutes in penalties. His coming-out season of ‘96-97 followed his selection by the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the NHL entry draft.

Unfortunately, Ward struggled as a 19-year-old despite scoring eight goals and adding 25 assists and ringing up 233 penalty minutes, and went back into the NHL draft where he was selected by the Florida Panthers, this time in the third round.

The six-foot-three defenceman played 209 games in the NHL with Florida and Anaheim and has been overseas since 2005. He’s currently suiting up with HV71 Jonkoping of the Swedish Elite League.

6. Jeff Smith (1998-2002) — Tall and lanky, the Regina product looked like a giraffe on skates when he attended the Rebels camp just prior to his rookie season, and as a 17-year-old was scoreless in 25 games while collecting a mere nine minutes in penalties.

The following winter he improved to nine goals and 15 points to go with 74 minutes in penalties, and as a member of the eventual Memorial Cup champion Rebels in his third season he was a 22-goal sniper and a WHL heavyweight scrapper who accumulated 187 penalty minutes.

His regular-season production declined somewhat in 2001-02 as he managed only nine goals and 24 points — to go with 236 penalty minutes — but he notched some rather large playoff markers, with his third-period goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in Brandon sending the game to overtime, in which the Rebels prevailed to wipe out a 3-1 series deficit. Red Deer then won Game 7 at home.

Smith’s North American pro career consisted of six seasons in the AHL and ECHL. He is currently toiling in the British Elite League.

7. Willie Coetzee (2007-2010) — The smallish but swift winger played 23 games with the Rebels in his rookie campaign, scoring two goals before being reassigned to Cowichan of the BCHL.

Coetzee reappeared in the fall of ‘08 and after earning regular employment with the Rebels notched 18 goals and recorded 42 points in 72 games. He signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Red Wings after attending their rookie camp in 2009, then returned to Red Deer and promptly rang up 29 goals and 81 points in 72 games last season.

The five-foot-10, 180-pound winger never returned to the Rebels as a 20-year-old and has split this season between the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL and the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.

8. Pete Vandermeer (1992-96) — Jim’s older brother played two games with the Rebels as a 17-year-old, then suited up for 54 games the following season, scoring four goals, adding nine assists and racking up 170 penalty minutes.

Vandermeer improved to 16-16-32 in terms of offensive numbers as a 19-year-old, and again put up a large figure in penalty minutes — 218. The winger was particularly effective as a 20-year-old, scoring 21 goals and collecting 61 points and 207 minutes in infractions as a legitimate WHL heavyweight despite playing at under 200 pounds.

Vandermeer has enjoyed a long minor pro career — interrupted by two NHL games with Phoenix — and the 35-year-old is currently a member of the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL.

9. Brett Ferguson (2008-present) — The Vibank, Sask., product got his feet wet when he appeared in three games with Notre Dame of the SJHL three years ago, scoring once and adding a single helper in three games with the junior A club.

As a Rebels rookie in ‘08-09, Ferguson notched five goals and collected 29 points in 71 contests, and last season improved to 15 goals and 34 points in 69 outings.

Now identified as a team leader and a rugged performer with good fighting skills as a six-foot, 190-pound winger, Ferguson is a go-to performer with 21 goals and 56 points in 63 games. He has pro-like skills, but may decide to attend university or college next fall as a 21-year-old.

10. Turner Elson (2009-present) — Now in his second season with the Rebels, the five-foot-11 winger has progressed noticeably and should be a major contributor over the next two years.

As a 17-year-old rookie, the speedy Elson recorded nine points (9-8) in 66 games and has 29 points (15-14) in 59 outings this season. Fearless almost to a fault, the St. Albert product has no qualms with heading into the hazardous areas and has given every indication that his best is yet to come.

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com