Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Rylan Thiessen (26) guards the front of the net as goalie Connor Unger makes a save on Winnipeg Ice forward Skyler Bruce during a Western Hockey League game on April 14 at the Brandt Centre in Regina. Brandon won 5-3. (Keith Hershmiller Photography)

Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Rylan Thiessen (26) guards the front of the net as goalie Connor Unger makes a save on Winnipeg Ice forward Skyler Bruce during a Western Hockey League game on April 14 at the Brandt Centre in Regina. Brandon won 5-3. (Keith Hershmiller Photography)

Two big trades provide stability for Red Deer Rebels

All Connor Ungar wanted was an opportunity and he’s finally found it.

The 19-year-old goalie was acquired by the Red Deer Rebels Monday from the Brandon Wheat Kings in exchange for defenceman 18-year-old Mason Ward, as part of a two-trade day for the club.

Red Deer also snagged 20-year-old winger Liam Keeler from the Edmonton Oil Kings, in exchange for 19-year-old forward Jaxsen Weibe.

While it’s easy to look at the Rebels’ failures in the 23-game abbreviated 2020-21 season and wonder what the future holds, Ungar just wants the chance to prove for a full season that he’s a starting goalie in the Western Hockey League.

“I’m really excited to get a shot to be the guy and be in the net most nights,” said Ungar, who hails from Calgary.

“I understand I still have to earn that but it’s an exciting challenge and I’m ready for it.”

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Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

That’s something that hasn’t been possible over the last three seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He backed up Ethan Kruger in the bubble this year and was behind Jiri Patera the year before that.

In 15 career WHL games, Ungar sports a career 2.87 goals against average, along with a 0.904 save percentage.

And in stereotypical goalie fashion, there may be some good luck awaiting the netminder in Red Deer. His only career WHL shutout came at the Centrium in 2018, a 34-save victory over the Rebels, in only his second WHL start.

“That was a good game, we won 4-0,” said the humble Ungar.

With Ethan Anders graduating and Byron Fancy heading into his final WHL season, Rebels president/GM Brent Sutter needed some more security in net for the 2021-22 WHL season. Anders started 146 games over the past four seasons for the Rebels, while Fancy suited up for 65.

“We’re getting a guy that’s a competitive goalie. A guy that has the potential to be a number one guy,” Sutter said.

“It brings competition to our goaltending position. It was a good trade for both teams.”

The battle between the pipes next year will also include 18-year-old Chase Coward, who played well down the stretch this year for Red Deer.

Losing Ward, who was steadying presence this year on a blueline that was extremely banged up, just happened to be what the Wheat Kings wanted and a place where the Rebels figure they have a talent surplus.

Sutter thinks they have enough emerging talent and with the possible return of Christoffer Sedoff next year, a loaded blueline.

Related:

Changes on the horizon for Red Deer Rebels next season

“We’re definitely deeper on the back-end. We’ve got some other kids that are pushing to play, too… we’ve got lots of depth so it allowed as to deal from our strengths,” Sutter said.

Defenceman Kyle Masters and Trey Patterson will be back as 18-year-olds, Joel Sexsmith, Bake Gustafson and Chase Leslie as 19-year-olds, with rookies Jace Weir and Hunter Mayo entering their first full WHL season.

Unlike Ungar, Keeler was hoping to finish his WHL career with the team that drafted him.

He played all five of his WHL seasons in Edmonton, after being drafted by the Oil Kings in the first round, 22nd overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

“The thing about Liam is he’s won. He’s seen both sides of it. When he first came in, how (Edmonton) was building their team. The last few years they’ve been a pretty effective team,” Sutter said.

The six-foot-one, 183-pound winger gives the Rebels more depth up front and added experience. Keeler has played 206 WHL games over the past five years. He had 12 points in 19 games during the shortened year.

“To bring in someone with that kind of experience and knowledge of the game, he plays a fast game and he’s got speed. And a 20-year-old he has that leadership… it was huge for us. He’s a really good player and we’re excited to bring him on board,” Sutter said.

With the addition of Keeler, the Rebels now have four overage players on their roster for next season. Sutter believes that will work itself out before the puck drops in 2021-22.

“It always does,” Sutter said with a chuckle.



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