The Red Deer Rebels acquired 20-year-old defenceman Jackson van de Leest in a trade with the Calgary Hitmen earlier this week. (Photo by Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen)

The Red Deer Rebels acquired 20-year-old defenceman Jackson van de Leest in a trade with the Calgary Hitmen earlier this week. (Photo by Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen)

Van de Leest brings big presence to Red Deer Rebels

Jackson van de Leest is a big man, a big presence and was part of a big splash this week.

Red Deer Rebels owner, president and GM, made one of the biggest trades of the WHL season this week, acquiring the hulking overage defenceman from division rival Calgary Hitmen, in exchange for 20-year-old forward Blake Stevenson, defenceman Trey Patterson and a second round pick in the 2022 WHL Prospects Draft.

Sutter said Thursday he’d been discussing the trade with Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth over the past couple weeks before all the pieces fell into place this week.

“We just thought it was a good fit for our hockey team. Compliments our back end, Jackson can complement our whole team. He brings size, strength. Big guy, defends well,” Sutter said.

“He’s been well-coached and comes from a good organization. There’s a lot of things that made sense for us to make this trade. It’s always hard, but when you acquire something, you’ve gotta give up something. Jeff and I had been talking about it for a couple weeks and we were able to get something done that made sense for both teams.”

Getting van de Leest, a 6-foot-7, 238-pound defenceman in his fifth season is a massive pickup for the Rebels, who will welcome the Kelowna native’s shutdown presence.

“Good teams need to have good goaltending and your defence has to be very solid and to be able to get a guy like Jackson, makes us better in a lot of different ways,” Sutter said, adding the 20-year-old will likely be paired with Kyle Masters when he suits up Friday.

Van de Leest, who was a captain in Calgary is excited to join a contender and potentially play some big playoff games this spring.

“They’re a tough team to play against and that’s their identity and go-to piece and I think as a team that’s probably a really good strength to have. We’re excited and I’m excited to bring some toughness and some shutdown skills to make this team even harder to play against,” said the 20-year-old, who has 78 points in 221 WHL games.

While the move bolsters the Red Deer blueline, it also took away from the team’s depth upfront, after they moved 19-year-old Ethan Rowland earlier in the week in exchange for a draft pick, in order to give the forward a better chance to play.

Stevenson, who went the other way in the van de Leest trade, had 12 points in his last 10 games and 12 goals and 20 assists in 32 contests overall. He’ll be missed, but gets to finish out his WHL career in his hometown.

To balance out those losses at forward, the Rebels will finally get a look at 2021 CHL import forward Frantisek Formanek, who arrived last week from Czechia and will be in the lineup Friday against the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Sutter said he doesn’t feel depth is an issue, with forward Kai Uchacz about five weeks away from returning after suffering a knee injury in late December.

When the U18AAA season is over, the Rebels will also get Ollie Josephson, the team’s first round pick in 2021 WHL Prospects draft back in the lineup. Josephson, a Victoria, B.C. native, played one game for the Rebels earlier this year. Red Deer could also call on forward Zane Saab of Edmonton, their third-round selection in the 2021 WHL Prospect Draft, who signed a standard player agreement in December.

“We have 12 forwards right now and we’re going to get Kai back probably around the middle of February… we felt good with that situation. We still have lots of depth,” Sutter said.

“The trade deadline is still a few days away, so we’ll see where it all goes.”

The Rebels take on the Brandon Wheat Kings Friday at the Centrium, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. It will be the first game of 2022 for the Rebels, after the team was put on pause by the WHL for a week due to a number of players and staff testing positive for COVID-19.

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