Slowly but surely, Western Hockey League rookie Simon Witt is morphing into the type of player the Vancouver Giants envisioned when they selected the Victoria, B.C., native in the fifth round of the 2007 bantam draft.
The Red Deer Rebels have been the benefactors of Witt’s development since acquiring the 17-year-old defenceman from the Giants Sept. 15 in exchange for a 2011 third-round bantam draft pick, and head coach Jesse Wallin is convinced that the best is yet to come.
“He’s a young guy and when he first got here he was thrown into a situation where he was playing a ton because we needed him to,” said Wallin.
“At times he struggled because of that, as lots of young defencemen do while finding their way and getting adjusted to the pace of the league.
“But we think he’s come a long way and we feel he’s going to continue to progress. There’s a lot there to like, (but) he’s got to get quicker, he’s got to get stronger and he knows that.
“But what I really like about Simon is he’s got a head for the game and he plays the game with his head up.”
In other words, Witt’s on-ice intelligence is one of his major assets.
“There’s a purpose behind things that he does,” said Wallin. “He’s not a guy who throws the puck away a lot. Sometimes he’ll turn it over because things happen a little quickly for him, but he sees the ice well and he’s a pretty intelligent hockey player.
“He’s a very committed young man who understands the strengths and weaknesses of his game. He’s a guy who’s got a lot of potential and we (Rebels coaches) feel he’s going to be a pretty good defenceman in this league.”
The six-foot-three, 184-pound rearguard is appreciative of the full-time role he’s been handed by the coaching staff.
“I’m very happy here. I get to a play a lot and obviously playing every night has helped with my development,” said Witt. “It took me 10 or 12 games to get comfortable with the league and since then I feel I’ve gotten better each game and I’m looking forward to continuing to improve. That’s the main thing — getting better and helping the team.”
After catching fire in December, the Rebels have cooled off somewhat in recent weeks and are 5-4-0-1 in their last 10 games but a mere 2-4-0-1 in their last seven.
“We were on the right track, we really had our heads in the right place when we were winning more,” said Witt. “We’ve gone a little off the track lately but I think that happens to all teams. We’re working on it, we know what we need to do. We’ve seen what we can do and how well we can play together and where this team is capable of going.
“We’ve had a lot of time this week to really reflect and think about why we had success and what we need to do to get back to that. We have 25 games in 50 nights to finish off the (regular) season and I think we’ll be back on track soon. It just comes down to hard work and sticking to what we know how to do and really being mentally prepared.”
The players have maintained a positive attitude throughout the team’s ups and downs, insisted Witt, who has notched two goals and added a single helper in 47 games.
“Everybody is upbeat, everybody knows what it took to have success and we are all really focusing on getting back to that feeling of knowing that we’re going to win every night and believing in the team,” he said.
“That’s so important — knowing you’re going to have success. Whether you’re down a goal or up a goal, you’re going to win the game.”
Due to a sore groin, Witt won’t be in uniform tonight when the Rebels entertain the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“The feeling is that it’s better to rest now so that I can get back to 100 per cent for the remainder of the season. It’s not a serious thing and I might be able to play next week,” he said.
As Wallin noted, with Nick Bell returning to the Red Deer lineup tonight after missing 34 games due to ankle surgery, it was not a difficult decision to sit Witt.