The Red Deer Rebels defensive core is built like no other in the WHL.
In the second half of the season, the Rebels have routinely dressed three rookie defencemen, at one point four were in the lineup.
Only two other teams in the WHL even have four rookie defenders on their roster, and no team has five.
That includes Russian rookie sensation Alex Alexeyev, who suffered a season ending knee injury in late January, which has forced Red Deer to use 16-year-olds Jacob Herauf and Dawson Barteaux more often.
Alexeyev’s emergence allowed Rebels GM/head coach to move Josh Mahura to the Regina Pats at the trade deadline, but created a massive amount of minutes to fill when the 17-year-old was lost for the season.
“When you lose Alex out of your lineup, you lose a young defenceman, but an all-purpose guy,” Sutter said, adding Alexeyev was the team’s best defender before he was injured.
“He’s a big strong guy who plays the game hard. He’s just a real good player … a player you’d love to build your defence around.”
With that core piece on the shelf until next season, the back end has been a testing ground for Sutter and the coaching staff.
Many nights it means running 20-year-old Colton Bobyk out in all situations, and filling in the other defence slots with rookies Carson Sass, 17, and Ethan Sakowich, 18.
The Rebels coaching staff has also had to rely heavily second-year additions on defence like Brandon Schuldhaus and Jared Freadrich, who combined only played 115 WHL games before this year.
With all that inexperience, there have certainly been bumps in the road.
“It’s been good for them, yet at times you’re going to get caught,” Sutter said.
“It’s tough to play in this league as a 16-year-old, let alone being a defenceman. That part has been encouraging for those kids and for our organization moving forward. At times you have to deal with the inexperience and the mistakes that are going to happen.”
Not only has hope for the future become abundantly clear to Sutter, but also to a member of the young core, like Herauf.
“Next year and the year after, we’ll have a strong D-core. Even with prospects coming up, if we stick together in the long run I think it will be really good,” he said.
Herauf, who has dressed for a surprising 26 games in his rookie season, said the biggest adjustment with the increased ice time has been to keep the game simple.
“Playing consistently. As a 16-year-old, you don’t want to over complicate things,” he said.
“You want to play a simple game and defend well. Getting pucks up the ice quickly and you want to be on the ice for as few goals as possible.”
The general wisdom for a coach is to pick the spots where a young player can be successful, in order for them develop and not lose confidence. Sutter just hasn’t had that luxury in the last month.
“You just have to do it. I’m a believer in developing. Yet, you don’t want to put them in situations to fail and you have to be careful with that,” he said.
“They just have to learn with it and react to it and hopefully they get better with it.”
With an ugly eight-game losing streak behind them and the playoffs just 11 games away, the Rebels bench boss said the youth movement is being served.
“I look at our young players, they’re better players today than they were a month ago. That’s encouraging,” he said.