Brent Sutter has never met a challenge he doesn’t like.
When the puck drops on the 2019-20 WHL season, the legendary bench boss will be lined up against one of his most difficult endeavours since he started coaching in 1999.
The Red Deer Rebels will likely ice one of the youngest teams in the WHL when the puck drops Saturday at the Centrium against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“We could have 12 or 13, 16 and 17-year-olds here. We just have to be patient with it and work with them,” said Sutter, Rebels GM/head coach.
“Yet, we know at some point, we’ll get over that hump and be on our way. We like to think down the road we’ll have a heck of a hockey team but only time will tell.”
Last season, while the Rebels boasted a young lineup, it was buoyed by veterans like Brandon Hagel, Reese Johnson and Jeff de Wit.
Still, they had a 33-29-4-2 record that had them clinch the final wild card spot on the second last day of the regular season.
The terrific trio of overagers has departed for greener pastures and left plenty of question marks surrounding the new group. With Alex Alexeyev starting the season with the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears, there’s a grand canyon-sized void for the Rebels’ young talent to bridge.
Those four players accounted for 105 of the Rebels 220 goals last season.
Not only that, but all three played huge leadership roles for the club.
“It’s up to me and a lot of other guys to step up. I know guys like Reese Johnson, Brandon Hagel were guys I looked up to. I’m just trying to pass that example on to the young kids. Trying to lead the way a little bit,” said 19-year-old forward Chris Douglas.
“Reese Johnson – just work ethic and leadership and (he) was just a really good guy. Hags had an unbelievable amount of skill on the ice. What they did off the ice, too. It really taught me what I have to do. I’m going to try and relay that to the young guys and lead by example.”
Douglas had a career-high 15 goals and 32 points last season, while playing all 68 games for the Rebels. Still, the Rebels will need more from the six-foot-one, 184-pound winger.
The Richmond, B.C. native was enthusiastic about embracing the increased expectations.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge and it’s so exciting. Just to carry more weight on my shoulders as an older guy,” he said.
“We have a young group coming up, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to be good or win games. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 19 or 17, just matters who you can outplay on the other team.”
One young player who is being looked at to fill the void is Jayden Grubbe. The hulking six-foot-2, 189-pound centre was a first round pick of the Rebels, seventh overall in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.
Grubbe, 16, absorbed the pressure-packed environment of the Canada Winter Games last season, where he represented Alberta on home ice in Red Deer.
From there, he helped the Calgary Buffaloes earn a spot in the Telus Cup, Canada’s National Midget AAA Championship. In the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League, he had six goals and nine points in 11 games. He added five more points in seven games at the Telus Cup.
“Our whole playoff run, I think that helped me out a lot,” he said.
“I played my best hockey in playoffs and I know that’s what I need to play like to come into the season here. It’ll be a grind just like those playoffs.”
Grubbe recorded one goal in five preseason games and said as it went on, he felt like he got more used to the speed and pace of the game. If all goes right, the Calgary product could be a big factor in the Rebels attack this year.
“It’ll be a challenge. I think it will be good for me,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to it. All the young forwards, you can earn your ice out there and hopefully succeed out there.”
Sutter is also banking on production from his two alternate captains this year, Cam Hausinger and Brett Davis.
Hausinger registered 54 points in 67 games last year between the Kootenay Ice and the Rebels and Davis notched 50 in 65. They’ll both have to find an uptick in production if the Rebels are to keep a streak of five straight playoff appearances alive.
On defence, captain Dawson Barteaux and Ethan Sakowich lead an inexperienced group of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Lion’s Den of the WHL. Leadership will be especially important from the veterans.
“These guys now have the torch in their hands and hopefully, they learned something from the past… hopefully, they know and understand what our culture is here and what our expectations are, not just as an organization but a fan base, too,” Sutter said.
“We’re going to be a young team, but a team that can skate. We’re going to be fast and from a coach’s perspective, we have to make sure we teach it that way.”
The Rebels drop the puck on the WHL regular season with the Red Deer Advocate Home Opener on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Centrium.