In many ways, Cory Millette’s season has mirrored that of the Red Deer Rebels as a team.
The 16-year-old rookie forward was at his offensive best in October and through to mid-November when the Rebels — who owned the league’s best win percentage seven weeks into the season — hit the skids due to injuries and suspensions.
Of Millette’s seven goals and 15 points this season, most came before the Rebels’ slide was ignited by injuries to key personnel.
According to GM/head coach Jesse Wallin, the talented winger slipped somewhat due to the speed of the major junior game and the fact he was used in situations that are unbecoming to the vast majority of WHL rookies.
“I think the game caught up to him a bit,” said Wallin. “The big thing with Cory is he’s very skilled. He has a terrific set of hands and great vision, but he’s got to do things with pace.
“His skating hurts him at times.
“When he’s playing in the right spot with the right guys he gets a little more done, but there were times through December where he was playing against older players who are bigger, stronger and faster and I think the pace really hurt him. That’s affected him somewhat and it’s something we’re trying to work with him on . . . to get his pace up, get his feet moving. That’s the biggest area of his game he has to improve.”
Millette hasn’t been fazed by the fact his offensive production has slipped over the past two months.
“He’s enjoying himself and sees better times ahead for himself and his teammates.
“Everything has been fine. I’m getting plenty of ice time, the guys have been great, the dressing room atmosphere is awesome and the fans are great,” he said.
“I expected to maybe do a bit better this season. We slumped as a team but we seem to be picking up our game now. We’re playing well again.”
Millette, the Rebels’ second-round pick in the 2010 bantam draft, excelled last winter as the top 15-year-old scorer in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA League, scoring 23 goals and collecting 53 points in 32 games with the Moose Jaw Generals.
But the gap between midget AAA and major junior is indeed large. Unless a rookie possesses all-world skills a la Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, adjusting to life in the WHL is a season-long endeavour.
“Absolutely, it’s a big step up playing against bigger, faster, stronger and older players,” said Wallin.
“The schedule is demanding. Lots of young guys go through that leading into Christmas and they’re ready to get home and get that break because the season has caught up to them.
“But Cory has shown some encouraging signs here and hopefully he can crank it up for us for the stretch run.”
Millette appeared in one game with the Rebels last year, hardly a stressful test in terms of preparing him for his full-time role this season.
“Even the practices here are way faster. You have to continue to improve in order to keep up and make plays at a high speed,” he said.
The product of Storthoaks, Sask., was only too willing to play bigger minutes as the Rebels struggled to ice a full lineup due to injuries.
“Getting moved up a line or two was great. I was getting the experience of playing against tougher players,” he said. “And because I was playing with more skilled, experienced players, it wasn’t as difficult as you might think.
“But now that I’m back on one of the lower lines I hope to take advantage of playing against younger players.”
Clearly, Millette’s best years as a Rebel lie ahead. His upside remains immense.
“Again, the things you can’t teach are the hands and the skill level that he has,” said Wallin. “He’s a very offensively-gifted player and now it’s just a matter of him getting stronger, and more importantly getting quicker.
“When he can do that and keep up with the speed of the game is when he’s going to really start to produce.”
l Tonight’s 7:30 p.m. game versus visiting Tri-City takes on a different twist with midget AAA affiliate and local product Scott Feser, 16, suiting up for the Rebels due to the club’s long list of injuries.
His older brother, Justin, is a fourth-year forward with the Americans.