Just when we thought we had it all figured out, the Red Deer Rebels shook things up in a somewhat substantial way on Wednesday.
First, they announced that both Vukie Mpofu ('96) and Dexter Bricker ('95) had both been reassigned, reducing the Rebels training camp roster to 24.
But then they added another forward, 18 year old Wetaskiwin native Ryley Bennefield, on a tryout basis. Bennefield had two goals in preseason action this month with the Calgary Hitmen.
And then the Rebels announced the addition of yet another forward, 17 year old Wyatt Johnson, also on a tryout basis. Johnson was second in team scoring for the midget AAA Saskatoon Blazers last season (45 points in 42 games) and was recently cut by the Vancouver Giants.
The battle for forward positions on this Rebels club, with only two preseason games remaining, has just become a whole lot more interesting.
First, let's look at the departures. Without a doubt, Bricker's reassignment (to Nipawin of the SJHL) stands out as a surprise at first glance. Both yours truly and Jared Waldo (as you can read in his recent post on rebelrebellion.com) had Bricker all but penned in for a spot on the final roster. His mix of grit, physicality, and potential scoring ability seemed like a perfect on the Rebels fourth line.
Unfortunately, Bricker was largely anonymous during camp. Rarely did he show the physical style which made him a fan favorite during his cameo with the club last season. He didn't drop the mitts with anyone (always a sure fire way to get noticed) was pretty much a non-factor in the offensive zone. The recent audition of Cody Thiel at forward also put the writing on the wall for Bricker. While he has tantalizing potential to fill the role for which he was auditioning, Bricker came up short this time around and will have to hone his craft by playing Junior A for the time being.
Right from the start, Mpofu was in tough to make the club this year. That's no secret. His size, or lack there of at only 5'9", made earning a spot in the Rebels defence corps next to impossible (we all know how Sutter and Wallin like their d-men to be big and physical). On the flip side, his offensive and skating abilities were tantalizing enough to earn him an extended look at forward. In the preseason games, Mpofu did show some flashes of brilliance when it came to playmaking and creating scoring chances for his linemates. But I don't think he didn't create as many scoring chances of his own as he, and the Rebels, would have liked. Don't get me wrong, we certainly have not heard the last from Mpofu. He'll now head back to his midget AAA Saskatoon Contacts and hopefully have a big season for them. Perhaps a year from now, or maybe sooner should circumstances dictate, he'll be ready to play at a top level on a more consistent basis.
So let's take a look at the new guys. Ryley Bennefield is a player who has failed to catch on in two previous attempts to make WHL rosters. He had brief appearances with the Portland Winterhawks, who took him in the 2nd round of the 2009 bantam draft, and with the Hitmen. Bennefield feels it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong times.
"Different teams have different dynamics," Bennefield said Wednesday after his first Rebels practice. "I guess I just didn't fit in the mix with those other teams so hopefully I can fit in here."
Bennefield was already contemplating life outside of hockey when he got a surprise call from the Rebels. Ryley has spent the majority of his past couple of seasons playing for his hometown Junior B Wetaskiwin Icemen. He's put up decent numbers with the Icemen, netting 39 points in 36 career games. In 23 games with the AJHL's Grande Prairie Storm, Bennefield recorded 10 points.
But he is pointless in 9 career WHL regular season games played (he did score two goals in preseason action with the Hitmen this month). It will definitely be a case of 'wait and see' when it comes to what he brings to this Rebels club. He doesn't have much time to make an impression.
It's pretty clear what the Rebels are hoping to get from Johnson... scoring. He is basically a point-per-game player at the midget AAA level and appears to have enough size, listed at 5'11 and 180lbs., to handle life in the WHL. We'll likely have to wait a bit get a full look at his potential as Johnson is dealing with concussion issues at this time. But it seems clear that bubble players still on the training camp roster have another reason to look over their shoulder, and to play their butts off should they see the ice this weekend.
Bottom line... the Rebels (Sutter, Wallin and crew) are going about their business the way any elite level sports franchise should... bu constantly looking for ways to make their club better. In their minds, they feel Bennefield and Johnson each have the potential, and that's the key word, to make the Rebels a better club. We shall find out soon enough.
**FRIDAY UPDATE - The Rebels have reassigned forward Trace Elson ('94) to Whitecourt of the AJHL. This leaves the Rebels with 25 players on their current roster (as of Friday morning).