Thursday, December 20, 2012

REBELS: At The Half

Finally… I’ve made it back to the blogosphere that I’ve missed so dearly over these past few weeks.

Taking on the duties of News Director has had me running all over the place. I’ve tried on a few occasions to make time to write a new blog but haven’t been able to do so until now. Heck, even doing this write up is gonna take me the better part of two days, and not just because I’m a tad slow. I’ll admit that I’m a bit late in sharing my thoughts on some things, but what better time to get caught up than at the midway point of the season (or just past it, I suppose, as the Rebels have played 37 of their 72 regular season games).

There’s no question that the coaching change from Jesse Wallin to Brent Sutter has sparked this team in a big way. It’s kinda funny in a way. As they both mentioned at the time, Sutter and Wallin felt that making a change was the best thing to do. As it turns out, they were right. But what many are surprised to learn is that Sutter is not motivating his players through intimidation, but rather through the concept of having fun. Yup, that’s been the key… fun. Sutter has talked on more than one occasion about how he felt the need to make sure his players were having fun each time they came to the rink. Based on the results, I’d say that’s definitely been the case over the past month. Going 11-2-1-0 since the coaching change has the Rebels on pretty solid footing, 4th
in the WHL Eastern Conference with 45 points. And you know who is no doubt having fun watching it all unfold… Jesse Wallin. The former has been at nearly every home game since he was dismissed. As he told us when the change was made, “I will always be a Red Deer Rebel.”

So what are some of the tangible factors that have helped get the Rebels season heading in the right direction?

The first, and somewhat obvious thing I suppose, is solid goaltending. He’s played well all season long, but Patrik Bartosak was especially superb during the winning streak. Just once during those nine games did he allow more than one goal against (and had shutouts vs. Medicine Hat on Nov. 20 and Saskatoon on Dec 1.), and on the night where he gave up five goals… his team did him a huge favour by scoring six (vs. Medicine Hat on Nov. 30). You can’t ask for anything more from your starting goaltender.

Bartosak’s brilliance made for a long wait between appearance for Bolton Pouliot, more than three weeks as it turned out. But upon his return to the crease, Pouliot picked up right where he left off previously… giving his team a chance to win each night. Outside of two goals against within a span of 26 seconds, he was great in a 2-1 loss to Calgary on Dec. 12. Two nights later, he again played well in a 3-2 shootout victory over Victoria. Especially great for Bolton was that the win came in a shootout… something he hasn’t had much luck with over the years. He only stopped one of the three Royals shooters that night, but his team had his back in scoring on all three of their attempts at the other end. Pouliot’s confidence makes the absence of Bartosak much easier for the club to deal with.

The entire group of Rebels defenders has also played a big part in the club’s recent success. It’s not a flashy group, but it has been a consistent group. The blue liners deserve a ton of credit for lightening the work load for their goaltenders, allowing 20 or fewer shots per game on a fairly regular basis. The Rebels could definitely use some more offense from their back end, but that may be something that comes with time.

Having a healthy Kayle Doetzel back in the lineup has definitely been nice and he has benefited greatly from tutoring under the cagey veteran, Brandon Underwood. Kevin Pochuk is starting to make the best of his recall after being cut during training camp. Devan Fafard has become a tough, physical force to be reckoned with in his own zone. Haydn Fleury’s star continues to shine brightly, many fans and opposing coaches and media types tell me see great things ahead for the lanky 16 year old. Riley Boomgaarden has been playing while banged up of late but he continues to eat up some valuable minutes for the Rebels each night out. Brady Gaudet has been nothing short of outstanding, at least in my opinion, a fantastic acquisition by Brent Sutter, and not just for this season.

That leaves us with Mathew Dumba, what do we make of his season so far? His 17 points in 34 games is well below his pace from last year, his -3 rating places him sixth amongst Rebels d-men, and his highlight reel of big hits is much shorter than fans would likely prefer. But let’s keep things in perspective here. Dumba is still only 18 and still has a long way to go in terms of developing his game. It goes without saying that being a top ten NHL draft pick brings with it a heavy burden of expectation. And, there’s no doubt being cut from Team Canada for a second straight year is a huge personal disappointment. This may sound strange, but that excites me. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played his best hockey as a Rebels right after he was cut from Team Canada a couple of years ago. If Dumba does similar, we’re all in for a treat.

Finally, we discuss the Rebels forwards. Much like the defense, the forwards are anything but at flashy group. There’s not a whole lot of “elite” skill but there are a whole lot of guys willing to grind it out each shift and make the sacrifices needed for success to occur. It’s a group that does its scoring by committee, pretty much as expected coming into the season.

The captain is playing perhaps his best ever hockey as a Rebels. Turner Elson has been a force at both ends of the rink. He has always prided himself on being an elite penalty killer in the WHL, now he has his teammates buying into creating the third best penalty killing unit in the league. And you can’t even begin to count the number of scoring chances Elson has created by crashing toward the net with the puck on his stick. It’s been fun to watch.

How about Elson’s linemate, Rhyse Dieno? What an addition he’s been for this Rebels team, a freebie pickup from the SJHL. Dieno has become the point-a-game player the Rebels desperately needed to solidify their top six. As the original ‘Deano’ (Dean Martin for you youngsters) sang “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”… Rebels fans are definitely loving this Dieno big time.

The third member of that line, Brooks Maxwell, has been solid in his own right. He hasn’t matched the point production of the other two as of yet, but is doing a very nice job of “stirring the drink”, if you will, at centre.

The second line of Tyson Ness, Joel Hamilton, and Matt Bellerive has come together quite well. Ness is tied with Elson for the team lead with 10 goals. Hamilton leads the team with 18 assists. Bellerive has the same number of points as Hamilton with 21.

The third line is one that continues to get better each week. After a slow start to the season points wise, centre Conner Bleackley’s play has been especially impressive of late. His confidence has never been an issue and will only continue to grow with the more experience the 16 year old gets. Wyatt Johnson has been great since missing the Rebels first 13 games due to injury. A sleeper pickup from Vancouver, Johnson has the potential to be a huge catalyst for the Rebels in the second half of the season. Cory Millette is another youngster who continues to gain confidence and will be a definite plus for the Rebels when he returns to the lineup from his current injury.

The fourth line on most any hockey club can flies under the radar. But Christian Stockl, Jesse Miller, and whoever else they’ve been teamed up with (everyone from Cody Thiel to Riley Boomgaarden to the departed Marc McCoy and Filip Vasko) have been anything but a liability for the Rebels. Stockl came to Red Deer in a tough spot as part of the Adam Kambeitz trade but has won the respect of his coaches and teammates both on and off the ice. Miller made the club as a dark horse coming out of training camp and played 23 games before recording his first points of the season, but he definitely has the speed and agility needed to be a steady player at the WHL level.

Moving forward... it will be interesting to see the impact created by next week’s arrival of Dominik Volek. Brent Sutter definitely made the move to bring him to Red Deer with the goal of adding more offense to his lineup. Sutter knows the family well, having played on a line with Dominik’s father David with the New York Islanders, and that no doubt played a big role in this trade. Volek put up good numbers last year in Regina and was good enough to play pro this year in Sweden. Rebels fans should probably get excited.

After not being able to crack the Rebels roster coming out of training camp, Scott Feser looked impressive in his two game stint before the break. It’s clear that he has gained a boat load of confidence while playing with the Camrose Kodiaks of the AJHL. It will be very interesting to see how Feser’s role plays out as the season moves forward. Will he be here to stay? Will he be making constant trips back and forth between Red Deer and Camrose? However it turns out, Feser undoubtedly has many of his hometown Red Deer supporters pulling for him.

I do feel bad for Spencer Tremblay. The kid got a rarity in the world of junior hockey, a second chance. Brought in to compete with Bolton Pouliot, Tremblay was hung out to dry for most of the night in a 6-1 loss to Kelowna. Adding injury to insult, he hurt his knee in the process. The plan is for the Rebels to help get Tremblay healthy again before reassigning him to Junior A… an unfortunate bit of tough luck for a guy who was starting to earn some respect around the Rebels locker room.

I don’t really have any sort of catch phrase, but I do like to say “never a dull moment” quite a lot. In this case, I can think of no better way to sum up the first half of the Red Deer Rebels 2012-2013 season. Saddle up, folks, for what should be a fascinating second half!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good analysis Troy,thanks for the overall team picture