The Red Deer Rebels’ young crop of rookies weren’t going to sit back during their first opportunity to impress Head Coach and General Manager Brent Sutter last weekend.
A young squad of Rebels hopefuls and veterans jumped at the chance to show their skills during a pre-season tournament hosted by the Rebs at the ENMAX Centrium last Friday and Saturday, splitting their two games at the tourney.
“We had some opportunities,” said Sutter after a 6-4 loss to the Calgary Hitmen on Saturday. Sutter’s team also put up a 6-1 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings on Friday night.
The Prince George Cougars was the fourth and final team in attendance at the tournament, which simply allowed the WHL teams to get their players into game situations before NHL camps start up later this month.
Sutter said he was impressed with the way that some of the younger players, including some of the 16-year-olds were able to compete with the veterans on the Hitmen and Oil Kings rosters.
“I thought that some of our young kids struggled in the first period, but then after they got caught up with the pace — tonight was a much different level of game than it was last night,” Sutter said after the Calgary game, which saw the Rebels’ young players really get to see how an elite WHL team plays.
“We’ve seen a lot more veterans in the lineup tonight. We played this team in playoffs last year and we know what type of players these guys have and the compete level and how quick they can be.”
Sutter added he thought the team’s young players adapted well to the Hitmen’s speed.
“It took them probably a period and a half to adjust to what the pace was like and the way they have to play. I thought they got better.”
Among the Rebels rookies that stood out, Sutter said, was 16-year-old winger Brandon Cutler, who had a goal in each of the two games the team played last weekend.
“Cutler was outstanding again. For a 16-year-old he’s certainly making a push here, which is good to see,” said the coach, adding that the six-foot tall Spruce Grove native is currently one of the front-runners as final cuts loom on the horizon.
“I’m coming as an underdog, coming ninth-round here. Just looking to show that I should have went a lot lower in the draft. I think I deserved to go as a first or second or third round pick. But I think I’m earning my way,” said Cutler, who was taken by the Rebels in the eighth round, 192nd overall in the 2015 WHL bantam draft.
The rookie forward added that the relatively low selection has created somewhat of a chip on his shoulder and he’s out to prove that he can be a force in the Rebels’ WHL lineup.
“I just got back from an injury not too long ago. I lost 30 pounds or whatever but it doesn’t matter. No excuses, right?”
As it turns out, Cutler, along with the rest of the rookies, may be called upon to step up in a big way for the Rebels, as fan favourite veteran forward Evan Polei, one of the team’s 20-year-old players, left Saturday night’s game with what Sutter described as an upper-body injury.
“He’ll be out for a bit,” Sutter said.
Polei, who worked his way into the hearts of Rebels’ fans last season thanks to a very strong playoff campaign, solidified his status as a local hero after scoring a dramatic overtime winner against Brandon at last season’s Memorial Cup tournament.
The Wetaskiwin native was slated to join teammate Adam Musil at the St. Louis Blues rookie camp later this month.
Sutter did not give a timeline for Polei’s return to the ice.
Other Rebels rookies who made contributions included import defender Alexander Alexeyev (1G, 2A), and prospects D-Jay Jerome (1G, 1A) and Austin Schellenberg (2A).