Blueline Corps Has Played Major Role in Rebels' Success
Winning hockey teams all have one factor in common - a strong defensive corps.
The Red Deer Rebels are no exception. The Rebels' blueline brigade is their most impressive in years; not since the club hosted the Memorial Cup tournament in 2016 has Red Deer possessed a group of defencemen of this calibre.
Of course, there are other variables that come into play concerning a team's shutdown ability, namely strong goaltending - which Connor Ungar and Chase Coward have supplied - and a group of speedy, determined forwards who play a 200-foot game.
"You have to have good goaltending and you need your forwards tracking back hard so you've got good gap control," first-year assistant coach Mike Egener said Tuesday. "If you don't have good forwards tracking back then it's tough for the D-men to stay up.
"It's been a collective team effort. Playing good, strong defence equates to being stronger in that area. It's definitely fair to say everyone's contributed to the whole cause."
The Rebels possess the second-best goals-against average in the Eastern Conference of the WHL. Their team GAA of 2.71 is second to only the Winnipeg Ice in the conference and is fifth-best in the entire league, also trailing the Kamloops Blazers, Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips.
And while the goaltenders and forwards have played a big role in that, the eight-man blueline crew of Christoffer Sedoff, Jace Weir, Kyle Masters, Hunter Mayo, six-foot-seven Jackson van de Leest, Joel Sexsmith, Blake Gustafson and six-foot-five, 242-pound rookie Matteo Fabrizi can take a bow.
"We have a good mix of guys and they've really bought into the staples of playing defence, making it tough for other teams to play in our zone," said Egener, who works primarily with the defencemen.
Indeed, the defensive corps possesses a mix of size, physicality, foot speed and work ethic. And they all have one thing in common - they can move the puck.
"They all have the ability to transition the puck well," said Egener. "We've also got some good size on the back end with Vandy (van de Leest) and a young guy like Matteo.
"Even guys like Kyle and Weir who are more offensive guys, they've bought into defensive toughness in different ways. Weir, for example, he's learning to bring toughness in terms of being strong with his stick and with his body positioning.
"Expections of him running guys over is not going to be the same as a guy like Mayo, who's physically strong and can really bodycheck. You can measure toughness in different ways with different guys."
Quite clearly, the kingpin on the Rebels' back end is Sedoff (pictured above), one of the league's top-10 scoring defencemen with 41 points (3g,38a).
"He brings that compete level every day and has a pro mentality," said Egener of the 20-year-old Finn, who returned to the Rebels last fall after a one-year absence - due to the pandemic - during which he played pro hockey in his home country.
"It's great having a guy like him around. He has that measure and everyone's going to follow it."
The newest member of the Red Deer defence is van de Leest (pictured below), acquired from the Calgary Hitmen Jan. 11. The overage defender, who wore the 'C' in Calgary, has added size, savvy and a calming effect to the back end.
"He has the experience of playing in the league, obviously as a 20-year-old, and of being a leader, being a captain," said Egener. "That's one of the things we looked at when bringing him in - to be a mentor to the young guys we have here.
"They can look up to him every day in terms of what he brings. He's a guy who has solidified our D and helps make us a stronger corps."
Rebels president and GM Brent Sutter hired Egener in June to work with fellow assistant Ryan Colville, skills coach Erik Lodge, goaltender instructor Ian Gordon, who was added in July, and head coach Steve Konowalchuk.
Egener, a former WHL defenceman, joined the Rebels from the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C., where he was head coach of the U15 AAA team.
He played for the Calgary Hitmen from 2000 to 2004 and was a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 NHL entry draft. Egener played six years in the ECHL and AHL before a three-year stint overseas.
Now, he's coaching at a high level and continuing to learn on a daily basis.
"If I hadn't played in the league it would have been a tougher transition," said the older brother of former Rebels defenceman Luke Egener. "But playing in the league lets you kind of know what to expect.
"We have a great coaching staff here. For me, personally, I've learned so much from everybody. Steve is great for the players and the coaching staff and I'm also learning stuff from Cools (Colville).
"Having a group that has bought in together and works well together makes thing easier. It's been real positive and we just want to continue to keep building and keep pushing as a team."
The Rebels return to action Friday at the Peavey Mart Centrium against the visiting Prince Albert Raiders. The Regina Pats will visit Saturday as the Rebels finish their five-game homestand.
Images from this story
Red Deer Rebels defenceman Jackson van de Leest
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