Lukas Sutter and the new look Saskatoon Blades will try to come together quickly when they host the Red Deer Rebels on Friday Night Hockey.
The MasterCard Memorial Cup host Blades made the biggest headlines on Thursday, acquiring veteran forwards Michael Ferland, Collin Valcourt and Erik Benoit in three separate trades on deadline day. Saskatoon now has 32 games left to gel as a team before the playoffs and their road to the Memorial Cup begin.
The Rebels, by contrast, weren’t as busy during the final day of the trading period. Owner, head coach, and general manager Brent Sutter likes his group and knows they will be in tough against the national championship tournament hosts.
“They’re hosting the Mem Cup and they’re building their team for this year obviously and they’re a good hockey team,” Sutter said. “We’re quite a bit younger team than they are but that’s irrelevant when it comes to competing and playing hard and we’ve had two good games so far against them.”
The Rebels won both meetings this season by scores of 5-3 and 3-0. The last meeting in Red Deer on Dec. 1 wasn’t one of Lukas Sutter’s finer moments as he finished the game with nine penalty minutes. Sutter, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, is the son of Rich and the nephew of the Rebels’ bench boss.
“The last game we played against Red Deer he didn’t control his emotions,” Blades head coach and GM Lorne Molleken admitted. “It was very evident in the last game he lost focus. I think he understands what he has to do and he knows he has to remain focused against any team, but more so against Red Deer because of the family ties.”
“Within our family we’re also used to competing against each other because we’ve been doing it since back when we were kids,” Brent Sutter said. “When you’re coaching, you don’t even think about who the name on the back of the jerseys is on the other team. It doesn’t even become a thought in your mindset. It just isn’t. He’s on the opposition and we need to beat him.”
Mathew Dumba, a first-round pick by Minnesota last summer, will play in this game and Sutter has been pleased with his play since being cut by the Canadian world junior team before Christmas.
“He’s a very caring, big-hearted guy and he was disappointed he didn’t make the team,” Sutter said. “It took him a few games to get back on track here after he came back. The last couple games he’s probably played the best since he’s come back.”
Lukas Sutter began the season slowly after picking up 59 points in 70 games last season. His offensive production isn’t on par with the previous season but he is starting to pick up his pace with goals in each of the last two games.
“The biggest thing with Lukas is that since Christmas he’s been one of our better players simply because of the way he competes, the way he plays the game,” Molleken said. “His strength as a player is when he focuses on being hard to play against and is responsible defensively, that’s when he is the most effective.”
Brent Sutter has nothing but good things to say about his captain, Turner Elson. The over age forward leads by example, which is one reason why the Calgary Flames signed him as an undrafted free agent last year.
“Turner’s an all-around player and he has to play like that,” Sutter said. “We expect a lot of our 20-year-olds. … With Turner, he’s our captain, he’s our leader and he has to show the way.”
Rebels defender Kayle Doetzel is being monitored closely for the NHL draft. Doetzel was ranked 14th among WHL skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting and is still learning to adapt to his role in Red Deer.
“He’s a puck-moving guy that has to be a physical player and if he doesn’t do that then he has tough nights,” Sutter said. “He’s got to be a very responsible, defending type of defenceman. He’s not an offensive type of guy, but he has to be an intelligent guy that can defend the right way and has to bring a physical presence to the game.”
The Blades are an older team, as is often the case with a team hosting the Memorial Cup. Molleken, however, was unwilling to trade any of his three promising 16-year-old rookies in forwards Matt Revel and Ryan Graham and defenceman Nelson Nogier. Revel is off to a good start with 12 points in 35 games this season.
“He’s an intelligent player,” Molleken says of Revel. “He sees the ice extremely well and he uses the people around him. I’m anxious to see how he comes back to play after returning from the under-17 (tournament). For the most part, he’s played in our top nine forwards this year and has played well as a 16-year-old. He’s no different than any of the young guys; he needs to get stronger, but the biggest thing is his skill level is at the highest and it’s just the other parts of his game that he’ll get better at as he gets older and matures.”
Andrey Makarov is coming back to Saskatoon with some shiny hardware after capturing the bronze-medal for the host Russians in the world junior tournament. A year ago, he performed admirably in a 1-0 overtime loss to the Swedes in the gold-medal game.
Makarov’s numbers are modest, but his four shutouts are tied for the league lead and his clutch international performances should bode well for the playoffs and tournament.
“We expect big things from him in the second half because we’re going to need him to provide the type of goaltending that’s necessary to be successful,” Molleken said.
The Rebels also went without their import goaltender for the better part of a month. The Czech sensation, Patrik Bartosak, is among the league leaders in every statistical category and should provide a lift for a team that may have ended up on the winning side of a few losses had he been available.
“He’s one of the best goalies in the league and arguably the best,” Sutter said. “(It’s the) goaltender’s responsibility to give you a chance to win games, not lose games and Patrik gives you a chance every night he’s in the net.”
The Blades are beginning to overcome a slow start by stringing together some wins over divisional opponents. Saskatoon still trails the East Division-leading Prince Albert by 10 points, but Molleken’s squad is focusing on catching a team closer in the standings, the Rebels.
Red Deer currently holds the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, and is the last team with home ice advantage. Molleken wants to close that seven point gap and earn the coveted home ice when the playoffs begin.
“Our goal is to get into the top four and obviously Red Deer’s the team we have to catch right now,” he said. “We have 32 games left. We have a figure that if we want to try to get in the top four we’re going to need a certain amount of wins or play a certain winning percentage of hockey but we have 20 divisional games left and 12 conference games left.”
The Rebels maintain that same objective.
“Our goal is to want to finish in the top four,” Sutter said. “We know there’s a gap (between the top teams) and we know there’s teams pushing behind us.”