2017-18 season previews: Kelowna Rockets

Kelowna Rockets (2016-17 season: 45-22-5-0: 90 points. Lost in the Western Conference Final to Seattle Thunderbirds)

Expectations are always high in Kelowna, among the Rockets fan base and indeed, in both the front office and dressing room. The Rockets have won the Western Hockey League championship four times since the 2002-03 season with its most recent coming in 2015.

While there will be turnover this season due to player graduations to university programs and professional hockey, the Rockets look to be contenders again in the Western Conference.

Following its exit from the 2017 post-season, courtesy a 4-2 verdict against the eventual league champion Seattle Thunderbirds, the Rockets graduated team captain Rodney Southam (Acadia Axemen), goaltender Michael Herringer (University of Regina Cougars) and mid-season acquisition Reid Gardiner (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – AHL). Each overage player was a key contributor on a team that dispatched both the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks during the playoffs. This trio will be difficult to replace.

Forward Nick Merkley is also gone, signed by the Arizona Coyotes. The overage forward, who played four seasons in Kelowna under four different head coaches, was a dynamic presence last season. It also appears unlikely that Lucas Johansen will be back, perhaps destined for a role in the Washington Capitals system.

Import Calvin Thurkauf signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets after two full seasons in Kelowna. He was an absolute bull of a power forward and his offensive skills improved consistently during his tenure with the Rockets. His physical presence will be missed.

Dillon Dube

Among returning veterans, the Rockets could use a full season of Dillon Dube’s offensive potential. The speedy forward played only 40 regular season games last season due to an injury suffered at Calgary Flames camp. However, he still chipped in with 55 points. Dube earned a spot on Team Canada’s roster for the 2017 World Junior Championship and will press for the same this season. His veteran presence will be important in the Rockets dressing room this season, but the team will need him healthy and on the ice as much as possible.

Is it possible for Kole Lind to be even more productive this season? The 18-year-old led the Rockets in scoring last season with 30 goals and 57 assists in 70 games. Lind, who did much of his scoring early in the season when the Rockets were short-staffed due to injuries and absences, went on to be selected in the second round, 33rd overall, by the Vancouver Canucks.

Kyle Topping, who led the team in scoring during the pre-season, was a pleasant surprise last year with 14 goals and 15 assists in 59 games as a 17-year-old rookie. Is it time for Topping to establish himself as a key offensive contributor in the WHL? Kyle, whose older brother Jordan has played three seasons with the Tri City Americans, with celebrate his 18th birthday in mid-November.

Liam Kindree, 17, led the BCMMHL in scoring last season and is likely to play in the Rockets top nine to start the season. Kindree could elevate his stock with some early production and perhaps push for a top-six role.

Erik Gardiner is back after enjoying a productive rookie season. The younger brother of Reid Gardiner, Erik came over in a deal with the Regina Pats. His versatility did not go unnoticed, as the coaching staff played him on the power play and in penalty killing situations.

By the time Nolan Foote celebrates his 17th birthday on November 29, he will be very close to the 100 games played mark in his young WHL career. The big forward did not look out of place during his rookie campaign, collecting 19 goals and 16 assists in 52 games, along with eight points in 17 playoff games. He is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2019.

Gordie Ballhorn

The Rockets will likely return six defencemen, adding a measure of stability on the backend. Veterans Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager will be key leaders and represent stay-at-home efficiency. Cal Foote, selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, 11th overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning, should return this season and will be the group’s top offensive catalyst.

Lanky rearguard Braydyn Chizen checks in at 6’6 , 200 pounds. Upon his return from Minnesota Wild camp, he will bring valuable size and reach to the mix.

Konrad Belcourt was brought along slowly as a 16-year-old last season and Kaeden Korczak spent much of the post-season acclimating himself to the WHL lifestyle. A close and critical eye will be lent to their respective development this season.

Brodan Salmond

Questions abound

The Rockets have graduated significant WHL experience. How quickly will the core group gel and instill leadership and motivation among the charges? Will team chemistry be evident out of the gate?

Is Brodan Salmond ready to carry the mail as a starting goaltender in the WHL? The goaltending battle was settled when the Rockets anointed Salmond the starter in front of rookie James Porter. The team released 20-year-old Cody Porter, a veteran of three WHL seasons and over 100 appearances.

How will the Rockets match up physically among Western Conference teams this season?

How the charges commit to the systems employed by the coaching staff remains to be seen. However, there is plenty of team speed, enough to give opponents fits in the attacking zone.

Besides Cal Foote, how much offence can the Rockets expect from the backend?

Will the Rockets look to add strength and depth at the trade deadline again this season? General manager Bruce Hamilton has shown in recent years that a significant move or two can parlay into post-season success.

Woes for Divisional Foes?

Over the past five seasons, the Rockets have averaged 51 regular season victories. Along the way, the team has feasted on divisional opponents, posting a cumulative record of 94-37-1-1. Here’s the breakdown:

vs Prince George: 23-9

vs Kamloops: 26-9-1

vs Victoria: 17-13-1-1

vs Vancouver: 28-4

It could be argued that divisional opponents narrowed the gap somewhat last season, as the Rockets went 21-13. Here’s the breakdown:

vs Prince George: 4-4

vs Kamloops: 4-6

vs Victoria: 6-2

vs Vancouver: 7-1

Certainly the points gleaned from these B.C. Division battles have favoured Kelowna for much of the recent past. If the long-term trend continues through the 2017-18 season, it would likely result in another first place finish atop the division standings, thus guaranteeing home ice advantage in the first round of the post-season. The Rockets will play 32 of its 72 regular season games against B.C. Divisional opponents.

Very Special Teams

Early on last season the team produced some of the most uncharacteristic, undisciplined hockey seen in the Okanagan Valley for some time. Ultimately, Kelowna would lead the entire WHL with a total of 1,119 penalty minutes.

Rolling four lines, or at least the top nine forwards, became challenging for the coaching staff, given the number of power play opportunities the Rockets presented their opponents. The penalty killing effort ranked ninth in the WHL as the Rockets surrendered 71 goals in 356 opportunities. Kelowna scored 12 shorthanded goals.

On the other hand, Kelowna made opponents pay on the power play, producing at a 25.2% success rate. The Rockets 81 power play goals were third best in the WHL and Kelowna was the only team in the league that did not give up a shorthanded tally.

Tomas Soustal

The “20’s”

Veteran Tomas Soustal, while valuable, would be a two-spotter this season at 20 years of age.

Carsen Twarynski, acquired near the trade deadline last season from the Calgary Hitmen, will have to bring the noise offensively to force the Rockets to keep him in the fold for the entire season.

Is there any chance that defenceman Devante Stephens, who is signed by the Buffalo Sabres, returns this season and play as an overage?

If Salmond doesn’t rise to the occasion as the staring keeper, is there a 20-year-old goalie in the Rockets future?

By early October, the 20-year-old situation will be much clearer, but this could certainly change over the course of the season.

Importation

By all accounts, 17-year-old defenceman Libor Zabransky is WHL-ready, at least based on his high-end skating ability. An injury suffered at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in August slowed the Czech import at training camp, but he is pegged as a valuable addition to the blueline brigade.

Czech-born forward Marek Skvrne (skrin-ya) is more of an unknown entity at this point, but is likely to be given every opportunity to earn a spot among the forwards group.

If Zabransky and Skvrne stick around, how will they react to the rigors of the WHL’s 72-game schedule?

The Rockets have been blessed during the past two or three seasons with the import combination of Soustal and Calvin Thurkauf, perhaps the best duo the organization has ever been able to ice at the same time. Soustal has contributed 138 points in 226 games over three seasons. Thurkauf was good for 144 points in 136 games over two seasons.

For Zabransky and Skvrne, that’s a tough act to follow.

Away at NHL Camps

The waiting game will play itself out through the early portion of the WHL schedule as the opening night roster is certain to change over the first couple of weeks of play with players trickling back into the fold from their respective NHL training camp experiences.

The first confirmed returnee is defenceman Braydyn Chizen, who could be ready to go for Kelowna when they open the season at home to Kamloops on September 22.

The Rockets sent a total of 10 players to NHL camps; Chizen (Minnesota Wild), Dillon Dube (Calgary Flames), Cal Foote (Tampa Bay Lightning), Lucas Johansen (Washington Capitals), Kole Lind (Vancouver Canucks), Nick Merkley (Arizona Coyotes), Tomas Soustal (FA – Dallas Stars), Devante Stephens (Buffalo Sabres), Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Carsen Twarynski (Philadelphia Flyers).

Despite the favourable history of late in Kelowna, it would seem the 2017-18 season truly will represent a changing of the guard.

Jason Smith

Continuity behind the bench should be beneficial as head coach Jason Smith returns for his second season, with Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard returning as assistants.

There certainly appears to be organizational depth in place, a truly positive situation, but how quickly will the youngsters emerge as consistent, complete WHL players?

Many of the up and coming young players will be given increased responsibilities this season. How will they all respond?

Stay tuned!

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Glen Erickson

WHL supporter for more than 40 years. Spent the past 11 years in Kelowna, B.C. as WHL Writer for Hockey’s Future, collaborating on prospect rankings, covered two World Junior Championships, four Top Prospects Games, and a handful of Canada/Russia Super Series events. Still feel the sting from my beloved Saskatoon Blades never winning a league title, but enjoyed witnessing the Kelowna Rockets win two WHL championships on home ice. The passion of the players continues to draw me to the rink.