Kelowna Rockets – Last Season: 28-32-6-2 (4th in B.C. Division)
After a disastrous start last season that saw the Rockets sitting with a 4-10 record out of the gate, which was punctuated by the firing of then head coach Jason Smith, Kelowna continued to struggle with establishing consistency throughout the remainder of the 2018-19 campaign.
The team appeared to lack leadership early on, testimony to an overage situation the organization has admitted it did not handle efficiently. All told, the Rockets dressed seven different 20-year-olds for parts of the season.
The forward group provided very little finish in the attacking zone, compiling 169 goals, good for 20th overall in the 22-team WHL. This lack of production came in stark contrast to the previous season when Kelowna’s snipers up front contributed to the team finishing as the fifth highest scoring team in league with 280 goals scored.
After an important 2-0 win on home ice against the Kamloops Blazers to close out their February schedule, the Rockets had a seven-point lead on the Blazers in the race for the third and final B.C. Division playoff berth. Alas, Kelowna stumbled mightily down the stretch, dropping six of eight games in March, salvaging an overtime win in its final game to earn the two points in the standings that resulted in a tie-breaker game with the Blazers at Kamloops.
The Rockets dropped that contest, a 5-1 decision, and missed the post-season for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. The abrupt end did not sit well within the organization — and certainly not with the local faithful.
The lengthy off-season has been punctuated by much focus on how the Rockets will choose to build a team that can contend during 2019-20, as the city of Kelowna readies to host the 2020 Memorial Cup in May.
Gone are the 20-year-old players who finished the season in Kelowna – Dalton Gally, Schael Higson, and Matt Barberis. Only Gally was able to provide a consistent contribution for the majority of the season.
Forward Ted Brennan, who struggled to stay in the lineup due to injuries, has left the team.
Forward Conner Bruggen-Cate, now 20, was dealt to the Seattle Thunderbirds at the WHL Bantam Draft.
The biggest potential loss is defenceman Lassi Thomson. The Finnish import was outstanding at both ends of the ice as a WHL rookie last season. He was selected in the first round, 19th overall, by the Ottawa Senators at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft but appears destined to play at home in Finland.
The aforementioned trade on May 2 brought defenceman Jake Lee, forward Dillon Hamaliuk, and goaltender Cole Schwebius to Kelowna from Seattle. Another deal at the WHL Bantam Draft netted defenceman Sean Comrie from the Brandon Wheat Kings system.
Lee may have been Seattle’s top rearguard last season, while Hamaliuk suffered a season-ending injury and did not play during the second half of the regular season.
Comrie played two seasons in the AJHL for the Spruce Grove Saints before completing last season in the NCAA at the University of Denver. He has no playing experience in the WHL but has committed to the Rockets for the 2019-20 season.
Exactly where Schwebius will fit in remains to be seen as returnees Roman Basran and James Porter appear to be the likely tandem to start the season. It would not seem out of the realm of possibility to see one or two of these goalies traded at some point.
Behind the bench, former Rockets forward Vernon Fiddler has been added to the coaching staff. Fiddler played 218 WHL games for Kelowna and went on to appear in 928 NHL games with four teams.
Patience, while building toward the Memorial Cup…
This will be the top story in Kelowna, and perhaps league-wide, all season long.
While many seem pigeon-holed in their view that every day these days is all about the 2020 Memorial Cup, the powers-that-be have a much better handle on the long game.
The organization is preaching patience, even though the fan base and prognosticators in WHL cities seem intent on already ripping the team as a weak host for the Memorial Cup.
It would seem the likes of Bruce Hamilton and Lorne Frey, who have spearheaded the franchise’s on-ice success for more than two decades, might deserve the benefit of the doubt?
While the two have been in lockstep when discussing the 2019-20 season, with an eye on being patient with the currently assembled group, it would be fair to suggest they will exhaust all opportunities to build another winning team.
Look for the fan base and prognosticators league-wide to harp on and on about the massive trades they believe are necessary immediately to give the current edition any hope of being a solid Memorial Cup host team. However, it says here that such anxiety is erroneous and the reality is the Rockets brain trust has things in very good order moving forward.
Are the current netminders good enough?
Porter, 19, enters his third full season with the Rockets, yet he is not the favourite to be the number one goalie. The somewhat diminutive keeper has demonstrated brilliance between the pipes on many occasions with Kelowna, but he did not enjoy a consistently solid 2018-19 season.
Basran, 18, has also played some outstanding hockey, but again, his inability to demonstrate a consistently high quality of play led to him being bypassed at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
Schwebius, 18, has appeared in only 17 WHL games. However, he has been perhaps the top performer among keepers of the cage during the preseason, which does create an interesting dilemma for the Rockets. Schwebius, from Kelowna, is a year younger than Porter, and that may factor into how the organization views its situation in goal.
That said, Cole Tisdale, 17, who had a cup of coffee with the Rockets as a 15-year-old during the 2017-18 season when he suited up for five games as an injury replacement, is waiting in the wings.
Leadership: Questions have to be answered…
Well, who’s it gonna be?
Forward Nolan Foote enters his fourth full season — this time around with an NHL entry-level contract in his pocket. The Tampa Bay Lightening selected Foote in the first round, 27th overall, at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. As a player opposing teams will target night-in and night-out, Foote will have to stay healthy and productive to help the Rockets contend.
Forwards Kyle Topping and Leif Mattson, both 20, appear to be penciled is as two-thirds of the Rockets overage group this season.
Topping, who has been passed over at the NHL Entry Draft twice, led the team in scoring last season and has proven to be a steady, point-per-game producer during his WHL career. Mattson produced his best offensive numbers last season. Both are durable, versatile forwards, but can they stir the drink this season?
Topping and Mattson have been good soldiers in Kelowna but, this season, they have to be even better.
Former Red Deer Rebels defenseman Carson Sass was recently added to bring the overage number to three.
Forward Liam Kindree, 19, must stay in the lineup and answer the bell offensively this season. He led the BCMML in scoring during his final year of midget hockey, and this season, he will face that same age group as veteran players across the WHL. He missed 22 games two seasons ago and 16 games last year with injuries.
On the backend, Kaedan Korczak, now 18, should continue to improve. He was solid last season and was rewarded by the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft when he was chosen 41st overall. The right-handed shooter will have to be productive in all situations this season.
Can Hamaliuk, 18, the San Jose Sharks second round pick (57th overall), dominate as a power forward this season?
Is Jake Lee, 18, ready to be a top-pairing defenceman?
How will Sean Comrie, 19, adjust to a 68-game schedule in his first WHL season?