The Western Hockey League playoffs began on Friday and for only the second time in 25 years, the Kelowna Rockets are on the outside looking in.
The Rockets last missed out on qualifying for the post-season during the 2006-07 campaign when it finished with a record of 22-41-5-4, good for 53 points.
This season, the Rockets went 28-32-6-2 for 64 points and a tie for third place in the B.C. Division with the Kamloops Blazers. The teams had identical records, but their point totals were lower than the wild card qualifiers, the Tri City Americans (74) and Seattle Thunderbirds (70).
A tiebreaker, also known as a “play-in” game took place in Kamloops. The Blazers prevailed 5-1 and advanced to the Western Conference playoffs to face the Victoria Royals.
There was adversity and upheaval throughout the 2018-19 season in Kelowna. The inconsistent play up and down the lineup was a consistent part of the experience. The adventures started early as the team was 4-10 out of the gate when head coach Jason Smith was replaced by Adam Foote.
At season’s end, general manager Bruce Hamilton spoke with local journalist Wayne Moore of Castanet, who has covered the Rockets for many years and is highly respected in local media circles.
“I think you learn from adversity,” Hamilton said to Moore. “We had lots of adversity this year, but when you got down to the crunch, and the game like Tuesday (tiebreaker), which was a game seven, but when the real bullets started flying, we weren’t there.
“The toughest is there are three kids that are going to be high draft picks, and I always preach out of sight, out of mind. That’s what happens when you’re out of the playoffs.
“That’s the hard thing for them. They all had opportunities to either move up or maintain their spots. And, now, they don’t.”
Moore also asked Hamilton about the 2019 CHL Import Draft, where the Rockets own the 11th selection, and also potential trades.
“If we get a guy that potentially was drafted last year in the NHL that is freed up,” Hamilton told Moore, “that would be ideal for us, rather than getting a 17-year-old. Or, stumble into another Lassi Thomson.”
“It would be nice to be keeping all of our draft picks and still getting players, but I know we’re going to have to use something as cash to get them. Nobody is going to help us. There will be a price put on everything.”
ROSTER REVIEW: 2018-19 SEASON
#1 James Porter: With two seasons under his belt, the jury is still out as to whether or not Porter is a bonafide WHL starter. He has single-handedly stolen games for the Rockets during his tenure, but there have also been plenty of off nights. This season, it seemed the coaching staff leaned more toward Roman Basran, especially during the second half. Porter is capable when on his game and seems destined to continue to improve, but he does not possess NHL size. There may be other WHL suitors for Porter during the off-season, if the Rockets are looking for a more proven, veteran presence next winter.
#2 Lassi Thompson: The WHL announced this week that Thomson was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Year and earned a spot on the Western Conference Second All-Star team. The Tampere, Finland product was drafted by the Rockets 53rd overall in the first round of the 2018 CHL Import Draft last June. Thomson arrived as somewhat an unknown but within ten games it was apparent the secret would emerge quickly. Brimming with confidence, Thomson adapted to the speed of the game quickly. He seemed to be aware of time and space and become the Rockets most effective defenceman at both ends of the rink. A late season injury, thought to be a concussion, saw him sidelined for the last four games and the tiebreaker. He was irreplaceable.
#4 Devin Steffler: The curious case of Devin Steffler. A product of the minor hockey system in Colorado and the academy program in Austria, Steffler came in this season at age 18 and was a serviceable rearguard. He benefited from the opportunity to play more during the second half of the season, but his long-term presence has to be a question mark. At times he appeared to chase the game and was not overly confident carrying the puck out of his own end. There was very little offensive push in the attacking zone. It could be that age is Steffler’s biggest enemy, as it is difficult to project him as a top four rearguard next season, when he is 19 years of age. On the other hand, a year of development should be beneficial, and he gives the Rockets another right-handed shot to consider.
#5 Cayde Augustine: Used sporadically early on, Augustine became a regular during the second half of the season, especially after the departure of Libor Zabransky. A big, thick defenceman, he will have to become more mobile and it certainly would not hurt if he became accustomed to playing more angrily. One of the real personalities on the Rockets, Augustine has completed his second WHL campaign. At times this season, due to injuries, Augustine was used at the forward position where he was able to play an aggressive and rambunctious fore-checking role.
#6 Kaedan Korczak: Honoured as the Rockets Top Defenceman, Korczak suited up for every game this past season. In addition, he played in August for Team Canada at the Hlinka/Gretzky Tournament and the Canada/Russia Super Series for Team WHL. He was especially solid during the last ten games this season after Thomson was injured. Korzcak played determined in both ends of the rink and was often leaned upon by the coaching staff to play against top opponents. Count on Korczak being back in K-town next season. He will also hear his name called at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.
#7 Libor Zabransky: When Zabransky arrived from the Czech Republic, his skating ability was apparent and there was hope he would emerge as an offensive contributor. While he proved to be a durable defender, there was very little scoring production. As the current season evolved, it became apparent the Rockets were focused on playing youngsters and Zabransky was released at the trade deadline to the Fargo Force of the USHL. The development of Thomson, from Finland, enabled the Rockets to re-think its import compilation as well. Kelowna also could be eyeballing a forward at the 2019 CHL Import Draft.
#8 Jack Cowell: Another of the 19-year-old players the organization had hoped would improve production. During the first half of the season, Cowell frequently left observers wanting for more as he struggled to finish near the opposition net. For Cowell, in his third full season with the Rockets, he scored two goals and three assists in 26 games. Cowell was traded to the Kootenay Ice at the end of November. Surprisingly, he refused to report to Cranbrook, a franchise that at the time was likely ready to relocate to Winnipeg, Cowell’s home town. He returned to Manitoba and the trade was voided by the WHL.
#9 Mark Liwiski: Perhaps the most surprising contributor this season for the Rockets, Liwiski provided equal measures of grit, tenacity, scoring and determination. He was the best Rockets forward down the stretch but was sorely missed while serving a three-game suspension during Kelowna’s late-season swoon. Acquired from the Everett Silvertips prior to the current campaign, Liwiski became a crowd favourite on a team that played most of the season without much bite. He and Alex Swetlikoff generated great chemistry late in the season and the pair even seemed to draw Conner Bruggen-Cate out of his season-long funk. Despite a terrific rookie season, Liwiski will have to improve moving forward.
#10 Ted Brennan: After two seasons in Rockets jersey, we really don’t know what kind of player Brennan is or what he can become. A bull of a power forward when at his best, the injury bug limited his performance this season. Likely a solid depth forward in a normal progression, one wonders how the Memorial Cup roster preparation might impact a player like Brennan. “Teduardo”, from Victoria, appears to possess some versatility up front, but is he a reliable and dominant enough player to occupy a spot as a 19-year-old? That is the question for the powers-that-be moving forward.
#11 Erik Gardiner: The Rockets did not name a captain this season, but the smart money was probably on Gardiner a year ago. A miserable 2017-18 season, due to a severe concussion, coupled with the horrific Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6 that saw Gardiner lose a number of friends, sent the youngster into a challenging life circumstance away from the rink. Midway through the current season, he retired from hockey. He returned to Kelowna during the last week of the season to provide some welcome support as the Rockets stumbled through injuries, suspensions and an unproductive conclusion to the regular season.
#14 Trevor Wong: The Rockets top pick at the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, Wong played four games as an affiliate player this season and scored his first WHL goal. His confidence with the puck was apparent early on and at no time did he did look out of place. Wong led his Greater Vancouver Canadians in scoring this season. The Rockets drafted Wong even though he had made overtures that an NCAA commitment was preferred. The organization was able to convince the player and family to reconsider and give the junior hockey route a try. Initially, this looks like a win-win.
#15 Dallon Wilton: A hard-nosed rookie, Wilton is another youngster who answered the bell this season through increased ice time. To his credit, he scored a couple of big goals for Kelowna down the stretch. The tricky thing here is where he might fit during the Memorial Cup season. Off-season homework would appear to be skating development, creating a more explosive first stride and acceleration. On a team this past year that seemed to lack physical prowess, Wilton played with a willingness to lay the body on opponents. One of the keys moving forward is building speed.
#16 Michael Farren: Farren arrived in Kelowna after playing eight games for the Saskatoon Blades. In fact, he arrived with over 130 games of WHL experience. He proceeded to contribute two goals and five assists in 50 games for Kelowna. Farren moved up and down in the lineup, was easily knocked off the puck by opponents and was unable to shoot with velocity from long range. At some point, it’s not about trying hard or being a great guy in the room – it has to be about production. Farren was generally ineffective offensively and for a third-year player, he just was not good enough.
#17 Alex Swetlikoff: Acquired in January from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Swetlikoff had spent the first half of the season in the BCHL with the Vernon Vipers. A Kelowna-product, Swetlikoff had worked his way on to the Central Scouting radar for the 2019 NHL Draft. He became a much more confident player late in the season after adjusting well to the speed and physical play in the WHL. Swetlikoff gives the Rockets a building-block type of power forward, with similarities to Nolan Foote. With experience, he can begin to better use his size as an advantage in both ends of the rink. A great mid-season pick up buy the front office.
#19 Ethan Ernst: The rookie forward dressed for 60 games this season. Only time will tell if the Rockets’ decision, and that of the player, to have the 16-year-old in Kelowna this season will pay off for both parties. Ernst arrived in Kelowna following a successful year in midget hockey as a member of the Notre Dame Hounds Telus Cup national championship team. Without question a second year of midget would have enabled Ernst to develop by playing big minutes in all situations, rather than settling for a sporadic role in Kelowna this past winter. The Rockets may rely on Ernst in the coming years to up his game, but he might also become an interesting trade target next season as the team builds for the 2020 Memorial Cup. Of course, as a 17-year-old, WHL trade rules would be applicable.
#20 Conner Bruggen-Cate
After a breakout season a year ago where Bruggen-Cate collected 45 points, it was a popular opinion that the 19-year-old had even more to give. Unfortunately, Bruggen-Cate’s play did not reach another level and his overall production amounted to a paltry 14 points in 65 games. It was a tremendously disappointing campaign offensively, especially for a 19-year-old forward expected to carry some of the offensive load. Although he was rewarded at season’s end with the team’s Top Defensive Forward honours, the Rockets needed much, much more from Bruggen-Cate. It did not appear he did enough this season to warrant the Rockets keeping him as a 20-year-old.
#24 Kyle Topping: Hard to say how Topping feels about his 2018-19 season. He led the Rockets in scoring with 69 points and has been a point-per-game contributor for the past two seasons. He also led the team with a plus-10 rating. A versatile forward who improved in the face off circle, Topping’s production slowed over the final ten games. A gritty centreman, Topping would appear to have earned a shot to be one of the Rockets 20-year-old players next year. Undrafted, Topping was given a look by the San Jose Sharks prior to this campaign and one wonders if there will be more suitors during this off-season.
#25 Kyle Crosbie: An interesting season for Crosbie, a diminutive forward who demonstrated some sound puck skills. He was provided with plenty of opportunity on second unit power plays as well. Given his slight build, he experienced challenges in heavy traffic and was not always able to be strong on the puck. The Rockets Scholastic Player of the Year should improve with with growth physically and more playing experience. Another youngster in jeopardy of limited opportunities due to Memorial Cup urgency, Crosbie may also have done enough this season to make other teams pay attention.
#26 Liam Kindree: A shoulder injury in the pre-season slowed Kindree early on and a broken nose and concussion kept him out of the lineup for two weeks during the second half of the season. The hard knocks took a toll and the skilled forward wound up with 34 points in 52 games. Next season, as a 19-year-old, Kindree will have to become less of a perimeter player and find ways to be more aggressive in the attacking zone. He led the BCMML in scoring during his final year and next season will be playing against that very same age class as a 19-year-old leader in the WHL. The Rockets need him to become a high-end offensive producer.
#28 Leif Mattson: Another of the 19-year-old forwards who fashioned a productive campaign. In fact, he may be another player who has earned a spot as a 20-year-old next season. A playmaker for the most part, Mattson responded well to the physical rigors this season and was one of three to appear in all 68 regular season games. A reliable forward, he combined well with Topping for most of the season, but the lack of roster depth had him frequently playing with different line mates. Despite this challenge, he provided a consistent effort and was generally creative in the attacking zone.
#29 Nolan Foote: Foote led the team with 36 goals, but it appeared there were two versions of the rising star this season. Foote was easily noticeable, a lanky forward with a long stride and a heavy shot. He garnered regular attention from NHL scouts and, in part, his bloodlines will ensure his name is called early at the 2019 NHL Draft. (Incidentally, he will have 190 games under his belt prior to the draft.) However, when he plays angry, he is a far more effective power forward who creates his own space on the ice and gives opposing defenders fits. There were many nights where he was a presence, a very effective player. Conversely, there were too many nights where he was easily held in check. Look for an even bigger year from Foote next season.
#30 Roman Basran: Basran took the reins this season as the clear number one during the second half – at least he appeared to gain the confidence of new head coach Adam Foote. He is acrobatic, cocky and poised, although he will be remembered for some time for his failings during the tiebreaker game in Kamloops to end the season. Basran has NHL-size, quick hands and plays aggressively. His puck skills need to improve, and he would benefit from improved positional play. Basran is very athletic. Redemption will play a role as a motivator in his future development.
The 20-year-old situation was a disaster. The brain trust admitted as much as the season began and has been brutally honest about its inability to attract an effective 20-year-old leadership group.
After last season, the team parted ways with 19-year-old goalie Brodan Salmond, then watched as 19-year-old forwards Kole Lind (Vancouver Canucks) and Dillon Dube (Calgary Flames) graduated to professional hockey.
The other 19-year-old holdover, defenceman Bradyn Chizen, stuck around as an over-ager to begin this season.
A four-year veteran who was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2017, he didn’t perform well enough in previous seasons to convince the NHL team to offer him a contract.
This season, he simply was not good enough to lead from the backend and the Rockets moved him to the Brandon Wheat Kings at the trade deadline.
Forward Ryan Bowen played seven games, contributed zero points and was released. Acquired at the trade deadline during the 2017-18 season from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Bowen elected to return home to play with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCHL. The Chiefs were the Royal Bank Cup hosts and would claim the national championship. This will look fine on Bowen’s resume, but his WHL performance leaves many wanting for more. Like Chizen in Kelowna this season, he was not good enough and following his release, there were no other takers league wide.
Forward Lane Zablocki was acquired prior to the season from the Victoria Royals.
He did not play until November due to an injury suffered at Detroit Red Wings camp, the team that selected him 79th overall at the 2017 NHL Draft..
The Rockets were Zablocki’s fifth WHL team. He chipped in with 12 points in 22 games, but never really found his game in Kelowna. He was released near the trade deadline to the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL.
Dalton Gally was a breath of fresh air among 20’s this season. He arrived early from the Medicine Hat Tigers where he was fourth on the depth chart among over-agers. That says plenty about his prominence among overage players league-wide.
His effort, personality and leadership in Kelowna was exactly what the Rockets needed. He had an enormous impact on Lassi Thomson and the group of young defenceman. Gally was also a terrific interview!
Ditto for Schael Higson, who arrived from Brandon in exchange for Chizen.
He had fallen out of favour with the Wheaties and did not appear to arrive in Kelowna in game-shape.
He improved steadily during the second half of the season and provided much-needed grit on the backend.
He was a good find for the Rockets.
The Rockets landed Matt Barberis in early January, a waiver claim from the Vancouver Giants. The injury bug hounded Barberis throughout his junior career and never really delivered on potential. About 10 games in with the Rockets, he suffered an upper body injury and was done for the season. The Rockets liked Barberis in the dressing room and relied on his experience and poise, but ultimately the best ability is availability and Barberis could not stay healthy enough to play. He appeared in 176 games over five WHL seasons, 19 games as an over-ager, and watched the tiebreaker game in Kamloops with a cast on his right arm.
ROSTER ADDITIONS / DELETIONS
D Kelvin Hair: released
D Kyle Pow: released
F Wil Kushniryk, traded to Tri-City Americans
D Noah Dorey (AP): appeared in one game
D Jackson DeSouza (AP): appeared in two games
F Cole Carrier (AP): appeared in eight games
F Steel Quiring (AP): appeared in three games
In some ways, it is unfortunate the Rockets are in planning mode as hosts for the Memorial Cup, as there is a likelihood the anticipated roster juggling will impact some of the youngsters the team chose to try and fast-track this season.
At some point, the organization will have to look at adding veteran depth through trades. This is likely to include current roster players and future draft picks.
The core group next season could include three to five NHL drafted players. There is also decent depth, although there will be significant roster maneuvering.
A returning core group could look something like this:
Forwards – Kyle Topping (20); Leif Mattson (20); Nolan Foote (19); Liam Kindree (19); Mark Liwiski (19); Alex Swetlikoff (18); Ethan Ernst (17); Trevor Wong (16)
Defence – Kaedan Korczak (19); Lassi Thomson (19); Devin Steffler (19); Cayde Augustine (17)
Goal – Roman Basran (18); James Porter (19)
2020 MEMORIAL CUP HOSTS
In a normal season, the Rockets might run with more youngsters and just watch the development materialize. However, the urgency associated with hosting the Memorial Cup will impact the roster composition as the brain trust juggles veterans and youngsters throughout the season.
With the 2020 Memorial Cup slated for the city of Kelowna next season, Hamilton acknowledged to DUBNetwork that he is looking at rosters league-wide.
“We’ll be looking at everybody in the league now as we prepare our wish list,” Hamilton said early in 2019. “We want to make moves for next year come the summer.”
It should also be mentioned that the Rockets have not always stuck to conventional means of attracting players. In past years, the organization has secured import players mid-season and have also dipped into the minor professional ranks. Surprises should never be surprising, given the reputation of the franchise and the tentacles of these experienced operators.
A post-season berth this season was said to be critical, primarily to ensure the young core group gains some exposure to playoff hockey.
But not to be ignored is the reality that new head coach Adam Foote would have been the beneficiary of some playoff experience as well.
The Kelowna Rockets have missed the playoffs twice in its existence, which is the body of work that should be considered most. The record of success and the organization’s ability to produce winning hockey is the big picture reality.
As the rest of the WHL embarks on the exciting post-season without the Kelowna Rockets, it might be best for all to know the organization will not be at rest.