The current edition of the Kelowna Rockets continues to play inconsistent hockey during this topsy-turvy Western Hockey League irregular season.
Yet strangely, the long view would suggest the team is likely playoff bound which would be an enormous achievement. After all, the Rockets completely soiled the sheets out of the gate, posting only one victory in its first nine games.
The reality that this group has scraped its way to a 17-18-3-1 record through 39 games is not lost on veteran forward Kyle Topping.
“It was a challenge there,” Topping said in an interview with DUBNetwork following an afternoon practice at Prospera Place. “Since day one we had a tough start, but I believed in our group and I knew we were going to bounce back and have a good stretch there and we did.
“We found ourselves climbing back into that .500 area. We were there for a couple of games, but we’re trying not to look at that too much. We’re just taking it one game at a time and trying to get better every game.”
The climb to the .500 mark was not without casualties. With the team beginning to rally at 4-10, head coach Jason Smith was replaced by another former National Hockey League defenceman, Adam Foote.
It is difficult to argue with the numbers since then. Kelowna has managed a run of 13-8-3-1 under Foote and has begun to benefit from rather a weak B.C. Division.
Indeed, every game matters immensely.
“They’re huge,” Topping said of the divisional games. “It’s pretty tight here in the B.C. Division.
“Every team is doing whatever they can to get those points in games and we’re going to be doing the same here down the stretch, every game is almost like playoff hockey.
“It’s crazy that every point matters. I’ve learned that over my years here and every point can make a difference.”
|BC Division (January 8, 2019)|
Topping, who leads the Rockets in scoring, was selected by Kelowna in the 11th round, 220th overall at the 2014 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. In fact, only six players were chosen after Topping. Since then, he has built a WHL career that so far included 183 games, 19 of the post-season variety.
It certainly didn’t hurt the young forward from Salt Spring Island on the British Columbia coast, having an older brother achieve some success ahead of him in the WHL. Jordan Topping, now 21, appeared in 275 games as a member of the Tri City Americans. He currently toils for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.
For his part, Kyle benefited from the opportunity as a member of a high-octane group in Kelowna last season, one that produced 280 goals. Topping chipped in during his second full campaign with 22 goals and 43 assists in 66 games.
This season, on a team whose offence has been perhaps offensive to some, Topping has maintained a point per game pace with 15 goals and 26 assists in 39 contests.
“I knew coming back this year I was going to be relied upon as a guy to produce night in night out,” Topping said. “It’s been a fun challenge honestly and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.
“It’s fun coming to the rink every night knowing I’m going to be playing key minutes and in all kinds of situations.”
The 19-year-old was overlooked at the 2018 NHL Draft in June, though he earned a look from the San Jose Sharks before returning to Kelowna.
Barring something completely bizarre at the current trade deadline, it is entirely conceivable that Topping might be a lock to return to the Rockets as a 20-year-old next season when the city plays host to the 2020 Memorial Cup.
For now, the Rockets are in need of some depth scoring, team discipline and consistent efforts each and every time they step on the ice. The January schedule is busy, with a few tough tests on the docket.
The Everett Silvertips, Prince Albert Raiders and Vancouver Giants will each pay a visit to Prospera Place this month. Each is leading its respective division in the WHL and at Jan. 2, the three teams were ranked in the weekly Kia CHL Top 10 rankings.
“Those are big games for us and will help us to see where we’re at against the top teams,” Topping said. “We’re going to try and go into those games and play the right way and see what happens.”