When the Kelowna Rockets dropped a 5-1 decision to the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League tiebreaker game on March 19, it signaled the beginning of an uncharacteristically lengthy off-season.
And that is something the organization is not accustomed to.
Indeed, for the first time since the spring of 2007, the Rockets did not qualify for the post-season.
“We certainly haven’t enjoyed or been used to it, I’ll tell you that,” said Bruce Hamilton in an interview with DUBNetwork on Monday following the 2019 National Hockey League Draft. “But, it’s probably allowed us to reflect on a number of things we need to get straightened out here.”
The Rockets kept busy while the playoff teams were battling for WHL supremacy. Presumably, Hamilton spent plenty of time working the phones, shopping the fifth overall pick at the 2019 WHL Draft.
When the league convened in Red Deer on May 2, the deal was announced.
The Rockets swapped first round picks with the Brandon Wheat Kings and acquired the rights to defenceman Sean Comrie.
Then, Hamilton packaged that first round pick with two other picks and 20-year-old forward Conner Bruggen-Cate in exchange for Seattle Thunderbirds’ defenceman Jake Lee, forward Dillon Hamaliuk and goaltender Cole Schwebius.
It was the kind of horse-trading the Rockets had to initiate, especially with the 2020 Memorial Cup in mind.
“We got a number of things done at the WHL Draft to acquire the players we did, just to give us the depth that we wanted,” Hamilton said.
Yet, he says, the work is far from complete. The annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft is slated for Thursday. Kelowna will choose 13th and 73rd.
“We’ll involve the European draft now,” Hamilton said as he explained the off-season roster juggling. “With Lassi (Thomson) being picked in the first round (by Ottawa) that will allow us to pick two players.”
“He goes on a special list right away,” Hamilton said of Thomson, who landed in Kelowna as the 53rd pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft. “We’ll be able to pick two players and not lose Thomson.”
Had the Finnish defenceman not been selected in round one, Kelowna would have been in tough ahead of the Import Draft. There is a provision in place because players chosen in the first round are said to have a legitimate chance to make their respective NHL team roster. When this occurs, the junior team is effectively penalized and loses a very good player.
“We would have had to make a decision tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “We would have had to list who we are keeping and who we are not.”
Instead, there is some security in that Kelowna can choose two import players. Determining who those players will be involves plenty of communication with players, agents and pro teams.
“There are certain teams that reach out when they want certain players to be in certain situations,” Hamilton said. “Once the (NHL) Draft ended, I went to work on the list of players. Then, you’re dealing with them about interest in coming over. We’re working away to get the right player in place.”
Regarding Thomson, Hamilton opined, “we’re confident now since the Draft that the team that selected him will probably have some interest in considering us as a landing spot.”
Circling back to the NHL Draft, the Rockets saw four players chosen in the first two rounds: Thomson, Nolan Foote (Tampa Bay), Kaden Korczak (Las Vegas) and Hamaliuk (San Jose). While Hamaliuk has yet to play a game in a Rockets jersey, Hamilton is bullish the four players will be a big part of the 2019-20 roster.
“I think that if we were ever going to get a real good shot in the arm in the early part of the summer, we got it on the weekend by having four players picked,” Hamilton said. “Two in the first and two in the second is pretty impressive. We’re real excited about that.”
“And I think it looks great for our scouting staff and our coaching staff that these teams have the faith that these guys are going to be developed and become good players.”
Of the new recruits from Seattle, Hamilton didn’t mince words.
“I’m shocked that Jake Lee wasn’t drafted,” he said. “He’s got tons of interest today and is probably on his way to somebody’s development camp. That one surprised me.
“Hamaliuk didn’t surprise me. I knew he was going be picked earlier than a lot of people thought. I like the team that picked him. San Jose doesn’t rush their guys and we’ll see what kind of year he has here. He could be a potential overage in all of this.”
Hamilton was candid throughout last season the organization did not do enough to get a solid and productive overage group in place. For the 2019-20 campaign, there is nothing definite yet, either.
“It’s premature, but we still have (Kyle) Topping and (Leif) Mattson, our guys,” Hamilton said. “I’m going to add a third one along the way. I’ll look at that in the fall when we see who comes back from NHL camps around the league.”
Despite the lack of playoff hockey in Kelowna this past spring, the Rockets have been in the news and Hamilton is encouraged, suggesting there has been interest in the hockey club’s off-season activity. Whether it translates to ticket sales remains to be seen.
“Yes, I think there’s been a nice take up on it,” Hamilton said. “We want to get the numbers back up to where they were at one time.”
“People will probably push hard right into September before we do much with Memorial Cup tickets. We‘re the guys that took all the risk winning the bid and one benefit to the Kelowna Rockets is the season ticket holders base should get a bump.”
(Editor’s Note: Late this evening, the Rockets announced that Jake Lee will attend the San Jose Sharks development camp.)