The city of Kelowna has become used to the Rockets winning tradition, testimony to which are the myriad of banners that adorn the rafters at Prospera Place.
The Rockets have missed the Western Hockey League playoffs only once in the past 16 seasons. The organization has also been a steady and reliable supplier of talent to the National Hockey League.
The entire coaching staff is returning with head coach Jason Smith working with Kris Mallette, Travis Crickard and Adam Brown.
2017-18: Coming off a 43-22-5-2 record last season, which saw the team earn yet another BC Division title, the Rockets were bounced from the post-season in four straight games by the Tri City Americans.
The Rockets may have surprised themselves with a solid start to the season and also how well they played to remain in the hunt for top spot in the BC Division, given the injury situation and the number of players that were constantly in and out of the lineup.
This was a group that overcame adversities all season long, then simply ran out of gas as the regular season schedule came to an end.
Departures: Dillon Dube (CGY), Kole Lind (VAN) and Cal Foote (TB) are all signed by their respective NHL teams. While each is eligible to return to the WHL, it is likely this trio will play professional hockey this season.
Overage grads Carsen Twarynski (PHI), Gordie Ballhorn (U of S Huskies) and James Hilsendager (U of R Cougars) are gone.
Lind, Dube, Twarynski and Foote were the top four point producers in Kelowna last season, while Ballhorn was one of only two players to appear in all 72 regular season games.
Newcomers: Ethan Ernst, 16, has been guaranteed a spot for the coming season. Ernst was a member of the Notre Dame Hounds Telus Cup winning team last year.
Kyle Crosbie is a diminutive forward with good puck skills. Dallon Wilton, who spent time with the Rockets at the end of last season brings size to the forward group.
Defenceman Devin Steffler from Colorado has played the past two seasons in Austria, while Cayde Augustine brings valuable size to the blueline brigade.
Overage: For now, it’s Braydyn Chizen on defence and Ryan Bowen up front. The third 20-year-old spot is up for grabs and the Rockets are likely to remain patient until a suitable fit emerges.
Chizen was drafted by The Minnesota Wild in 2016 but was not signed. At 6.6, he is lean and muscular, capable of producing some offence while handling the rough going.
Bowen checks in at 6-foot-2. He began his career with the Moose Jaw Warriors, moved over to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, then landed in Kelowna at the trade deadline last season. Rather than report to the Okanagan Valley, he chose to play near home for the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCHL, which played host to the 2018 RBC Cup. Chilliwack won the title as the host team.
Imports: Defenceman Libor Zabransky (CZE) is back after appearing in all 72 regular season games during his rookie campaign. The Rockets need more from Zabransky this season. He is a terrific skater with the ability to be far more assertive than he was during his rookie campaign. Lassi Thomson (FIN) has arrived in Kelowna after the Rockets selected the rearguard in the CHL Import Draft. He appears to possess all the tools, but year one in the WHL can present many challenges for newcomers.
|James Porter Jr.||42||3.27||0.895||22-9-4|
Forwards: There is plenty of depth up front with the likes of Conner Bruggen-Cate, Liam Kindree, Jack Cowell, Leif Mattson, Erik Gardiner and Kyle Topping.
And certainly an important piece of the puzzle is Nolan Foote, entering his third full season in this, his NHL Draft year. If Ted Brennan can elevate his game and newly acquired Mark Liwiski (from Everett) can emerge, scoring by committee will be an effective formula in Kelowna. Add to the mix Crosbie and Ernst.
While it remains to be seen how the coaching staff chooses to mix up the pieces to establish line combinations, the Rockets could potentially roll three scoring lines and perhaps also see some production from a fourth unit.
Defence: Said by many observers to be the team’s weakness, the blue line brigade does include some capable players. Kaedan Korczak enters his second season and a successful gold medal performance at the Hlinka/Gretzky Tournament. He has played plenty of hockey and 17-year-old leaders on the backend are a rarity.
Chizen, Zabransky and Thomson check in to complete the top four out of the gate, but Augustine, Steffler and returnee Kyle Pow and Kelvin Hair should have something to say about the team’s fortunes.
Goalies: With James Porter Jr. returning for his second season and Roman Basran back after a lower body injury, the Rockets believe they are solid now and for the future with its current tandem.
Porter emerged last season and his good play moved him past veteran Brodan Salmond to take the reigns as the number one keeper. The youngster saw plenty of action and appeared to wear down as the season progressed. He has returned for his second season and appears to be taller and stronger.
While Basran produced a small sample size, he left his mark on the organization and its fanbase.
Outlook: Questions abound, although the BC Division appears to be much more wide open this season with no apparent favorite from the outset. In past years, in fact for much of the past decade, the Rockets have annually been given the early season nod by prognosticators.
But not this season.
The group will have to gel quickly and demonstrate the benefits of its depth and experience. How many among the group of 20-goal scorers from last season will improve their production? Aside from a couple of key defenders, who else will emerge as a consistent, reliable rearguard? Will the inner-competition between the goalies result in a clear number one? How quickly will the group get rowing in the same direction?
It would appear it’s going to be all about chemistry. And also, belief.
Last season, the troops knew who they could look down the bench to when the team needed an offensive jolt. This year, that question will have to be answered early. Who is going to take on the leadership roles this season?
For the first time in a few years, it appears the Rockets will enter a WHL regular season with as many questions as answers.