Kelowna Rockets players (left to right) Tyson Baillie

Rockets to build on memorable season

Kamloops sweeps injury-laden Rockets in WHL playoffs to end a season which saw Kelowna win a franchise-record 52 games

A second-round exit from the playoffs wasn’t the Kelowna Rockets’ definition of an ideal conclusion to the Western Hockey League season.

Still, what the Rockets showed on the ice during the 2012-13 campaign—specifically from the club’s budding young talent—gives the team’s brain trust and their fans more than a few reasons to be optimistic about the future.

The disappointment still somewhat fresh from a four-game sweep this week at the hands of the Kamloops Blazers, Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton expressed confidence that his team is headed in the right direction.

“When we look back at this a week from now we’ll able to reflect on what was a pretty interesting year for this team,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We had some special players, and some special moments that really stood out.

“We’ve come through the cycle now, we’ve re-tooled and we feel like we’re set up pretty well for the next few years,” Hamilton added. “We’re excited about that.”

After a record-setting 52-win regular season—featuring a 23-game home ice unbeaten streak—the Rockets headed to the playoffs with understandably high expectations.

But with as many as seven regulars sidelined with injuries, including captain and inspirational leader Colton Sissons, a depleted Rockets’ squad faced an uphill journey from Game 1 of the post-season forward.

Yet, in the opening round, Ryan Huska’s team clawed back from a 3-0 series deficit—just the second WHL club in history to do so—to take down the Seattle Thunderbirds in seven games.

And despite a sweep at the hands of the Kamloops Blazers in round 2—including losses in  Games 3 and 4 in overtime—the Rockets battled right to the final whistle.

Down 3-1 Wednesday in Game 4, the Rockets showed their characteristic resolve with a pair of third period goals to force overtime, before Kale Kessy of the Blazers settled the series with a goal at 2:43 of the extra period.

A huge disparity in penalties was part of the Rockets’ undoing in the series finale, as the Blazers had 11 power play opportunities, while the Rockets had just one.

“At this time of year, the players need to settle these games but the officiating just took it right out of their hands,” said Hamilton. “Some of the calls made were just bizarre. I’m not going to use that as the reason we lost…but I just don’t get it.”

Hamilton said while most of the club’s younger talent performed well in the post-season, the Rockets needed more production from their older players in order to have an extended playoff run.

Myles Bell, Dylen McKinlay and Zach Franko combined for just one goal in the Kamloops series.

Centre Tyson Baillie, 17, carried much of the load with eight playoff goals, while 15-year-old affiliate player Nick Merkley also impressed with three points in seven games.

“I think our younger guys in particular really performed and stepped it up,” Hamilton said. “If you look at Portland, Kamloops and Edmonton it’s their older, top guys doing the scoring and that carried them through. In our case, our older guys weren’t the difference. When you’ve got a 15-year-old being an important part of your offense, it makes things tough.”

Still, with just four players likely to be moving on—Colton Sissons (pros) and over-agers Dylen McKinlay, JT Barnett and Cody Fowlie—and a dearth of young talent returning, jobs will by hard to come by with the Rockets next season.

With Baillie, Rourke Chartier and Merkley, the Rockets will have plenty of skill up the middle, while up-and-comers Cole Linaker, Justin Kirkland and Austin Glover are only expected to get better.

Damon Severson, Madison Bowey, Jesse Lees and Mitchell Wheaton will anchor what should be one of the league’s best defensive corps.

And with Jordon Cooke and the emerging Jackson Whistle returning next season, Hamilton said the Rockets should be as solid in goal as any team in the WHL.

“Training camp next year is going to be very competitive,” Hamilton said.

As for one particular aspect of the 2012-13 season that stands out for the Rockets GM, the club’s return to a home-ice powerhouse is especially satisfying.

“The best thing we did this year was regain home-ice advantage,” said Hamilton, whose club was 31-5 at Prospera Place during the regular season. “We wanted to establish that again and make sure it’s not a very good place to play for other teams. The guys did a good job of that this year and we want to continue that.”

Following exit meetings this week with the players, the next major order of business for the Rockets is the WHL’s bantam draft May 2 in Calgary.

A day earlier, on May 1, the WHL will hand out its annual awards, where four members of the Rockets will be in the running as Western Conference nominees: Bruce Hamilton (executive), Ryan Huska (coach of the year), Zach Franko (sportsmanlike) and Rourke Chartier (scholastic).