Injuries, youth define Rockets' WHL season
Making an exit from the 2011-12 season prior to the arrival of April wasn't what quite the Kelowna Rockets' brain trust had in mind.
An up-and-down WHL campaign ended Thursday night at home as the Rockets were swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Portland Winterhawks.
In a season marked by key injuries, youth and inconsistency, the Rockets finished sixth in the Western Conference (31-31-4-6) and, with the exception of a stretch of five wins in six games in late November, never really found their rhythm.
While management refuses to use them as an alibi for a less-than-fulfilling season, the Rockets were hit hard by injuries in 2011-12, losing nearly 400 man games.
Spencer Main, a key dressing-room leader, suffered a concussion early in the season and missed Kelowna's last 64 games, including playoffs.
Injuries kept the club's most veteran defenceman, Mitchell Chapman, 19, out of action for nearly a quarter of the year, including the entire Portland series.
"Everybody has injuries and you have to play through them," said Frey. "But in our case they were very prevalent. We lost some leadership with Main and Chapman. And we have a first round pick (Jason Siebert) who hasn't played for two years.
"In saying that, you have to deal with (injuries), and in the end, the best teams win. In the end, we just weren't good enough this year."
With four 16-year-old players, and six more born in 1994 the Rockets were as young as any team in the league this season. On top of that, Frey said the club wasn't as strong as it had to be in the older age brackets.
"We didn't have the depth we needed at the 19- and 20-year-old spots," he said. "(Spencer) missed almost the whole year. Our 20s, (Goalie) Adam Brown was very good, Cody Chikie and Brett Lyon, they were just OK. You look at the teams that win and those are players that carry the load, the 19s and 20s."
The upside of youth is that the Rockets will be older and more experienced next season.
The club's future strength rests with the defensive corps where the likes of Damon Severson and Cole Martin, and 16-year-olds Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees should continue to develop.
"I think our defense is in good shape, our back end really progressed this year," Frey said. "Hopefully these guys will just get better and better. We have (2011 draft pick) Riley Stadel signed, and he looks good. And hopefully if Chapman is back, and with MacKenzie Johnston back, then we should be OK on the back end."
While the blue line corps looks to be in good shape, Frey said the Rockets need some bolstering up front as the club struggled to find offense at times this season.
Another Achilles heel for the Rockets over the last season and a half has been their mediocre play at home. In 2011-12, Kelowna posted a pedestrian 16-18-0-2 record at Prospera Place.
"I know (GM) Bruce (Hamilton) is concerned about our play at home, it just hasn't been very good," Frey said. "For whatever reason, we seemed to struggle there. It's something we'll need to be better at."
Still, with all the trials and tribulations the club faced, assistant GM Lorne Frey said the 2011-12 wasn't all bad for the WHL team.
"We ended up at .500, so considering all we went through, youth and everything else, that's not too bad," Frey said. "The coach (Ryan Huska) did a good job with the hand he was dealt.
"I thought we were pretty good in the playoffs, too. Both games here against Portland we could have won. We showed some signs that maybe we're not that far off."
The Rockets are bidding farewell to no fewer than four players.
Forward Brett Bulmer, a second round draft pick of the NHL's Minnesota Wild, is likely to play pro next season.
Over-age forwards Brett Lyon and Cody Chikie are also moving on, while goaltender Adam Brown has capped off his four-year career in Rockets colours
Brown, a native of Yorba Linda, Calif., leaves junior hockey as the club's all time leader in victories (107).
"One day you're a 17-year-old rookie, it's you first day, you're just kind of learning the ropes…and then you blink it's the end of your career, and then next thing you know it's over," said Brown. "It was a heck of a ride and I can't thank the Kelowna Rockets organization enough for what they've done for me. It's been the best four years of my life."
The next order of business for the Rockets in the Western Hockey League's bantam draft May 3 in Calgary.
Kelowna will choose ninth in the opening round.