Forward Justin Kirkland is coming off a 48-point rookie season in the WHL.

Rookie Kirkland fills versatile role for Rockets

17-year-old forward makes contributions in all situations for WHL club

Justin Kirkland admits, at the time, he was far from pleased when the Kelowna Rockets sent him back to the Notre Dame Argos for another season of grooming in midget hockey.

As it turns out, the delay in his arrival paid dividends for both the Rockets and the 17-year-old forward who has developed into versatile player for the WHL club.

After playing in just six games last season, 2013-14 has been a bonafide breakout for Kirkland, who compiled 17 goals and 48 points during the regular campaign.

Kirkland, who has added two goals in the playoffs, has also pushed himself onto the radar of NHL teams and is currently ranked 74th among North American skaters by Central Scouting.

As much as it stung at the time, Kirkland now views last season’s events as a vital part of his development.

“It was a setback and a disappointment when I got sent back to (Notre Dame), but instead of being negative, I worked hard and used the extra playing time to get better,” said Kirkland, a fifth-round bantam pick by Kelowna in 2011. “It was the right situation for me and it’s definitely worked out. I’m in good hands here with Ryan (Huska) and Dan (Lambert) and I’m happy with where I’m at.”

Head coach Ryan Huska said in major junior hockey providing enough ice time for 16-year-old players to develop isn’t always a realistic proposition. In Kirkland’s case, Huska said the decision to sent him back to Notre Dame was beneficial for both parties.

“He’s had a good year, done a lot of good things, we’ve used him a lot on the power play, use him to kill penalties, and 5 on 5,” Huska said of the Camrose product. “So for a first-year guy to be trusted with all that is very good.

“The challenge for Justin is to make sure he’s competitive and make sure he’s getting himself involved in puck battles,” he added. “Once he gets a handle on that, then I think he’s going to be a guy that’s going to become a very impressive player.”

As for Kirkland’s value in the eyes of NHL teams, Huska said the Rockets’ upcoming playoff series against Seattle will serve as a good measuring stick.

“This is going to be a great series that will challenge and test him, when you look at teams who are potentially thinking of drafting him,” Huska said. “I think they will watch him this series to see how he handles himself against a big team like Seattle is.”

Kirkland and the Rockets will open their WHL second-round playoff series Thursday, 7 p.m. at Prospera Place against the Thunderbirds, with Game 2 set for Saturday.

Cooke CHL award…

For the second time this season, Rockets’ goaltender Jordon Cooke has been named the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the month.

The 20-year-old Leduc, Alta. native finished the regular season in style, posting a 4-1-0-0 record in March with a 1.50 goals against average and a 95.1 save percentage.

Cooke closed out his fourth and final regular season with the Rockets with 92 career victories, a 2.54 average, and a save percentage of 91.5.