Forward Nolan Foote (left) bears down on rookie defenceman Kaeden Korczak, with veteran blueliner James Hilsendager following up during a Kelowna Rockets’ practise this week at Prospera Place. The Rockets open the WHL regular season Friday at home to Kamloops. - Image: Warren Henderson/Capital News

Back end to anchor Rockets in 2017-18

Kelowna solid on defense, secondary scoring key for WHL team this season

The Kelowna Rockets have long had a reputation for assembling deep, reliable and skilled defensive corps.

If the 2017-18 campaign rolls out as planned, Bruce Hamilton expects the club’s back end will once again serve as the anchor for the Western Hockey League club.

Led by 20-year-olds Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager, Tampa Bay prospect Cal Foote, and supported by the likes of rookies Kaeden Korczak and Libor Zabransky, the Rockets GM said the team’s blueline should be in capable hands.

“I think we’re going to be really deep on defense and that’s a really good place to start,” said Hamilton. “From our over-agers, to our returning guys, right to down to our rookies, I think we go into the season in pretty good shape. We definitely have numbers back there (nine).

“I don’t see this team winning many games 6-5,” added Hamilton, who fully expects his team to be in the hunt for a BC Division title this season. “I think we’re going to win 4-3, 3-2 and kind of do it that way.”

With the departures of high-scoring forwards Nick Merkley, Calvin Thurkauf and Reid Gardiner, the Rockets will turn to veterans and NHL draft picks Dillon Dube and Kole Lind to set the pace for the offense.

Nolan Foote will look to build on his 20-goal rookie season, while a hoard of 1999-born forwards—Erik Gardiner, Kyle Topping, Jack Cowell, Leif Mattson and Conner Bruggen-Cate—will be tasked to provide adequate secondary scoring.

While many observers are expecting Kelowna’s offensive numbers to take a significant dip from 2016-17, Hamilton isn’t so sure.

“I think we’re going to be more dynamic up front than people think,” said Hamilton. “That group of 99s is going to be real important on our second and third lines. We need some 20-goal scorers to come from that group and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple.”

Perhaps the club’s biggest wildcard heading into the season is goaltending, where the No. 1 job is in the hands of Brodan Salmond, 19, with 30 games of experience, is back for his third season with the Rockets. Rookie James Porter, 17, assumes the backup role.

“We’re going to start with those guys and see how it goes,” said Hamilton. “Brodan has worked hard and has earned the chance to start. James, all he did at Edge (Calgary) was win, so we’re going to see what they both can do.

“If we have to make a move (for a goalie), we’ve shown in the past that we will. We have some cards to play if we need to.”

Jason Smith heads into his second season as Kelowna’s head man, with fourth-year coaches Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard, and second-year assistant Adam Brown back in supporting roles.

Hamilton expects Smith to take a considerable step forward in his second tour of duty.

“He has a year under his belt, he’s matured and I think he’s going to be more settled,” said Hamilton. “He’s familiar with the players and has a better idea of the style of coaching needed at the (junior) level.”

The Rockets open the WHL’s regular season Friday at home to the Kamloops Blazers. Face off at Prospera Place is 7 p.m.