The on-ice fortunes of the Kelowna Rockets—particularly in springtime—are never far from Lorne Frey’s thoughts.
Still, as is the case each and every April, the Rockets’ player personnel director and assistant GM finds himself occupied more with the club’s future than the present.
With the Western Hockey League’s bantam draft just three weeks away, Frey and his scouting staff are making their customary spring swing through Western Canada, along with a stop in California, to get one last look at the best available 1996-born talent.
Frey has already been to tournaments in Winnipeg and Kamloops this month, and this weekend will be in Lethbridge to take a final scan of Alberta’s top prospects.
Next week, he’ll head to Anaheim for the WHL U.S. Prospects Camp, then will wrap up his scouting expedition back in Kamloops at the end of the month at the B.C. Best Ever tournament.
After a season of evaluating as many as 800 players, Frey is about to draw up his final conclusions in advance of the bantam draft—the lifeblood of every WHL franchise.
“This is probably the most important time of the whole year for us,” said Frey. “In these year-end tournaments, it’s the best of the best competing against their peers in each province. You get a good idea of what they can do against each other.
Some players will separate themselves a little bit from the rest, and that’s going to determine a lot about what we’re going to do at the draft.”
With three decades of scouting under his belt—the last 21 years with the Rockets franchise—Frey is hard-pressed to remember a time when so many players fit a similar profile.
Frey said after the top tier of available talent, there isn’t much to differentiate in the next group where as many as 100 players or more could be lumped into the same category.
“It’s getting harder and harder to identify and separate players from each other, there are a lot out there with the same kinds of skills and very good skills,” said Frey. “With the schools and academies, the kids get a lot of ice time and they seem develop a lot faster than they used to. The club teams are also doing a really good job with the coaching that’s out there now. There’s very little discrepancy, so that really adds to the challenge of deciding which way you’re going to go.”
The Rockets will choose 15th overall in the opening round of the bantam draft on May 5 in Calgary.
Based on their current 50-player list, the Rockets’ overall strength appears to be on defense.
With rookie Damon Severson, 16, continuing to develop, and prospects Jesse Lees and Madison Bowey waiting in the wings, conventional wisdom might see Kelowna leaning towards a forward with its first pick.
Not necessarily the case, says Frey.
“Really, you can never have enough defencemen, so if a defencemen happens to be the best player available when our picks comes up, then that’s who we’ll take. If it’s a forward, then that’s the way we’ll go…whoever the best player available happens to be.”
While much of Frey’s time these days is consumed with travel and final preparations for the draft, he continues to ride the wave of another potential playoff run by the Rockets.
He missed significant stretches of the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009 playoffs, each of which resulted in either a WHL or Memorial Cup title.
Still, Frey is more than happy to cheer from afar if the 2010-11 version of the Rockets can follow a similar path.
“They don’t need me back there…I’m used to being away at this time of year anyway,” he said Monday. “The guys have been doing well so far. Hopefully they can keep this going for a while yet.”
Central Scouting rankings
Three Kelowna Rockets forwards have been listed in Central Scouting’s final rankings in advance of the NHL entry draft this summer in Minnesota.
Zach Franko is rated 123rd, Shane McColgan is 125th, while Jessey Astles comes in at 160th.
As of Tuesday, McColgan led the Rockets in playoff scoring with 15 points.