High expectations for Rockets in competitive B.C. Division

The Kelowna Rockets launch the new Western Hockey League regular season Saturday night at home to the Prince George Cougars.

High expectations for Rockets in competitive B.C. Division

The Kelowna Rockets launch the new Western Hockey League regular season Saturday night at home to the Prince George Cougars.

Here’s a brief preview look at the Rockets and the rest of the combatants in the B.C. Division.

Kelowna Rockets

Last season: 35-31-2-5, sixth in Western Conference, second in B.C.

Division. Lost to the Tri-City Americans in six games in the second round of the playoffs.

Head coach: Ryan Huska (fourth season).

Assistants: Dan Lambert (second season), Ryan Cuthbert (fourth season) and

Kim Dillabaugh, goaltender coach (seventh season).

Key losses: G Mark Guggenbeger, F Lucas Bloodoff and D Dallas Jackson have graduated. F Brandon McMillan signed with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and will play pro this season. F Kyle St. Denis’s career is on hold until further notice as he continues to recover from concussion symptoms.

The 20-year-olds: F Geordie Wudrick, F Evan Bloodoff, D Brendon Wall and F Tyler Matheson.

The imports: F Andreas Stene (Czech Republic) and F Gal Koren (Slovenia).

Key returnees: D Tyson Barrie, F Geordie Wudrick, F Evan Bloodoff, F Shane McColgan, F Mitchell Callahan, F Brett Bulmer and G Adam Brown. 

New faces: D Brendon Wall, D Kevin Smith, F Zach Franko, F Jason Siebert and F Colton Sissons. 

Watch for: F Shane McColgan to step his offensive game up another notch after registering 69 points as a 16-year-old last season. The Manhattan Beach, Cal., native is projected by many as possible top 10 pick in the 2011 NHL draft. 

Just notes: Eight Rockets attended NHL training camps, with Wudrick (Phoenix), D Colton Jobke (Minnesota) and Antoine Corbin (Dallas) earning free-agent invitations. 

The prognosis: With relatively low player turnover, the Rockets will enter the new campaign with an older, more experienced club than the one that finished sixth in the Western Conference last season.

WHL blueliner of the year Tyson Barrie and veteran newcomers Wall and Smith will anchor a defensive corps with better depth than a year ago. Up front, with veterans McColgan, Wudrick, Callahan and Bulmer leading the way and the likes of newcomers Franko and Siebert providing support, expect Kelowna to easily surpass last season’s goal total of 224.  

Anything less than a first or second-place showing in the B.C. Division would be a disappointment for an organization with perennially high expectations. 

Vancouver Giants

Last season: 41-25-3-3, fifth in Western Conference, first in B.C.
Division. Lost to the Tri-City Americans in six games in the Western conference finals.

Head coach: Don Hay (seventh season, 10th overall).

Assistants: Chad Scharff (third season), John Becanic (first season).

Key losses: D Nolan Toigo, F Milan Kytnar and F Brett Breitkreuz have graduated. The Giants expect to lose defenceman Kevin Connauton and forwards Tomas Vincour,  Lance Bouma and James Wright to the pro ranks.

The 20-year-olds: F Matt MacKay, acquired in the summer from Medicine Hat.

The imports: Slovakian winger Marek Tvrdon and Swedish winger Casper Carning were both picked in the most recent CHL import draft.

Key returnees: F Craig Cunningham is coming off a 97 point season. Brendan Gallagher scored 41 goals and 81 points. Sophomore defenceman David Musil is certain to be a first round pick in next June’s NHL entry draft.

New faces: Forwards Jordan Martinook and R.J. Reed looked good in the pre-season and project as possible top six forwards. Both spent last season in the Alberta Junior A Hockey League.

Watch for: Musil to turn into the Western Hockey League’s top blueliner. Listed at six-foot-three and 195 pounds, he looks and plays a lot bigger on the ice. Coming off a 32 points in 71 games rookie season, he has lots of room to grow offensively.

Just notes: The Giants are a banged up crew to start the season, with long-term injuries to defenceman Zach Hodder and forwards Nathan Burns and Connor Redmond. 

The prognosis: Is this the year the Giants finally take a step back? That seems to be the prediction every year, but this Vancouver team is not nearly as deep or talented as past editions.

Chilliwack Bruins

Last season: 32-33-2-5, eighth in Western Conference, fourth in B.C.
ivision. Lost to the Tri-City Americans in six games in the first round of the playoffs.

Head coach: Marc Habscheid (second season, ninth overall).

Assistants: Pat Conacher (first season), Enio Sacilotto (first season),
Randy Robinson, goaltender coach (fourth
eason).

Key losses: D Matt Delahey, D Jesse Craige and F Colton Grant have graduated. After two seasons of solid but unspectacular work, Swedish import Alexander Wiklund was released.

The 20-year-olds: G Lucas Gore, F Shayne Neigum, D Brandon Manning and D Jeff Einhorn.

The imports: Ex-Edmonton Oil King Robin Soudek (Czech Republic) and New York Rangers prospect Roman Horak (Czech Republic). 

Key returnees: F Ryan Howse, F Roman Horak, F Kevin Sundher, F Dylen McKinlay, D Brandon Manning and D Tyler Stahl. Manning is the team captain and the other five are National Hockey League draft picks.

New faces: Steven Hodges was selected ninth overall in the 2009 bantam draft and had two assists in five games as a 15-year-old last season. Robin Soudek was acquired from Edmonton in April for a sixth round bantam draft pick.

Watch for: Assuming he is returned to junior by the Calgary Flames and assuming he stays healthy, look for Ryan Howse (19 years old) to crack the 50-goal barrier. Teammate and Buffalo Sabres draft pick Kevin Sundher (18 years old) looks poised to take the next step and become an elite player.

Just notes: Brandon Manning and Chris Collins are undrafted players who were invited to NHL camps. Manning received an invite from the New York Rangers while Collins joined the Carolina Hurricanes.

The prognosis: With a number of young players taking the next step in their development, the Bruins could make a quick climb up the Western conference standings. They received honourable mention in the BMO CHL pre-season rankings and 40-plus wins is not out of the question.

Kamloops Blazers

Last season: 32-33-2-5, seventh in the Western Conference, third in the B.C. Division. Kamloops was swept by the Vancouver Giants in a best-of-seven first round playoff series.

Head coach: Guy Charron (second season).

Assistant coaches: Scott Ferguson (third year), Geoff Smith (third year) and goaltending coach Dan De Palma (second season).

Key losses: D Ryan Funk (University of Saskatchewan) and G Kurtis Mucha (University of Alberta) will play CIS hockey this season, F Mark Hall joined the BCHL’s Penticton Vees in the off-season and F C.J. Stretch will play with the Ontario Reign of the ECHL.

The 20-year-olds: D Corey Fienhage,  G Jeff Bosch.

Imports: Dalibor Bortnak (Slovakia), Bernhard Kell (Germany).

Key returnees: F Brendan Ranford, F Chase Schaber, F Jordan DePape D Austin Madaisky, D Josh Caron and D Bronson Maschmeyer.

New Faces: D Brady Gaudet, F Logan McVeigh and F Lyndon Martell.

Watch for: F Colin Smith registered five goals and 26 points in an injury-shortened 2009-2010 campaign. The 17-year-old Edmonton-born sniper comes into this season in good health and the Blazers are expecting Smith to be an offensive juggernaut. 

Prognosis: It’s the third year of general manager Craig Bonner’s five-year plan and the organization is confident it is on the right track, if not a bit ahead of schedule. The Blazers are returning a host of talented players, including Smith, Ranford and Madaisky and Jon Groenheyde is expected to perform admirably between the pipes. Anything less than a third-place finish in the B.C. Division would be looked upon as a disappointment by the club—and by a fan base itching to see the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. 

Prince George Cougars

Last season: 12-56-1-3, 10th in Western Conference, fifth in B.C.

Division: Missed the playoffs

Head coach: Dean Clark (second season, 14th overall)

Assistants: Jason Becker (second season), Brent Arsenault (sixth season) and goaltending coach Blaine Russell (second season)

Key losses: The team’s three graduates from the 2009-10 season, F Alex Rodgers, F Tyler Halliday and D Garrett Thiessen are playing varsity hockey.

Reno, Nev., product Hudson Stremmel, who started the bulk of games for the Cougars down the stretch last season, decided to remain in the U.S. and focus on his education.

The 20-year-olds: F James Dobrowolski, F Parker Stanfield and G Morgan Clark.

The imports: D Martin Marincin (Slovakia) and F Jaroslav Vlach (Czech Republic)

Key returnees: F Brett Connolly stuck out his NHL tryout with the Tampa Bay Lightning to main camp. Cougars management has expressed confidence he would be back for more tune-up time at the junior level and know how vital he is to the team. Hampered by an ongoing hip flexor injury last season, the sixth overall choice in this year’s NHL Entry Draft still managed 19 points in 16 games. In his inaugural WHL campaign in 2008-09, he recorded 30 goals and 60 points on his way to being named the Canadian Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year. D Jesse Forsberg enters only his second WHL season, but showed promise as a rookie and will be counted on to provide big minutes on an inexperienced defence core.

New faces: D Martin Marincin, F Charles Inglis, G Morgan Clark

Watch for: Connolly to turn his game up another level. The centrepiece of the Cougars offence, Connolly makes players around him better. His presence gives the team a premier goal scorer, which will help keep them in games this season.

Just notes: Connolly, Marincin (Edmonton Oil Kings) and Inglis (Phoenix Coyotes) attended NHL camps for the Cougars. Forsberg is the most highly touted Cougars player for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Prognosis: On paper, this squad is no better than a seventh place team in the Western Conference. Even making the playoffs will depend on a few key factors, like a healthy, hungry Connolly and steady goaltending behind a thin defence. A disastrous 2009-10 campaign behind them, there appears to be nowhere to go but up. But don’t expect their stock value to skyrocket. Just a healthy lineup and stability between the pipes should result in between 10-15 more wins, but don’t expect a lot more than that.

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