With the losses of veterans Madison Bowey, Josh Morrissey and Cole Martin, the Kelowna Rockets coaching staff had some work to do this season with a young and relatively inexperienced defensive corps.
The play of Lucas Johansen, for one, has helped bridge the gap for the defending WHL champs.
The 18-year-old Port Moody native, who has emerged as one of the Rockets’ top defenders, has six goals and 25 points through his team’s first 44 games and is a valuable commodity playing in all situations.
Rockets assistant coach Kris Mallette said Johansen’s development has been encouraging, particularly since the start of the 2015-16 season.
“I think it’s been a pleasant surprise,” Mallette said of Johansen’s play. “I was quite hard on him throughout last season and early this season, I felt he needed to play with a little more urgency. And he’s just done a 180.
“He’s not the strongest guy, he’s not going to overpower other guys, but he’s going to outsmart them,” Mallette added. “He’s working hard, he’s working smart, and rarely does he get beat. He’s been outstanding for us.”
A sixth-round bantam draft pick of the Rockets in 2012, Johansen said Mallette and the coaching staff has helped the 6-foot-1, 176-pounder find a better balance in his game.
“There are times to be calm and poised, and there times to be get your nose dirty and be urgent, and I think Kris has taught me that,” Johansen said. “There’s a fine line between those two things, to make sure you know when to use those. Those attributes are important.
“I’m just trying to make sure I get better everyday, in every aspect of the game.”
In addition to being more reliable in his own end, Johansen has stepped up his offensive game and has assumed the role as quarterback on the team’s power play.
“That’s the fun side of the game to try and create from the back end and that comes with getting shots through…to run the power play the best I can, so that’s the funs side,” said Johansen. “Of course, as a defenceman, you have still got take care of your own end first.”
And while there have been some predictable growing pains for Johansen and the rest of Kelowna’s youthful defensive corps, Mallette is pleased with their overall progress.
“With Joe (Gatenby), Devante (Stephens) and Lucas as our oldest, veterans guys we are still young…but they’re all doing a good job,” he said. “Playing as long as we did last year and the experience those three got, has allowed them to excel as a group. Add in all our other young guys, and they’re all working hard. We’re happy with how the whole D is coming along.”
Johansen’s play has earned him a trip to Vancouver next week, along with Rockets’ teammate Dillon Dube, for the CHL Top Prospects Game. Johansen is ranked 39th among North American skaters for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, while Dube is 35th.
Johansen and the Rockets will host the Prince George Cougars tonight, 7:05 at Prospera Place.
The Rockets are home for two games this weekend, as they take on the Tri City Americans on Friday and the Medicine Hat Tigers Saturday.