Kelowna Rockets’ head coach Jason Smith says he’s excited about the crop of young players he has this season. —Image: Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze

Kelowna Rockets head coach confident heading into the new WHL season

Jason Smith says despite a winless pre-season, he likes the compete level of his team

For Kelowna Rockets head coach Jason Smith, the pre-season is not about game scores.

As the man in charge behind the bench, he sees the pre-season as more about the players—especially the young players—showing how they have developed and grown during the off-season.

From that point of view, Smith likes what he saw during the last few weeks .

Despite going winless in the pre-season, Smith said he is excited about the group of young players he has this season.

“It’s all about how they grow and progress and develop confidence,” Smith said.

Heading into the new season, which opens Sept. 21 in Kamloops against the Blazers, Kelowna will rely heavily on a handful of veterans and a lot of younger players.

Following last season the team lost a number of “high-quality, elite” players and Smith said the turnover will not only open up opportunities for remaining players, but force them to bring up their game to fill the skates of those who have moved on.

While hesitant to identify individual players, he said the core group—which includes Nolan Foote, Leif Mattson, Kyle Topping and Jack Cowell, as well as Lassi Thomson and Kaedan Korczak on defence—will need to lead by example.

Following the training camp and pre-season the head coach said he likes the compete level of his team, both internally and against the other teams they played during the exhibition games.

Between now and Sept. 21, the Rockets will fine tune player skills and build up the confidence of players in order to have them ready to go straight out of the gate for game one.

Smith said he told his players right after the buzzer at the end of the final pre-season game—a 5-3 loss to Kamloops Sept. 9 at Prospera Place—to put the pre-season behind them and concentrate on what’s ahead.

“It’s time to move on,” Smith said.

The coaching staff feel the team was in all the pre-season games, were not blown out and maintained a high compete level.

So, over the next few days the coaches will build on that and fine tune the skills they feel the players need to take into the season.

As in all team sports, junior hockey features veteran players helping guide up-and-comers until they are ready to take over. Then, as the new crop of players become veterans, they guide the next level of newcomers. But in junior hockey, where careers are relatively short before moving on, that turnover comes at a more rapid pace.

With a team like the Rockets, which has had great success in the past “reloading” as opposed to rebuilding, much will be expected of this season’s crop of young players.

The team received some good news this week when it was announced forward Kyle Topping will return to the team for the 2018-2019 season.

Not selected in the 2018 NHL entry draft, Topping received an invitation to the San Jose Shark’s rookie camp on a free-agent tryout.

In 125 regular season WHL games, the Salt Spring Island, B.C. native has scored 36 goals while adding 58 assists for 94 points. He scored 22 of those goals last season, placing him fifth on the Rockets in goal scoring.

Topping finished the season with 65 points, putting him fifth in points on the team.

The speedy forward has also notched two goals and four assists for six points in 19 playoff games in his WHL career thus far, including two goals and three assists for five points in four post season games in the 2018 WHL Playoffs.

Topping was originally selected by Kelowna in the 11th round, 226th overall in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft.

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