One full season in the Western Hockey League isn’t always an adequate sample size in determining a player’s long-term value.
In Justin Kirkland’s case, it was more than enough time for both the Kelowna Rockets and Nashville Predators to surmise that the Camrose, AB native had the skills and potential worthy of further development.
In his first complete WHL campaign as a rookie in 2013-14, Kirkland had 17 goals and 48 points in 68 games and emerged as one Kelowna’s top offensive threats.
It also inspired the confidence of the Predators who made Kirkland the first Kelowna player selected in the 2013 NHL draft, taking him in the third round, 62nd overall.
As one of the club’s veterans this season, Kirkland looks to take his game to another level.
“With a full year behind me, I’m excited to be back and I know that (coach Dan Lambert) has big expectations for me,” said Kirkland, 18. “I’m ready for that challenge and hope that I can step up and help lead the boys this season.”
If Kirkland continues to work at improving all aspects of his game, Rockets head coach Dan Lambert expects the 6-foot-2, 188-pound forward to assume an even more significant role with the club this season.
“Justin’s going to be a big part of our offense, and he’s the type of player who is going to be counted on playing as a top-six forward,” said Lambert. “He’s also a guy who certainly has to improve specific parts of his game, both defensively and with his compete level. We’ve seen him take strides in those areas and we believe it’s going to get better every single day.”
With four goals and seven points in six games so far, Kirkland is already trending towards a bigger year offensively—but becoming a more complete player remains his ultimate intention.
“Obviously I want to keep my offensive game strong, but I don’t want to be a liability on the ice, I want to be able to contribute in all situations.”
Kirkland was key part of the club’s record-setting 57-win season in 2013-14 but, as was the case for all of his teammates, a premature playoff exit took some of the glow off an otherwise spectacular year.
Based on what he’s seen thus far in 2014-15, Kirkland like what he sees—both on and off the ice.
“This year you can tell already, the vibe in the room is a little bit different, we have a really close team and everyone’s involved,” said Kirkland. “It’s good, I think we have something special.
“I know all guys eyes are on the prize at the end of the year, but we’re just going to take it one game at a time.”
And what other benefits are there to being a second-year player with the Rockets ?
“I don’t have to pack the bus anymore,” joked Kirkland.
Rocket Shots…The Rockets (7-0-0-0) will host the Lethbridge Hurricanes Saturday at Prospera Place. Face off is 7 p.m…The Rockets currently have four players sidelined due to injury: D Mitchell Wheaton (upper body) week to week; D Joe Gatenby (lower body), one week; F Dillon Dube (ankle) week to 10 days; and Tyrell Goulbourne (elbow), day-to-day…Rockets captain Madison Bowey was named player of the week in both the WHL and CHL. The 19-year-old defenseman had two goals and six assists, and a +7 rating in three Kelowna victories.