When they made Jesse Lees their first-round pick in the 2010 bantam draft, the Kelowna Rockets were projecting the Calgary native to one day become an upper-echelon WHL defenceman.
Two months into his second season, it seems little is likely to stop the 17-year-old Lees from meeting those expectations.
Offensively gifted from his earliest days playing the position, Lees continues to refine his game at both ends of the ice and leads all Rockets defencemen this season with a +15 rating.
“Jesse plays with a lot more urgency that he did last year, he’s improved his play in his own end, he’s more physical and he’s getting better at preventing his opponents from getting scoring chances,” said Rockets assistant coach Dan Lambert. “Jesse always been an elite player at every level and this is a natural progression for him. There’s no doubt he has worked hard at it, wanting to be an elite player. Being a year older with experience, he’s progressing well.”
From Lees’ perspective, lessons learned in his rookie season in the WHL are beginning to pay dividends in 2012-13.
“First of all, I feel a lot more confident in what I’m doing out on the ice,” said Lees who has a goal and four assists in 16 games. “The first year you’re kind of learning the ropes, making mistakes and getting to know the league. But now that I have that experience I can work on being more consistent. I’m happy with the way things are going.”
With what is still a relatively young defensive corps along with injuries to veterans, Lees has been asked to log plenty of ice time while playing in all situations.
And so far, Lambert likes what he sees.
“He’s had to kill penalties, he’s played on the power play and he’s handled it all very well,” said Lambert. “He was a first round pick, it’s what was expected, and he’s progressing like we hoped he would.”
What is especially encouraging for the Rockets is that Lees is just one piece of what many consider one of the most promising young defensive corps in all of junior hockey.
With the likes of Madison Bowey, Damon Severson, Cole Martin and Mitchell Wheaton continuing to develop with him—and with Dan Lambert as their coach—Lees can’t imagine being in a better place at this stage of his career.
“It’s incredible to be with that much talent and skill, they’re all good guys, we get along well and we love being at the rink together,” said Lees. “(Dan’s) an amazing coach, too, the best I’ve had. He teaches me something new every day.
“It’s exciting to look to the future with these guys and think of bringing a championship here.”
The Rockets (12-6-1-1), who have won five straight games, are in Tri-City this weekend for two games with the Americans, Friday and Saturday nights at the Toyota Center.