There were times during the 2011-12 season when a young Kelowna Rockets team made life just a little too easy for its opponents.
With some added experience, size and grit, Rockets captain Colton Sissons expects such nights to be fewer and farther between during the new Western Hockey League campaign.
“We’re definitely going to be more mature this year,” said Sissons, who scored 26 goals and had 41 points in 58 games last season. “We’re a little bit bigger, we’re older and we’re going to play a more physical, tight-checking game…especially at home we want to establish ourselves as a mean and hard team to play against every night.
“We’re going to skate and be in our opponent’s faces, for sure.”
One of the league’s youngest and most inexperienced clubs last season, the Rockets are returning 15 players in 2012-13. Add on the two recent acquisitions of 20-year-old forwards Dylen McKinley and J.T. Barnett and youth won’t be used as an alibi this season.
“It’s going to be different this year in that a lot of our players have some experience now that they didn’t last year,” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. “A lot of our young guys, because of injuries or other factors, were put into situations last year they ordinarily wouldn’t have been. They grew from that and this year they can play the game with a little more confidence. I feel like as a whole our team will be better prepared.”
With seven players returning along the blue line, the Rockets’ defensive corps is considered the strongest and deepest area of the club.
Led by Myles Bell, 19, Damon Severson, 18, and a pair of 17-year-olds in Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees, Huska said the team’s defense will be relied on at both ends of the ice.
“We’re expecting our guys on the back end to be up in the play a little more this year to help us generate some offense,” said Huska. “There’s quite a bit of skill back there, so when the opportunities are there, we expect to see some of those guys take advantage of them.”
Up front—with Sissons, newcomer Ryan Olsen, and Colton Heffley at centre—the Rockets will be a bigger, grittier club up the middle this season.
However, with no one on the roster having scored more than Sissons’ 26 last season, goals may or may not come in bunches this season.
Still, by employing a pack mentality and a scoring-by-committee approach, Huska said the forward lines are more than capable of carrying their weight.
“We think everybody has the ability to score,” Huska said. “When the work and effort is there, the goals are going to go in. With the changes that have been made, adding guys like McKinley and Barnett, we have some depth now. We do believe this group of forwards can generate offense if they play the right way.”
In goal, Jordon Cooke steps into the driver’s seat after waiting in the wings for two seasons behind the now-graduated Adam Brown.
Cooke, 19, who will be backed up by the newly-acquired Jackson Whistle, has never been more ready to assume the No. 1 job.
“It was a good experience being behind one of the best goalies Kelowna’s ever had in Adam, but I’ve paid my dues and it’s a relief to finally be getting my chance,” said Cooke, the Leduc, Alta. native who posted a 2.79 goals against average in 25 games last season.
“This is a really good team we have, a good group of guys and we believe we can go a long way this year.”
While Huska expects the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks to be the teams to beat in the Western Conference this season, guessing where the remaining eight clubs will fall is a less predictable exercise for the Rockets head coach.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a weaker sister in our conference this season,” said Huska. “The rest of the teams in the league are very comparable, so nowadays it seems to be about injuries. If you can avoid the injury bug for the majority of the year, then I think your chances are a lot better.”
The Rockets will have three 16-year-old players on the roster to start the season, including centre Rourke Chartier, the club’s first round pick in the 2011 WHL bantam draft.
Kelowna launches the 2012-13 regular campaign this weekend with a home-and-home set against the Kamloops Blazers. The clubs play Friday at Interior Savings Centre and again Saturday at Prospera Place. Face off both nights is 7 p.m.