For the third straight year, the Kelowna Rockets will head into training camp with a new head coach.
Jason Smith, a 15-year NHL veteran and former assistant with the Ottawa Senators, will officially grab the reins when the Rockets open their main camp on Saturday morning at Prospera Place.
In making the transition to major junior, Smith will get help from Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard, both of whom are back for their third tours of duty on the coaching staff.
“I’m a little more comfortable now that we have two assistant coaches with two years under their belts, so there’s stability on that side of it,” said Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton. “Jason (Smith) is going to have to get his feet wet, to learn what goes on here. It’s way different than pro because there, it’s mostly about what the players do today.
“Here in junior, you’re developing the players and projecting what they can do in three months, in some cases,” Hamilton added. “Once he gets some experience at that, I’m sure Jason will be fine.”
Hamilton expects close to 50 players for the start of the team’s main camp this weekend. With the likes of Tyson Baillie, Rourke Chartier and Justin Kirkland all projected to move on, the Rockets will have some holes to fill at forward this season. With that in mind, Hamilton acquired forward Jake Kryski from Kamloops last week for a pair of defencemen, Joe and Danny Gatenby.
All in all, Hamilton is upbeat about the prospects of the 2016-17 WHL campaign.
“We lost some key guys but we return some substantial players and we should be strong on the back end,” he said. “I’m real excited about this team, I think they’re going to play an exciting style of game. We’ll have a great division, too, so there won’t be any easy nights.”
The Rockets will open their WHL exhibition schedule Saturday, Sept. 3 at home to Victoria.
If all goes as expected, it will likely be October before Nick Merkley makes a return to the Kelowna Rockets’ lineup.
The 19-year-old centre has been in Phoenix this month, rehabbing his injured right knee with help from the medical staff of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
The Calgary native has been sidelined since Feb. 5 of last season, after suffering a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in a game against the Spokane Chiefs.
“It all hinges on his rehab and how it heals, that’ll determine when we’ll see him back,” said Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton. “Healing is one thing, but between the ears is another. He has to feel confident coming back, he’ll be wearing a brace, there are lot of things to get used to.
“It’s a very common injury though, I’m sure Nick will bounce back and be fine. The main thing is there’s no rush, he needs to heal fully.”