With considerable skill and depth already frequenting the blue line, cracking the Kelowna Rockets’ lineup as a young defenceman can be a daunting challenge.
If all goes as planned, Lucas Johansen and Devante Stephens will be the latest prospects to work their way into the WHL team’s select group of rearguards.
Johansen, 16, was a sixth-round draft pick of the Rockets in 2012, while Stephens,17, was listed by the team following training camp last fall.
According to the Rockets’ coaching staff, both players bring size, skill and smarts to the position, and given time should both develop into solid major junior players.
“They both bring very good poise for young kids,” said Rockets assistant coach Kris Mallette. “Their decision-making will come, they’re probably used to a lot more time from where they were because things move a lot quicker up here…but Lucas in particular has really showed well.
“Devante is a little bit behind because he did have a broken leg last year,” added Mallette, “but there are flashes more often that not of a real special player in him as well.
“For two young guys walking into an established backend they’re only going to learn, and should be part of something special.”
Johansen, from Port Moody, played last season with the B.C. Major Midget League’s Northeast Chiefs.
The younger brother of Columbus Bluejackets’ forward and former WHL star Ryan Johansen, Lucas is excited about the prospects of embarking on his own junior career.
“It’s a great league, you can see how big and fast the guys are compared to the previous level,” said Johansen who stands in at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds. “It’s a big jump and I’m definitely looking forward to sticking here and being a part of this team.”
In Johansen’s case, Rockets director of player personnel Lorne Frey said the young defenceman has shown tremendous growth over the last year, both physically and mentally.
“He’s really excelled the last four months, he’s grown and he’s developed quickly,” Frey said. “He’s a great skater, a little slight size-wise, but he’ll grow…and he’s so smart out there and willing to learn. We like him a lot.”
As for having an older sibling pave the way through junior hockey and now into the NHL, Lucas said watching Ryan has been a valuable learning experience.
“Obviously where he is now, he didn’t do many things wrong,” said Johansen. “But you can see where he made mistakes, get a bird’s-eye view. To see him go through it all and do what he did, it really helps me on my journey. I’m grateful to have him in my family.”
Stephens, from Surrey, had a setback last year when he suffered a broken femur and missed much of the season. Still, with a little hard work and attention to detail, the 6-foot, 160-pound rookie hopes he can make up for lost time and prove to the Rockets that he belongs.
“I know what a strong group of defencemen they have here and it would be great to be part of that,” Stephens said. “I have a lot to learn but I’m going to work as hard as I can.”
The Rockets continue their exhibition schedule this weekend with two games in Delta.
Kelowna will face the Vancouver Giants on Saturday, followed by the Victoria Royals on Sunday.