For the last three seasons, the Kelowna Rockets have exercised patience and tolerance in the nurturing and development of their defensive corps.
In 2013-14, with dues paid and growing pains mostly in the past, the Western Hockey League club is ready to reap the dividends.
“We feel the back end is the strength of our team,” said Rockets’ assistant coach Dan Lambert. “When you look at it, we’ve now been playing with most of these guys for three years at least. Certainly we’ve had our growing pains over the years but these guys, in my opinion, have all taken huge strides in every aspect of their games.
“Hopefully this year we’re going to see some rewards for staying patient, and for them for all the hard work they’ve put in.”
Led by the likes Damon Severson and Madison Bowey, the Rockets are expected to return their entire defensive group in 2013-14.
Developing players from within the system has been a longstanding philosophy of the Rockets, with this year’s blue line corps as a prime example.
Seven of the nine defensemen on the current roster are the club’s WHL draft picks, while the two others were listed by the Rockets.
“That’s what we try to do is build and develop from within,” said Rockets’ head scout and assistant GM Lorne Frey. “I think we’ve been pretty fortunate to get some of the kids we have, but I think the coaches have done a great job with this group, too. We’ve been patient, stuck with them and they’ve continually gotten better.
“You have to have a good D to compete in any league, so we’re going into this season in a pretty good place.”
The longest-serving and senior member of the Rockets defense, MacKenzie Johnston, is heading into his fifth and final season with the club.
In addition to overall depth, the Swift Current native considers diversity as another strength of Kelowna’s back-end crew.
“We’re definitely lucky to have the group we have,” said Johnston, 19. “We have all different types, guys with lots of experience, guys who are good puck movers like Sever, (Jesse) Lees and Bowey, bigger guys like Mitch (Wheaton) and I…younger guys who really fit into well.
“It’s a great group, there’s a real variety, a great mix of guys and I’m looking forward to this season with all of them.”
Still, as solid as the Rockets defensive corps looks on paper, Johnston said he and his teammates still have to deliver those expectations on the ice.
“We haven’t played any games yet and we still have to prove ourselves,” Johnston added. “We won’t be satisfied until we get the job done on the ice. We need to show we can live up to the expectations.”
Rocket Shots…D Jesse Lees (Boston) and C Colton Heffley (Minnesota) have returned to the Rockets from their respective NHL rookie camps. Attending NHL main camps this week are: Tyrell Goulbourne (Philadelphia), Damon Severson (New Jersey), Myles Bell (New Jersey), Madison Bowey (Washington) and Ryan Olsen (Winnipeg)…The Rockets open the WHL regular season Friday, Sept. 20 in Kamloops, with their home opener set for the following night against the Blazers at Prospera Place.