The Kelowna Rockets launch the 2012-13 Western Hockey League regular campaign on Friday night in Kamloops against the Blazers.
The teams will meet for a rematch Saturday, 7 p.m. at Prospera Place.
Here’s an overview of what to expect from the Rockets and the rest of their B.C. Division opponents this season.
• Kelowna Rockets
Last season: 31-31-4-6, sixth in Western Conference, third in B.C. Division. Swept by Portland in the opening round of the playoffs.
Head coach: Ryan Huska (sixth season, 11th on staff)
Assistants: Dan Lambert (fourth season), Kim Dillabaugh (10th season) and Kim Gellert (ninth season).
Key losses: F Brett Bulmer (turning pro), G Adam Brown (graduated), and C Spencer Main (retired, injury).
The 20-year-olds: D Mitchell Chapman, F Dylen McKinley and F J.T. Barnett.
The imports: F Filip Vasko (Slovakia) and Henrik Nyberg (Sweden).
Key returnees: F Colton Sissons, F Zach Franko, D Damon Severson, D Myles Bell, D Madison Bowey and G Jordon Cooke.
New faces: F Ryan Olsen, 18, acquired from Saskatoon in the Shane McColgan deal; goaltender Jackson Whistle, acquired in a trade with Vancouver; defenceman Mitchell Wheaton, 17; McKinley and Barnett, a pair of overage forwards acquired in trades during the pre-season; and three 16-year-old rookies—defenceman Riley Stadel, and forwards Rourke Chartier and Austin Glover.
Just notes: The Rockets were hoping centre Spencer Main would fill one of three overage spots, but the 20-year-old North Vancouver native was forced to retire during the pre-season due to recurring concussion symptoms.
Did you know: D Madison Bowey won a gold medal with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 world championship in Slovakia.
The prognosis: One of the youngest teams in the league last season, the Rockets are considerably more experienced across the board in 2012-13.
With 15 returnees and a pair of 20-year-old vets acquired in trades, the club will boast more size, grit and game savvy than a year ago.
With Damon Severson, Myles Bell, Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees, Kelowna could have one of the league’s more dynamic defensive corps. The question mark is how much offense the Rockets will be able to generate from the forward positions, with a scoring-by-commitee likely to be employed.
If Kelowna can find a way to score on a nightly basis, then 35 to 40 wins and a second-place finish in the B.C. Division shouldn’t be out of the question.
• Kamloops Blazers
Last season: 47-20-2-3, second in Western Conference, first in B.C. Division. Swept Victoria Royals in Round 1 of playoffs before losing in Game 7 of Round 2 to the Portland Winterhawks.
The coaches: Head coach Guy Charron (third season, hired mid-season in 2009-2010 campaign); associate coach Dave Hunchak (second season); assistant coach Ed Patterson (second season).
Key losses: F Chase Schaber, D Bronson Maschmeyer and F Brandon Herrod, all aged out of junior hockey. D Austin Madaisky, who signed a three-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, would be a key loss, but he might be back in Kamloops, depending on the NHL lockout and whether he catches on with the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League.
The 20-year-olds: D Madaisky, F Dylan Willick, F Brendan Ranford and F Jordan DePape. WHL clubs are allowed only three over-age players on the roster.
The imports: F Tim Bozon (Switzerland) and D Marek Hrbas (Czech Republic).
Key returnees: F Ranford, F Bozon, F Willick, D Hrbas, D Tyler Hansen, D Tyler Bell, D Madaisky (if he is back), G Cole Cheveldave, F J.C. Lipon and F Colin Smith.
New faces: Jordan Thomson might be the Blazers’ most promising new face. The club’s first-round pick in the 2011 bantam draft had an excellent training camp and pre-season. The Blazers acquired F Rob Trzonkowski from Calgary in May.
Of interest: Forwards Matt Needham and Cole Ully, both 17, are not listed as key returnees, but they might be exactly that.
Josh Connolly of Prince George is the younger brother of Brett, the former Prince George Cougar who plays with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The younger Connolly is a highly skilled blue-liner with tremendous offensive upside and will be used on the power play.
Did you know: Graduated Blazers Maschmeyer and Schaber joined the St. Francis Xavier men’s hockey team in Antigonish, N.S.
The prognosis: Kamloops has the necessary tools this season to make a run at the Western Conference championship and challenge for the Ed Chynoweth Cup. The Blazers are deep up front and on the blue-line (especially if Madaisky returns) and Cheveldave looks to be the real deal between the pipes. Expectations in town are higher than they have been in more than a decade. If the Blazers can cope with the pressure and avoid key injuries, look for them to be hanging around deep in the post-season.
• Vancouver Giants
Last season: 40-26-2-4, second in B.C. division, fourth in the Western conference, lost in six games to the Spokane Chiefs in the first round.
General Manager: Scott Bonner
Head coach: Don Hay (eighth season, 14th in WHL).
Assistants: Glen Hanlon (second season), Yogi Svejkovsky (seventh season).
The 20-year-olds: D Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, F Taylor Makin, D Joel Neibrandt.
Key returnees: Besides the 20-year-olds, Cain Franson, D David Musil, F Marek Tvrdon, F Dalton Sward.
Key losses: F Brendan Gallagher, F Jordan Martinook, F James Henry, G Adam Morrison, D Neil Manning.
New faces: D Joel Neibrandt, G Liam Liston, G Tyler Fuhr.
Up front: The Giants lose three of their top five point-getters from last season, including 40-goal men Brendan Gallagher and Jordan Martinook, who combined for nearly a third of the team’s goals. Returning to carry the offensive load are 19-year-olds Marek Tvrdon and Cain Franson. Tvrdon scored 31 goals, 74 points in 60 games last season.
On the blue line: Led by newly-appointed captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, the Giants have five rearguards back from last season, including NHL prospects David Musil and Brett Kulak. John Neibrandt comes from the Kootenay Ice where he won a WHL championship in 2011.
In net: Giants acquired 19-year-old Liam Liston from Lethbridge to assume the starting goaltending duties from the departed Adam Morrison, who won 35 games in 55 appearances last year. Liston has 29 wins in 68 career games with the Hurricanes and Brandon Wheat Kings. Tyler Fuhr, 17, looks to have the back-up role locked down.
Prediction: A dip in production without Gallagher, who was a game-breaker last year. But still a playoff team. Look for the defence to drag the team into one of the last playoff spots in the Western conference.
• Prince George Cougars
Last season: 24-46-0-2, 10th in Western Conference, fifth in B.C. Division
Division: Missed the playoffs for the third time in five years
Head coach: Dean Clark (fourth season, 16th overall)
Assistants: Jason Becker (fourth season) and Brent Arsenault (eighth season)
Key losses: Overage goalie Drew Owsley was an obvious choice for Team MVP of the 2011-12 campaign. Owsley played 64 games while back-up Devon Fordyce, who’s been battling Brett Zarowny for the 2012-13 starter’s position, saw action in 14 contests.
Last season’s other overagers were F Spencer Asuchak and D Cody Carlson.
D Jesse Forsberg, traded to Seattle, played with an edge and his physical play may be missed.
The 20-year-olds: F Brock Hirsche, D Dan Gibb and D Dallas Ehrhardt.
The import: Latvian defenceman Rinalds Rosinskis.
Key returnees: G Fordyce, D Gibb, F Troy Bourke, F Alex Forsberg, F Daulton Siwak, F Chase Witala, F Jordan Tkatch and F Hirsche
New faces: A couple of forwards, Jacobs (from Seattle) and Jari Erricson (from the Everett Silvertips) joined the Cougars in deals with other organizations.
F Zach Pochiro joins the organization after skating with the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League.
Watch for: More offensive production. If everything falls into place, this team could see its goals for total increase by as much as 100. That noted, last season’s team was the lowest scoring in the 22-team WHL, with only 166 goals in 72 games.
Did you know: The Prince George Cougars’ records show that only one player in the franchise’s 18-year history has recorded 100 points in a season. Quinn Hancock, a 1977-born forward, reached the century mark in the 1997-98 season when he collected 54 goals and 58 assists for 112 points.
Prognosis: As of Tuesday, the Cougars’ 25-man roster had 11 1995-born players. This team is still young, and as a result, mistakes are going to happen as players learn the game.
As long as the back end holds up and the goalies challenge each other, the Cougars should have no problem returning to the playoffs. But they won’t be among the conference leaders.
• Victoria Royals
Last season (the first in Victoria): 24-41-3-4, seventh in Western Conference, fourth in B.C. division. Swept by Kamloops Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.
Head coach: Dave Lowry (first season, 2nd as WHL head coach).
Assistants: Enio Sacilotto (third season), Ben Cooper, (second season), Geoff Grimwood (first season).
General Manager: Cam Hope (first season).
Key losses: After guiding the Royals through the transition from Chilliwack to Victoria, coach-GM Marc Habscheid stepped down in June.
Key player losses: F Kevin Sundher, D Hayden Rintoul and F Robin Soudek all graduated. Twenty-year-olds F Mike Forsyth and G Keith Hamilton were released during the preseason. Returning 18-year-olds F Zane Jones and D Kade Pilton were traded, Jones for Alex Gogolev and Pilton for prospects.
The 20-year-olds: D Tyler Stahl, F Jamie Crooks, F Alex Gogolev.
The imports: F Alex Gogolev, Russia; G Patrik Polivka, Czech Republic.
Key returnees: D Tyler Stahl, D Keegan Kanzig, D Jordan Fransoo, F Steven Hodges, F Brandon Magee, Logan Nelson, F Jamie Crooks,
New faces: Lots of them. GM Cam Hope and coach Dave Lowry inherited a team of full of assets, but one that’s been missing that winning feeling. Already they’ve shaved the edges of the team while adding Russian import Alex Gogolev, a premier left-winger in the WHL, and goalie Patrik Polivka.
Watch for: Left wingers Gogolev and Crooks to lead a high-powered Royals offence. Crooks should hit 40 goals, if not 50, after potting 37 last year and a hat trick in the playoffs. The two lead a solid top six with Logan Nelson, Brandon Magee, Steven Hodges and a beefed-up Ben Walker.
Just notes: Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect Tyler Stahl missed most of last season due to a concussion suffered in the fourth game. It hasn’t softened Stahl, who starts the season on a six-game suspension for a check to the head against the Kelowna Rockets on Sept. 7.
Prediction: Forty wins and a playoff exit in seven games. Last year’s win total of 24 was the second lowest in the team’s history. It will take Lowry all season to rebuild the team’s chemistry to what he likes.