Bruce Hamilton wasn’t necessarily counting on his Kelowna Rockets challenging for a Memorial Cup title this spring.
Then again, a swift and abrupt expulsion from the Western Hockey League post season clearly wasn’t part of the president and GM’s grand plan either.
The Rockets’ 2017-18 campaign came to a sudden halt last Thursday night in Kennewick, WA, in the form of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Tri-City Americans.
In the end, Hamilton said the Rockets ran up against an opponent that was hitting its stride at playoff time.
“You know, I really thought we had enough horses to play for awhile,” said Hamilton, “but when you look at all the teams we could have drawn, the (Americans) were one of the ones that concerned me. They were hurt for a lot of the year, but got healthy towards the end, and I always thought right from the start they were one of the teams to beat.
“They’re a big team with three complete lines and three high-end defencemen, and we just didn’t match them.”
It was Kelowna’s earliest exit from the WHL playoffs since 2012 when the Rockets were swept in the opening round by the Portland Winterhawks.
Six key veterans won’t be back with the club next season—over-agers Carsen Twarynski, Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager, along with Dillon Dube (Calgary), Cal Foote (Tampa Bay) and Kole Lind (Vancouver) who will all turn pro in 2018-19.
Next season, the Rockets will be led up front by the likes of Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson, Nolan Foote, Conner Bruggen-Cate, Erik Gardiner and Jack Cowell.
“When we acquired our 99s (1999-born) like Mattson and Gardiner, we filled some key holes there so I’m pretty confident about the group of forwards, 19-year-olds, we’re going to have coming back,” said Hamilton. “Mattson and Bruggen-Cate had breakout years and Topping was real good for us, so we like what we have there.”
Hamilton said the back end is the main area the Rockets will need to address in the off season, as the club looks for support for Braydyn Chizen, 17-year-old Kaedan Korczak and Libor Zabransky.
“We’ll likely need to acquire an overage defenceman, maybe a second older D-man to round out the group we have,” he said.
With James Porter and Roman Basran between the pipes and each with a season under their belt, goaltending could well be Kelowna’s strength in 2018-19. Add another rookie, Cole Tisdale, into the mix and Hamilton likes his team’s potential in goal.
“For the first time in a long time, we go into a season with really good competition in goal,” he said. “You can never have enough at that position, and with those three young guys (Porter, Basran, Tisdale) it looks pretty positive going forward.”
As for the coaching staff, head man Jason Smith and assistants Kris Mallette, Travis Crickard and Adam Brown are all under contract for next season and Hamilton expects the staff to remain in tact.
Still, in the hockey business, nothing is for certain.
“I’ll be surprised if there are any changes, Jason likes it here and his family is settled here, I don’t think he’s in a rush to go anywhere, but we’ll see how things progress over the summer,” said Hamilton. “He’s coached at the NHL level before and if a good opportunity comes along and it works, then good for him. That’s the business we’re in.”
The next order of business for Rockets’ management is the WHL’s bantam draft May 3 in Red Deer. Kelowna will choose 18th overall in the opening round.
Hamilton said the Rockets are interested in hosting the 2020 Memorial Cup and expect to submit a formal bid within the next several weeks. The WHL club first hosted the Canadian Hockey League’s championship tournament in 2004, defeating Gatineau in the final.
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