Much like last season, the Kelowna Rockets pretty much dominated the first half of the 20140-15 Western Hockey League campaign.
But unlike the second half of last season, Tyson Baillie and his Rockets teammates have much grander plans for the eventual outcome this spring.
A third-round playoff loss to the Portland Winterhawks last April still sticks in the craw of the team’s returning players.
A year older, more experienced and with a bolstered roster, the Kelowna centre said the Rockets are better equipped to take that extra step in the spring of 2015.
“We weren’t satisfied last year, coming up short in the the playoffs wasn’t what we had planned,” said Baillie, who has 23 goals and 38 points in 35 games. “We feel like we learned from that and are ready to go a few steps further. We need to buckle down this time and get it done.”
At 28-5-3-0, the Rockets are slightly behind last year’s pace but are arguably a more well-rounded team than the 2013-14 squad.
Kelowna shored up its defensive corps with the acquisition of Josh Morrissey from Prince Albert, a first round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets who is considered one of junior hockey’s elite defenceman.
Along captain Madison Bowey, Morrissey—both of whom are with Team Canada at the world junior hockey championship—give the Rockets one of the WHL’s best blue line corps.
“Having two players of their caliber should really benefit our team down the stretch,” said Rockets head coach Dan Lambert. “They’re both excellent hockey players and good leaders and should be able to give direction to the rest of our defence, which is still pretty young.”
While Bowey and Morrissey won’t be back until the first week of January, the Rockets will get a boost from the return of Rourke Chartier.
The 18-year-old centre, who leads the WHL in goal scoring with 32 in 30 games, was released last week from the Canadian junior team selection camp.
While disappointed in not making the final roster, Chartier said he has plenty to look forward to over the last half of the WHL season.
“I have a good team and a good group of guys to go back to, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do in the playoffs,” said Chartier.
Included with the many highlights of the season’s first half—including Nick Merkley’s league-leading 55 points—there were also some challenging times for the club.
Altough they are an inevitable part of the business, the trades of longtime teammates Jesse Lees, Austin Glover, Carter Rigby and Colton Heffley weren’t easy to accept for Rockets players.
Still, Baillie and his teammates understand the cost of constructing a championship team.
“Because you grow so close to guys and become such good friends, it’s tough,” Baillie said. “You spend every day together for eight months of the year, then they’re just gone.
“But the other side of that is, we got some really good players in Josh Morrissey and Gage Quinney, and we’re building a team that can take a run at it.”
And with just two 20-year-old players on the roster—Tyrell Goulbourne and Cole Martin—it’s likely Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton will have something more to divulge before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
The Rockets return to action Saturday night when they host the Kamloops Blazers.
On Tuesday, the Prince George Cougars will visit Prospera Place.