Depth was lauded by many as the cornerstone of the Kelowna Rockets’ team heading into the Western Hockey League playoffs.
In the end, Bruce Hamilton says what was perceived as his club’s strength was instead the defending champs’ undoing in the 2016 postseason.
The Rockets scored just four times in the first three games against Seattle, en route to being swept by the Thunderbirds in the Western Conference final.
“I thought our depth up front was going to be our strength, but that didn’t come to be,” said Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and GM. “It was two or three guys pulling most of the weight, we just didn’t get secondary scoring like we needed, like we thought we’d get.
“We returned 14 players from last year and didn’t get over the hump,” he added. “It’s disappointing, but it is what it is.”
Hamilton said fatigue—some mental, some physical—may have also played a partial role in his club’s demise. The Rockets needed seven games each to defeat both the Kamloops Blazers and Victoria Royals, then got off to a disappointing start in the Seattle series.
“Every game (against Seattle) was a one-goal game, but those two losses at home really put us in a hole,” he said. “We probably should have finished off the Kamloops series sooner, but we let our foot off the pedal. That probably cost us a little bit.”
“A lot of our guys played hockey until June 1 last year, and it’s real a challenge to repeat…and our guys found that out.”
The Thunderbirds finished off the Rockets Wednesday in Kent, WA with a 5-4 victory in double overtime in Game 4.
Goalie Michael Herringer, who made an eye-popping 70 saves in the series finale, did everything humanly possible throughout the playoffs to give the Rockets a legitimate shot at a title defence—but it simply wasn’t enough.
Hamilton said the 20-year-old Comox product did everything—and considerably more— the Rockets asked of him.
“Michael really earned his stripes,” said Hamilton. “He was given a tough job, taking over from (injured) Jackson Whistle, and it was a concern for us. But he proved he was somebody we could go to and he did a great job. We’re looking for him to have a good summer and come back strong with us next season.”
And despite the disappointing conclusion to 2015-16, Hamilton is already upbeat about next year’s edition of the Rockets.
“This team has a great group of players coming back, so we’re going to be in pretty good shape,” he said.
The team’s 20-year-old players, Tyson Baillie, Jackson Whistle and Cole Linaker, will all graduate from the Rockets, while Rourke Chartier is expected to play professionally next season with the San Jose Sharks organization.
Justin Kirkland, who led the Rockets with 11 playoff goals, is the one wild card for next season. A draft pick of the Nashville Predators, Kirkland has yet to sign a contract with the NHL team.
The next major order of business for the Rockets, Hamilton and assistant GM Lorne Frey is the WHL bantam draft next Thursday in Calgary. Kelowna will choose 19th overall in the first round.