With their oldest defensemen yet to turn 19, youth will be the operative word along the Kelowna Rockets’ blue line this season.
As the senior member of a largely green crew, Devante Stephens said much of the responsibility for setting the standard rests with him and fellow returnees Joe Gatenby and Lucas Johansen.
“There will be a lot of expectations on me, (Joe) Gatenby and (Lucas) Johansen,” said Stephens, who turns 19 in January. “It’ll be up to us to help the younger guys coming in and be role models for them.
“There are a lot of spots open, so it’s a good opportunity for some young D-men to step up this year.”
With departures of key veterans Madison Bowey, Josh Morrissey and Cole Martin, the Rockets are in the throes of a significant transition on the back end.
As many as five spots could be open, but thankfully the Rockets’ stable is replete with skilled young prospects.
Two choices from the 2014 WHL bantam draft will be knocking on the door for roster spots—Jonathan Smart, who played last season at OHA, and Cal Foote, the son of former NHL defenceman Adam Foote.
The 6-foot-6 Brayden Chizen, who played two games with the Rockets last season, is pushing for more playing time in 2015-16.
Two other up-and-comers with familiar Rockets surnames, Connor Bowey and Danny Gatenby, are also in the mix.
And the Rockets are intrigued by the potential of Gordie Ballhorn, a 6-foot-1, 190-product of Wetaskiwin, Alta., who played last season with Whitecourt of the AJHL.
Listed by the Rockets in March, Ballhorn had been considering going the U.S. college route. But when an organization known for producing big-league defenceman came calling, Ballhorn didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“I mean, how can you say no to the Kelowna Rockets if you’re a defenceman,” said Ballhorh, who turns 18 this week. “I’m hoping I can challenge for a top-four role and play some big minutes because they’re a little short on older D.
“They need guys to come in and play those big minutes the other guys left.”
For a little insurance, the Rockets do have veteran Riley Stadel available to drop back from forward to defense if the need arises.
Rockets’ assistant coach Kris Mallette admits filling the skates of Bowey, Morrissey and Martin won’t be easy, but with a little time and patience he expects the blue line crew to round into form.
“It’s going to make our back end exciting, they’re going to be green, but with the experience those three (Stephens, Gatenby and Johansen) got last year, it’s going to bode well for us,” said Mallette. “And with the young guys coming in, I’m excited to see how they develop throughout the season.
“Do we have a Madison Bowey right now ? No,” added Mallette. “Can we groom one ? We think so. It’s going to be an interesting and hopefully fun season to watch these guys grow.”
In addition to providing a new level of leadership in 2015-16, Stephens is also excited about further expanding his role on the ice.
“Seeing the guys we lost, soaking up a lot of the power play and penalty kill time, this year I’m looking to have a bigger role on the team,” said Stephens, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL entry draft by the Buffalo Sabres. “Get some power play minutes, penalty kill and play against their top lines.
“Playing with Bowey last year, I got a lot of insight from him. I just want to be one of the guys they rely on day in and day out.”
As for last spring’s extended playoff run by the Rockets, Stephens counts it as an invaluable experience that he, Gatenby and Johansen can apply to their on and off-ice roles this season.
“It was huge, because now we know what it takes to get there and we can share that experience,” said Stephens, “Now we just have to do that throughout the season.
It was a fun year, just came up that much short. Now we want to get back to redeem ourselves.”
The Rockets will play their first pre-season game this Saturday night at home to the Prince George Cougars. Face off at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.