Few Western Hockey League teams had success consistently shutting down Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley last season.
Opponents will no doubt have their hands full again in 2015-16 as one of major junior hockey’s most perilous duos is expected to reunite for another campaign with the Kelowna Rockets.
Despite missing 14 games, Chartier, 19, scored 48 goals and had 82 points last season.
Merkley, 18, the WHL’s rookie of the year the previous season, had 20 goals and 90 points to lead all Rockets and finished sixth overall in league scoring. He added another five goals and 27 points in the postseason.
As the numbers would indicate, Merkley was far more often the set-up man, while Chartier was the finisher—although both players have proven the opposite scenario can be true.
Chartier said he and Merkley thrived in their roles last season and hopes both can push their game to another level this year.
“Nick and I got to be the go-to guys last year and when you get the chance, you run with it. We were able to produce at a pretty good rate,” Chartier said. “I guess I look at this year as a bit more pressure, but both of us are older and I’d say more confident, so we’re both excited about trying to take another step forward.”
Both players are off to NHL training camps this week, with Chartier leaving for San Jose Wednesday and Merkley heading to Arizona Coyotes camp on Friday.
While the two are expected to return to the Rockets for the 2015-16 regular campaign, assistant GM Lorne Frey said with today’s climate in pro hockey, there are no guarantees.
Because it’s not overly unusual for NHL teams to retain teenaged players out of training camp, Frey said the Rockets need to be prepared for any outcome.
“The way the league (NHL) is now, who knows,” said Frey. “It depends what teams need, how they see young players fitting in with them, you never know.
“Obviously we’d love to have both guys back,” he added, “but if one goes, then we wish them the best. That’s all part of the process, part of the business.”
Merkley, who signed an entry-level deal with the Coyotes last week, intends on having a strong camp with Arizona but fully expects to be back in Kelowna this fall.
And with the team the Rockets are returning, the Calgary native can’t think of many better places to spend the season.
“Every player goes to (NHL) camp hoping to make it, I’m no different and I want to make it a hard decision for them,” Merkley said. “But to be realistic, at 18, it probably won’t be this year.
“We (the Rockets) are set up to have another really good season and take another run at this. I’m super excited about being part of that.”
If the dynamic duo does return intact for 2015-16, Frey said the Rockets should be well-positioned to contend for another WHL title.
“Obviously, the two of them make us a much better team,” said Frey. “They’re high-end players in our league who can make a big difference.”
Playing for Canada at this year’s the world junior hockey championship is also on the radar for Chartier and Merkley who both attended Hockey Canada’s development camp this summer in Calgary.
Chartier was a late deletion from last year’s Canadian squad.
“It wasn’t a great feeling getting cut last year,” Chartier said. “That’s extra motivation to make it this year.”
“It’s every kid’s dream,” Merkley said of the potential of playing at world juniors. “I’d like to be there with Rourke.”
Rocket Shots…In addition to Chartier and Merkley, six other Rockets head to pro camps this week—Tyson Baillie and Tomas Soustal (Calgary), Justin Kirkland (Nashville), Devante Stephens (Buffalo), Cole Linaker (Edmonton) and Jackson Whistle (Vancouver)…The Rockets will visit Kamloops Friday in exhibition action, then host the Blazers Saturday at Prospera Place.