New head coach Dan Lambert and his Kelowna Rockets will kick off the new Western Hockey League season Saturday at home to the Kamloops Blazers.

New head coach Dan Lambert and his Kelowna Rockets will kick off the new Western Hockey League season Saturday at home to the Kamloops Blazers.

Unfinished business for 2014-15 Rockets

Kelowna opens new WHL season with big expectations after unwelcome playoff exits the last two years

Much like his returning teammates, watching the B.C. Division and WHL regular season banners being raised to the rafters this weekend at Prospera Place will fill Tyson Baillie with a deep sense of pride and accomplishment.

Still, the Kelowna Rockets’ veteran will also be thinking about some unfinished business when his team faces off Saturday night against Kamloops in the 2014-15 opener for both teams.

Despite a total of 109 regular season wins over the last two seasons, Baillie, among many others Rockets, has had a summer to ponder Kelowna’s premature exit from the playoffs in each of the last two springs.

The fourth-year centre is vividly clear about what the Rockets expect of themselves this season.

“Getting those banners is really nice and is great for our team, but those don’t compare to the WHL championship banner and that’s what we really want,” said Baillie, 18, who had 22 goals and 55 points last season. “It was a tough way to go out last year.

“Everyone’s main goal this year is to get to the Memorial Cup,” added Baillie,”so it’s going to be nice and exciting for us to go after that.”

With as many as 18 returning players on the roster, the Rockets will have experience on their side in 2014-15.

The team’s top three scorers from last season—Myles Bell, Ryan Olsen and Damon Severson—have all moved on. But based on the progress of the club’s younger talent over the last two seasons, new head coach Dan Lambert said the Rockets should be well equipped to compensate for those key departures.

“In junior hockey you lose guys all the time, and that just creates opportunities for other guys to step and fill those roles,” said Lambert who is joined on the staff this season by newcomers Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard, and returnee Kim Gellert.

“We’ve got guys like (Madison) Bowey, (Rourke) Chartier, (Tyson) Baillie, (Cole) Martin…those guys are all a year older and were really part of a leadership group last year, too. They’re going to be asked to lead the way.”

Paced by Bowey, and supported by likes of Mitchell Wheaton, Jesse Lees, Riley Stadel and Joe Gatenby the Rockets’ defensive corps will again be considered one of the WHL’s best.

Up front, the Rockets will again look for a scoring-by-committee approach, although Baillie, Chartier, Justin Kirkland and reigning rookie of the year Nick Merkley will be asked to carry a considerable part of the load.

“I think once we get all of our guys back (from NHL camps) we’re going to have an exciting team with real good balance,” said Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton. “We should have more offence this year and our defense is going to be pretty fleet of foot. We’re going to play a game where we move the puck fast and hopefully put pressure on other teams by doing that.”

With Jackson Whistle taking over the No. 1 spot between the posts and rookie Jake Morrissey backing up, Hamilton is also optimistic about his club’s goaltending situation.

If there is an area of concern for the GM, it comes with the club’s overage forwards.

Along with defenceman Cole Martin, forwards Tyrell Goulbourne, Carter Rigby and Colton Heffley are each competing for one of the three 20-year-old roster spots.

“I like our team overall, yet I’m going to need to see some impact from our overage forwards,” said Hamilton. “Those guys need to be productive and more consistent than they have been.”

As for the new head coach’s expectations, Lambert asks for nothing more from his charges than their best effort and and every time they come to the rink.

“I expect us to get better every day, I expect us to compete hard every day,” Lambert said. “Does that translate into 30 wins, 60 wins, 40 wins, we don’t know. As a coaching staff our goal is make these kids understand how important coming to work every single day is. It’s a simple plan, but one the coaches all agree on.”

The B.C. Division and WHL regular season championship banners will be hoisted to the rafters at Prospera Place prior to the start of Saturday’s games. Face off between the Rockets and Blazers is 7:05 p.m.


Kelowna Capital News