Since their last appearance in the Memorial Cup final in 2009, the Kelowna Rockets have been patiently and diligently crafting a roster designed to take another run at junior hockey’s ultimate prize.
Heading into the 2013-14 Western Hockey League season—with minimal turnover from last season and a lineup built largely on skill and speed—the club’s general manager believes most of the key pieces are in place for the Rockets to be a viable contender come next spring.
“I’m excited about this team,” said Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and GM. “With the exception of (captain) Colton Sissons, our core group is back. Anytime you can go into a year with 20 players returning, it’s a good situation. I do believe there’s going to be some movement, areas we’re going to look at improving, but this will basically be the same group we had last year.”
Indeed, it is pretty much the same group that soared to a franchise-record 52 regular season victories in 2012-13, and compiled a Kelowna-record 23-game home-ice winning streak in the process.
With every player returning on the back end, the defensive corps is considered to be the backbone of the hockey club.
Led by Damon Severson, Madison Bowey, Jesse Lees and Mitch Wheaton, the Rockets should have one of the most skilled and best puck-moving crews in the WHL.
And if the blue line corps can add a little extra sandpaper to its game this season, Hamilton said the Rockets will be just that much harder to handle.
“We want to be one of the more physical teams in our own end,” Hamilton said. “It’s time for (our defence) to take a big step forward. It’s been at least two years for a lot of these guys and they’re not boys anymore, but men. We expect teams to find out that this is a difficult defense to play against.”
Other than the loss of Sissons and a trio of 20-year-old cast-offs from last season, the Rockets are mostly in tact on the forward lines. One exception could be leading scorer Myles Bell (93 points), who remains with the New Jersey Devils organization and may still turn pro.
The Rockets will look for offensive production from Tyson Baillie (66 points), Zach Franko (72 points), Ryan Olsen (32 goals), and Tyrell Goulbourne (27 points)—among many others—in a scoring-by-committee attack.
Still, the GM says at least one component needs to be added if the Rockets are to adequately equipped to go toe-to-toe with the league’s top teams.
“I’m not convinced we quite have what we need (at forward), so we’ll be keeping an eye on that,” said Hamilton. “I think we need to be a little bigger up front, so I think getting one big, skilled forward will be important for us. We need to be a more physical up front, so we hope to see some of our bigger guys step up.”
In goal, with both 20-year-old incumbent Jordon Cooke and Jackson Whistle, 18, returning, Hamilton says the Rockets have “as good a combination” as any in the WHL.
So with most of the tools in place for 2013-14, Hamilton expects the Rockets not only to contend, but to once again be exceedingly uncharitable at Prospera Place.
“Hopefully we’re going to continue that trend we started last year, to be a very difficult team to play against in our building,” added Hamilton, whose club went 31-5 at home last season. “A lot of times, we played with great speed and were physical at the same time. If we can do that, we’ll be tough at home.”
The Rockets will open the season without LW Carter Rigby and D Mitch Wheaton, both of whom continue their rehabs from off-season shoulder surgery.
As of Friday, D Damon Severson and RW Myles Bell remained at the camp of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
Kelowna faces off the new campaign Friday in Kamloops against the Blazers.
The teams will meet again Saturday for the Rockets’ home opener, a 7 p.m. start at Prospera Place.