Young, skilled and exciting.
In three words, it’s the kind of team the Kelowna Rockets expect to put on the ice for the new Western Hockey League campaign.
And while the Rockets are younger across the board than in 2010-11, the club’s brain trust believes this season’s squad is already a big step ahead when it comes to one key area—maturity.
“Last year we had a bunch of guys who started the season who were so far behind on the grid maturity-wise, that it took them until Christmas to really get going,” said Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton, who saw his club stumble out to a 4-10 start a year ago. “Once they began to understand their responsibilities and accountability that’s required here, they were a lot better. By the end of last year this was a real good group to be around, and I expect them to be even better and more mature this year. At the same time, our expectations have to be reasonable for what we have.”
The club will start the season with four 16-year-olds rookies on the roster—Madison Bowey, Jesse Lees, Tyson Baillie and Austin Ferguson.
Along with such youth will come mistakes and a considerable learning process, but Hamilton said that’s where reliable goaltending comes in.
With over-ager and team MVP Adam Brown, and 18-year-old Jordon Cooke minding the crease, the Rockets expect more than a few games to be won in goal.
“You don’t win in this league without good goaltending,” he said. “We’re very comfortable with either of these guys right now, Brownie will obviously get the nod as the starting guy but I think Cooke is going to push him hard.
“We can go through some growing pains early with some mistakes, and we’re going to see that with the age of our defense. But our goaltending will definitely help with that.”
In addition to solid goaltending, the Rockets expect their offense to be considerably more potent. Shane McColgan, Brett Bulmer, Zach Franko and Colton Sissons will be asked to carry a significant part of the load. The rugged Jessey Astles is also expected to make strides in his third WHL season.
“We have significantly more offense just because of the maturity of those guys. They all have to bring more than they did for us last year, and I expect they will.”
One challenge the Rockets face is compensating for the loss of captain Tyson Barrie and his contributions on the power play. Hamilton addressed some of the need by acquiring Myles Bell this week from the Regina Pats (see story).
As much as any area of the club, Hamilton is excited about watching the Rockets’ young talent develop and mature. In addition to the aforementioned 16-year-olds, players like Tyrell Goulbourne, Colton Heffley, Damon Severson, Filip Vasko, Carter Rigby and Colten Martin give Hamilton reason for optimism.
“We’ve got as skilled a group of young guys as I’ve seen in many years. I’m looking forward to seeing how Bowey and Lees, our young defencemen develop and see where they’re at by Christmas. We have a lot of guys who should take some steps this year.”
Where the Rockets will appear to have the edge on most other clubs heading into the 2011-12 is in the area of coaching.
Led by Ryan Huska’s 10 WHL seasons—five as a head coach—and the growing experience of Ryan Cuthbert, Dan Lambert, Kim Dillabaugh and Kim Gellert, Hamilton said his young roster is in very capable hands.
“Being involved with the world juniors the last two years, Ryan (Huska) brings a wealth of knowledge back to our team,” Hamilton said. “He’s a sponge whenever he’s in those situations, sometimes with NHL coaches, he absorbs everything and comes back with it. He’s one of the premier, young coaches in the game. Danny (Lambert) has really matured as a coach, and Ryan (Cuthbert) has grown up a lot to be a real good coach, too.”
Huska and Co. will open the new WHL season this Saturday night in Everett against the Silvertips.
Kelowna’s home opener is Saturday, Oct. 1 against the Vancouver Giants.