Sunday, September 24, 2017

Lind leads by example

Kole Lind - Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • Kole Lind led the Kelowna Rockets in scoring last season with 87 points. After two weekend victories over the Kamloops Blazers, Lind leads the WHL scoring race. The 18 year-old collected a goal and two assists Friday night in a 6-2 win and followed that up with two goals and three assists Saturday night in a 5-1 victory. Lind came back from Canucks camp with a tremendous mindset, one that he and the Canucks deserve much credit. Whatever the coaches said to Lind in his first NHL training camp exit meeting, it must have been made abundantly clear that his time would eventually come to play professional hockey - but that time was not now. Go back to Kelowna, don't sulk and pout, be the best player on the ice and do it on a consistent basis. It looks like Lind accepted the fact he wasn't going to walk into the Canucks dressing room after being selected in the second round in June and take the franchise by storm. The best players don't ignore discrepancies in their game. They address them and this is Lind's platform to correct those shortcomings. Lind's game is in a tremendous place. More importantly, the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan residents mental game is where it needs to be. If it remains this way in his third full season in the WHL, Lind will be playing in the NHL quicker than you may think. 
  • If you told me going into the weekend that goaltender Brodan Salmond would allow only three goals against in back-to-back games against the Blazers, I would have laughed at you. The 19 year-old was extremely good on the weekend. Salmond was like a piece of plywood. Rarely out of position, the Calgary resident let the puck hit him. I will admit though, Salmond appears to have one aspect of his game at a higher level than last years starter Michael Herringer. Salmond seems to be able to track pucks better. Sorry for the 'hockey speak', but if a puck hits a shin pad or deflects off the glass, Salmond seems to be able to pick it up better and than is able to get into position to stop it. Herringer often lost sight of the puck and had to react acrobatically to recover. Salmond isn't totally vanilla by the way. His glove hand save against Blazers 20 year-old Nick Chyzowski Saturday night shows that Brodan is quicker than we give him credit for. If I was grading Salmond's game this weekend, he easily gets an A.
  • As impressive as the three goals against, how about the 11 goals scored? That's generating significant numbers without essentially four regulars out of the line-up. No Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski, Erik Gardiner and Leif Mattson didn't deter them from scoring four unanswered goals in Friday's win and another four unanswered goals in the third period in Saturday's road victory. Of the 11 goals scored, Kole Lind was in on 8 of them.
  • How about Jack Cowell's play on the weekend? One of the most impressive players in fitness testing, the sophomore forward is taking the game seriously. It has translated into opportunity and three goals in two games. Listed by the Rockets after no one touched him at the WHL bantam draft, the Winnipeg product is just one goal shy from the four he scored in 59 games in his rookie season. Clearly Cowell has the skill set to play at this level. Watch his breakaway goal in Saturday's third period or the fact he was able to handle Kole Lind's saucer pass to knife a shot high over Dylan Ferguson's shoulder to make it 2-1. That goal was the game winner. It is that core of second year forwards that must be better to ensure the team has success. Jack Cowell....mission accomplished in the first two games of the season.
  • I've spoken so glowingly of Kole Lind's positive approach to returning to the WHL, but the same must also be said about captain Cal Foote. Looking larger and more intimidating than a season ago (is it the shoulder pads?), I really like the way he is jumping into the play to manufacture offense. Foote's shot from the point is wicked, but his two way game is also something special. Playing with rookie Libor Zabransky, Foote is playing like a first round NHL draft pick should. Composed, prepared and looking elite, Foote leads WHL defenceman in scoring (1+5=6) after two games.
  • One rookie who has taken some significant strides in the first two games is 17 year-old Wil Kushniryk. With two assists on the opening weekend, the raw rookie could have had his first WHL goal with a glorious chance in the opening period. Kushniryk is a big body at 6'5 and 205 pounds and in my short viewing, doesn't play a big man's game.yet. Another listed player by Director of Player Personnel Lorne Frey, playing time, patience and confidence is needed right now. Kushniryk is a project, but worth taking a close look at.
  • We shouldn't be surprised that Saturday's game at Sandman Centre (I mistakenly called it the Interior Savings Centre Friday night) had some ice issues. Used as a refuge, or evacuation centre during the huge forest fires near Williams Lake, the ice was often soft and took significant time to freeze after a flood. In fact, play was halted early in the third period when the ice was so wet, the puck was sticking to it when players were attempting to stick handle or even pass it. The building typical has terrific ice and Saturday's less than ideal ice is a one-off. 
  • Before the player introductions Saturday night, the Blazers showed a wicked team video on the big screen. It was excellent. I am told that the Dallas Stars video team produced it, which may be the reason why it had the desired effect in hyping the virtues of the home team. The Blazers owner, Tom Gaglardi, also owns the NHL's Dallas Stars. I thought it was admirable to see Gaglardi in attendance at the Blazers home opener. 
  • Have you noticed something new on the WHL website? In the game summary section, data is being FINALLY collected for shots taken by an individual player and face-offs won and lost are also being tabulated. Outstanding. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has been doing this for years and I always wondered why the WHL wasn't doing the same? If the opening weekend is any indication, it will be a constant in 2017-2018. What a welcome addition for fans and broadcasters.     
    Kole Lind - Shoot the Breeze Photography

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Bring it

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • The Kamloops Blazers should have an axe to grind with the Kelowna Rockets. The Rockets have ended their BC Division rivals season not once, but twice in the last two years. In the 2016 playoffs, Tomas Soustal scored the game winning goal in overtime lifting the Rockets to a game seven series win. Then in March, the Rockets advanced to the second round with a six game series victory. Don’t be fooled by how the playoffs ended a season ago. The Blazers won 6 of 10 regular season meetings last season, spoiling Jason Smith’s head coaching debut with a 9-2 drubbing on opening night.
  • While Smith had the last laugh with a playoff series win, the second year coach will want to see his team get off to a much better start than they did in 2016-2017. For those with a short memory, the team lost seven of its first 10 games before finding its footing.
  • The Rockets will be without marquee forward Dillon Dube when the two teams clash Friday night at Prospera Place. Dube has played good enough to earn a third look in a pre-season game when the Calgary Flames face the Arizona Coyotes. The pride of Golden BC, who makes Cochrane Alberta his off-season home, is doing everything right in an effort to open the eyes of the Flames coaching staff. It shouldn't be a surprise that Dube is playing so well considering it is his second NHL training camp after being drafted by the Flames in the second round in 2016.  
  • With the loss of Calvin Thurkauf and Nick Merkley (both will play pro this season), only Kole Lind (87) and Cal Foote (57) had more points than Dube last season. Dube played only 40 regular season games last year, earning 20 goals and 55 points. That is an average of 1.38 points per game compared to Lind’s 1.24 points per game. Lind played in 70 games a season ago.
  • The Rockets will play this season without MVP Calvin Thurkauf, playoff MVP Reid Gardiner and Nick Merkley. That was arguably the team’s best line during the 2017 post season. Combined, those three players racked up 170 points. That’s a massive loss of offense. The team scored 283 goals last season, the third most in the WHL with Regina and Medicine Hat leading the way. Do you remember all the talk before last season's puck drop and the questions surrounding the teams expected struggles to score? With the loss of Rourke Chartier, Justin Kirkland and Tyson Baillie the Rockets were doomed. Not so fast. Last year’s team scored 14 more goals than in 2015-2016. Other players were able to pick up the slack. I anticipate that happening again this season. 
  • I am really looking forward to watching rookie 17 year-old Libor Zabransky play. The Czech Republic born d-man has seen no game action after missing the four pre-season games with an injured suffered at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.
  • Speaking of import players, do the Rockets use overage forward Tomas Soustal on opening night? They have room for him considering fellow 20 year-old Carsen Twarynski remains at the training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers. Or does the team go with the two younger euros they have on their roster in Zabransky and fellow Czech Marek Skvrne (Skrin-ya)?  Skvrne hasn't played a game either at the WHL level after going  back home to finish up his high school exams before returning to the junior team that drafted him in June.
  • Who wears the 'C' on opening night? It will be interesting to watch.    
  • Second year forward Erik Gardiner won't play in the home opener. The 18 year-old is sidelined another three weeks with what the team is calling a lower body injury.
  • Before the season starts, don't get carried away with WHL officiating this season. They are an easy target, but I find it soooo weak when people use it as an excuse for the demise of the team they support. Have you paid any attention to NHL/NFL/MLB/CFL officiating over the last couple of months? Give these guys a break that get paid a pittance of what others make to call a game. They are not flawless because they too are human. Please remember that.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Here we go!

You Ready? The Kelowna Rockets are in their 27th year of existence since coming into the Western Hockey League as an expansion franchise in 1991. After four seasons in Tacoma, the team relocated to Kelowna in 1995-96, where the team has spent the last 22 years in the Okanagan. The team has four WHL championships (2003, 2005, 2009, 2015) and have missed the playoffs only once in their existence. The hockey club has made four straight appearances in the Western Conference final and has registered 40 or more wins in five consecutive seasons. The team has 255 wins in 360 games over that stretch. That is an average of 16 losses per season over that last five years.

Rockets Review: The Rockets were 45-22-0-5 last season which was good for second place in the BC Division with 95 points, one fewer than division leading Prince George. The team had the 6th best winning percentage in the WHL while scoring the third most goals and allowing the fourth fewest goals against. The Rockets won 22 road games, the second most in the Western Conference behind only the Cougars (23). Kole Lind was the teams scoring champion (30+57=87) with Lind leading the team in assists (57) and MVP Calvin Thurkauf leading the charge with 33 goals. The hockey club made it all the way to the third round of the playoffs before eventually losing in 6 games to WHL champion Seattle. 

Broadcasters Notebook: The Rockets boast one first round NHL draft pick and two second rounders. Cal Foote was chosen 14th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in June’s while Kole Lind (2nd round (33RD) Canucks - 2017) and Dillon Dube (2nd round (56th) Flames - 2016) were picked in the second round….Nolan Foote, last season’s rookie of the year, is not eligible to be drafted until June 2019….Dube played for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships last season…Rookie defenceman Libor Zabransky’s father played in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues…Zabransky played for the Czech Republic at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in August. Nolan Foote was a member of the gold medal Canadian team…Rookie Kaeden Korczak was a Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League all-star last season with the Yorkton Maulers….Rookie Liam Kindree was the BC Major Midget Hockey League scoring champion last season with the Vancouver Northwest Giant (67 points in 40 games).   

Who’s Gone? The team lost seven significant players following the 2016-2017 season. Calvin Thurkauf (33 goals and 70 points) is playing pro hockey with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nick Merkley (63 points in 63 games) is playing pro with the Arizona Coyotes. Captain Rodney Southam graduated and is playing with the Acadia Axemen. Lucas Johansen is with the Washington Capitals organization while Reid Gardiner, acquired at last year’s trade deadline for a first round bantam pick, signed an American Hockey League deal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  Overage goaltender Michael Herringer is playing with the University of Regina Cougars (U Sports) this season. 

Rockets Schedule: In the first half of the season, the Rockets play 19 of 34 games on the road. The longest road trip of the season is in early December when the team completes its bi-annual Eastern Conference road trip with stops in Regina, Brandon, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, PA and Saskatoon. In December the team plays a season high 8 games on the road. The longest home stand this season is just four games. The team plays three games in three nights only once (October 14th, 15th, 16th). The quirkiest part of the schedule is a lone trip to Calgary to face the Hitmen on January 7th

Schedule Breakdown:
September: 3 games     December: 11 games   March: 8 games
October: 11 games        January: 13 games
November: 12 games     February: 14 games

NHL Drafted Players: Cal Foote (Tampa Bay 2017), Kole Lind (Vancouver 2017), Dillon Dube (Calgary 2016), Carsen Twarynski (Philadelphia 2016), Brayden Chizen (Minnesota 2016).  


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Two to tend the twine

Liam Kindree - Shoot the Breeze photography 
  • My belief is three rookies on the Kelowna Rockets roster this season will make an immediate impact. Seventeen year-old Liam Kindree will have a real good year. Sent back to midget last year rather than keep him around in his 16 year-old season, Kindree showed determination, avoided sulking and ended up leading the BCMMHL in scoring. Fellow 17 year-old Czech Republic born defenceman Libor Zabransky will need to adjust to the North American game, but once he gets used to the speed and smaller ice surface, I can't see why the smooth skating defender can't impress in his first season in the WHL. The other rookie to make an impact will be 16 year-old Kaedan Korczak. He too will get better and better as the season goes along.  Korczak has excelled at every level he's played and I don't see things changing. Oh ya, it will take some time before he is completely comfortable, but Rockets fans have three solid rookies that will look anything but when April rolls around.             
  • Brodan Salmond was the returning player I really wanted to watch closely during the WHL pre-season. How would he preform with the opportunity to start the season as the #1 goalie? Salmond finished the exhibition schedule with a goals against average of 0.67 and a save percentage of .982. That's right, the about to turn 19 year-old stopped 56 of the 57 shots taken his way. Again, it is a small sample size when teams don't dress elite players, but Salmond in no way laid an egg in the three games he played. That is why Salmond is the teams starter. He beat out a challenge from free agent Cody Porter, who was a year younger. Management clearly wants to use a 20 year-old spot at forward, which in my opinion is the best move.   
  • I haven't quite been able to figure out Salmond's style. He isn't acrobatic. He glides horizontally side-to-side well, but rarely goes to the butterfly when a shot is taken. A stand up goalie, his style is reminiscent of what we witnessed when Shane Bendera wore Kelowna Rockets colours in the 2001-2002 season? Acquired from the Red Deer Rebels for Carsen Germyn and goalie Jason Stone, Bendera let pucks hit him, not the other way around. Bendera was almost motionless in the net and would never over commit. The stance that Salmond exhibits is almost a carbon copy of Bendera.  At 5'11, Bendera was the playoff MVP when he led the Red Deer Rebels to a WHL title in 2000-2001 and had the lowest against average in the WHL that season . Bendera was named the Rockets MVP a season later.      
  • Rookie goaltender Roman Basran will play this season with the Okanagan Rockets in the BC Major Midget Hockey League. That is a great spot for the 16 year-old to develop. You do not have to rush Basran's development.   
  • Kyle Topping led the Kelowna Rockets in pre-season scoring with 2+4=6 in four games. The second year forward was followed closely by sophomore forward Leif Mattson, who scored a team high three goals and collected 5 points. Mattson, who I think could have a great year if given the chance, also led the team with a +4 rating.
  • The Kelowna Rockets aren't sure what type of players they've picked in June's CHL Import draft. Neither 17 year-old defenceman Libor Zabransky nor 18 year-old forward Marek Skvrne have played a game yet for their new team. Zabransky missed all four pre-season games after being injured at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament while Skvrne returned to the Czech Republic to finish high school exams.  General Manager Bruce Hamilton says it will be a steep learning curve for Zabransky, not because of the smaller North American ice surface, but the number of games/travel that can take its toll on a first year player. Both Zabransky and Skvrne are expected to be ready to play when the Rockets open the regular season next Friday against the Kamloops Blazers.
  • How badly will WHL visiting public address announcers butcher Skvrne's name this season? Reading it cold will be funny. Some will take a pregnant pause before either saying it quickly in frustration while  some will grind it out and stumble and bumble in an effort to get it right. Skvrne's last name is pronounced (Skrin-ya).
  • The Kelowna Rockets played only four pre-season games. The team went 3-0-0-1. Is that enough games to prepare for the regular season? Does it give young, aspiring rookies a chance to show they can play at this level? While the lack of game action may have them shaking off the rink rust on opening night,  the lack of games can't but reduce the risk of injury. While the Rockets are playing a WHL low four exhibition games the Tri City Americans are on the ice an astonishing eight times. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

BC Division players to watch

The BC Division featured four quality teams last season. The Prince George Cougars, Kelowna Rockets, Kamloops Blazers and Victoria Royals were a handful. Sorry Vancouver Giants, you were the weak sister. Three of the four teams mentioned (PG/Kelowna,Kamloops) had over 90 points with first to third separated by only 6 points. Here are four players, one from each BC Division team (Rockets excluded), that will make a significant impact this season.  

Kamloops Blazers Goaltender Dylan Ferguson:

Shoot the Breeze Photography
Playing behind arguably the best goaltender in the WHL over the last two seasons couldn't have been easy for Dylan Ferguson. With Connor Ingram getting better and better by the day, it wasn't until he made Canada's world junior team that Ferguson could prove doubters that he could carry the mail. Everyone on this side of the Rockies were waiting for the Blazers to fold with Ingram's absence, but Ferguson didn't allow that to happen. The now 19 year-old was so good in December, he was named the Vaughn Goaltender of the Month. The Lantzville, BC resident was 6-3-0-1 with a stellar 2.44 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Now that Ingram has moved to pro, can Ferguson be the Blazers number one goalie? The answer? Darn rights! I think he can be one of the best in the Western Conference. Ferguson is attended Las Vegas Golden Knights rookie camp after originally being drafted this summer in the 7th round by the Dallas Stars.  


Victoria Royals Forward Matthew Phillips:

Arguably one of the most exciting players in the Western Conference, Phillips is a scoring machine. The now 19 year-old has scored 88 goals in 144 WHL regular season games. Not impressive enough for you? How about 169 points in 144 career games? At 5'7 and under 150 pounds, Phillips is slippery, durable and is as good on the ice as he is with the media. The Calgary Flames took him the 6th round in 2016, which some would consider a gamble, but the dude has produced at every levels he's played. A first team WHL all-star last season, look for Philips to again hit the 50 goal plateau and easily reach 100 points. If you are picking a player to lead the league in scoring, this is your guy.


Vancouver Giants Forward Tyler Benson:

Shoot the Breeze Photography
People often ask me what I think of Tyler Benson. The first word that comes out of my mouth is 'underwhelming'. Often injured, I have seen the now 19 year-old play a handful of times and always wonder if he is 100% healthy? I hope he is playing injured because my eyes don't pop out of my head when he has the puck. Sure, he has played on very poor Vancouver Giants teams over the last few years, but don't real good players stand out regardless? A second round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, which is bold, needs to stay out of the infirmary and play between 65 and 70 games this season. It's been suggested that a change of venue would help Benson, but would you be a willing trade  partner and give up a good player when the Edmonton product has played 63 games over the last two seasons? I would love to see Benson dominate like he did when he was a highly regarded bantam. Question is, can he do it at this level? I want to be a believer that Benson is a really good player. It isn't good for the BC Division when the Giants win only 20 games. A healthy Benson should change that.


Prince George Cougars Defenceman Dennis Cholowski

A first round NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, Cholowski was signed with little fanfare by the Prince George Cougars in mid-August. The Cougars probably thought he would never play hockey up north when they drafted him in the 10th round of the 2013 WHL bantam draft.  It is another example of picking a player even though it was suggested he had no intention of playing major junior hockey. The Cougars took no risk in making the pick and now look like a genius because of it. The Red Wings clearly want their prospect to play in Prince George and why wouldn't they with an ownership group that actually cares. On top of that, the coaching staff, despite a first round playoff upset, appear to have their act together. The Langley, BC resident will make a significant impact and should be more than an adequate replacement for Cougars MVP Brendan Guhle. I'm excited to see him play.  I've heard some suggest GM Todd Harkins should trade him considering the Cougars are in a rebuild. I would guard against that. Unless the Cougars lose 8 straight games to start the season instead of winning 8 in a row, like they did a season ago on their way to a franchises first ever BC Division title, don't count on it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Salmond solidifies #1 starting job!

Brodan Salmond - Shoot the Breeze Photography 
Let's make something perfectly clear. Brodan Salmond has done everything he can to solidify his spot as the Kelowna Rockets number one goaltender. Yep, he has left no galvanized piece of rubber unturned. You can only stop the pucks that are shot your way and the statistics during the pre-season show the Calgary resident, in a worse case scenario, deserves a shot at showing what he can do.
In two starts and 61 minutes of playing time, Salmond has stopped 32 of 33 pucks for a save percentage of .970.
One word. Impressive.
Having allowed only one goal against, the about to turn 19 year-old has a goals against average of  0.98. Simply put, Salmond has delivered despite naysayers suggesting he can't get it done. While doubt still remains with his limited resume and the regular season still 16 days away, in my opinion, he deserves the starting role when the team opens the regular season September 22nd against the Kamloops Blazers. You can't take that opportunity away from him after riding the pine behind Michael Herringer a season ago.
Salmond won't wow you with his cat-like reflexes, athleticism or his tremendous positioning. The 10th round WHL bantam pick has a lot of work in his game. But that could also be said of Memorial Cup champion and MVP Kelly Guard. Guard came to the Rockets as a 19 year-old discarded player from the Prince Albert Raiders. Guard had his warts too, but was a WHL champion (2003) at seasons end. Adam Brown and Jordan Cooke were never sure-fire proven starters in their 19 year-old seasons either. Brown still holds a franchise record for minutes played. Cooke is regarded as one of the Rockets best goalies after capturing the CHL Top Goalie award in his 20 year-old season.
Can you imagine if all three were never given a chance?
Were you shaking in your boots when Cooke graduated and Jackson Whistle assumed the number one duties for the start of the 2014-2015 season? Sure you did. So did I. You should also remember how Whistle grabbed the baton and ran with it. Whistle, who wasn't positionally sound either, would help the team earn a WHL title when it was suggested through the season, and all through the playoffs, that he was the weak link that would sink the Rockets chances of winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Does Brodan Salmond need to be terrific this season and steal games in order for the team to win? It wouldn't hurt, but if Salmond needs to be a saviour in order to propel his team to success, the 2017-2018 edition of the Kelowna Rockets have more problems than at the starting goaltender position.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

End of August looming large

Brett McLean will try his hand at coaching
  • The Kelowna Rockets organization is saddened by the news of the death of longtime scout Graham Tuer. Tuer spent 15+ years with the organization and was always a treat to be around. I often had enjoyable talks and laughs with Graham when he attending Rockets rookie camp and he would often show his face when the team visited Regina during it's bi-annual Saskatchewan road trip. Graham Tuer was 87.      
  • Appearing on a Vancouver sports radio station, I was asked point blank; 'How long do you think it will take for Kole Lind to play regularly in a Vancouver Canucks uniform'? Wanting not to put pressure on the recently drafted Lind, I quickly said 'four to five years'. I am not sure Canuck fans want to hear that, but why would I put pressure on Lind to crack the NHL at 20? Or why put false hope into a Canucks fan base desperate for anything positive? If Lind is a full time NHLer before he is 23, than good on him. I rather take the bullet for being wrong rather than put unrealistic expectations on what is an excellent prospect. Will Lind play in the NHL? I believe he will, but not without some seasoning.  Hey Canucks fan...he will be worth the wait.    
  • From what I've been told, Liam Kindree is having a strong camp. The 17 year-old was a late cut of the Kelowna Rockets last season and spent the year in the BC Major Midget Hockey League where he was the league scoring champion (28+39=67) with the Vancouver Northwest Giants. Unlike last fall, Kindree isn't going anywhere. The North Vancouver resident should be a regular fixture on the fourth line, but with his skill set, could a look on the second power play unit be a possibility? While I haven't seen a lot of Kindree in his short stint with the Rockets, he looks to me like a more skilled Cody Chikie.        
  • I'd argue one of the best players at main camp may be Jack Cowell. Cowell looks motivated and is around the puck in scrimmages. What Cowell lacked last season was strength. Often out-muscled by stronger, bigger players, it can be a frustrating experience losing battles for loose pucks. With a little more body maturity and overall strength, it will be interesting to watch if he is able to own the puck more than chase it.   
  • Luke Schenn is a father. In speaking to the always approachable 27 year-old before a brief skate this morning at Prospera Place, Schenn says both he and his wife have made the smooth transition into parenthood. With the baby four months old, sleeping through the night is typically the first hurdle one must overcome. The Schenn's, according to Luke, are having success in that area where sleep deprivation is a common side effect after a newborn enters the world.    
  • Among the goaltenders competing at Kelowna Rockets main camp this week is 17 year-old Jordan Frey. Listed at 5'7 and 134 pounds, Frey played with the Saskatoon Contacts last season under the watchful eye of Rourke Chartier's father - Marc. And no, Frey is not related to Director of Player Personnel Lorne Frey.   
  • Speaking of goaltending, I've been asked if 16 year-old rookie Roman Basran should be given the chance to earn the backup duties with the team this season? My answer? I don't like the idea to be honest. Basran needs playing time. The Delta, BC product is the goalie of the future. Basran needs to play and the BC Major Midget Hockey League is an excellent platform to do that. You don't rush goalies. The Rockets won't make the same mistake twice. Remember Josh Lepp? We all know how that turned out.    
  • After 19 seasons, one of the most popular players ever to wear a Kelowna Rockets uniform has retired. Brett McLean quietly called it a career this summer after 19 seasons of pro hockey. McLean played parts of five seasons with the Rockets, starting in Tacoma in 1994 and concluding his WHL career when he was dealt from Kelowna to Brandon in 1999. McLean had offensive success at the WHL level, scoring a career high 44 goals and 104 points in 1996-97. The Comox, BC resident was the Dallas Stars ninth round pick in in 1997 but never played a game in 'Big D'. McLean played 385 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers. McLean will begin his first season of coaching as an assistant with the American Hockey League's Iowa Wild.
  • Two former members of the Kelowna Rockets are getting a look-see elsewhere. Do you remember Alex Uryga? The 19 year-old played five games with the Rockets as a listed player. Uryga is attending the Seattle Thunderbirds training camp this week. Tanner Wishnowski was put on waivers by the Prince George Cougars. At last word, the 20 year-old was attempting to earn a spot wit the BCHL's Vernon Vipers. 
  • I had a 'I'm old moment'. Defenceman Brayden Chizen asked me if I was calling the play-by-play on the radio when Shea Weber was with the Kelowna Rockets. When I answered yes, the only word that came out of Chizen's mouth was, "wow". 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Do the Rockets employ a 20 year old goalie again?

Cody Porter - Shoot the Breeze Photo
  •  Will the Kelowna Rockets employ a 20 year-old goaltender again this season? Cody Porter hopes so. With the graduation of Michael Herringer, Porter has been brought in to challenge for the number one job with 18 year-old Brodan Salmond (turns 19 in October). The North Vancouver, BC resident asked for a trade from the Calgary Hitmen this summer and while a deal wasn’t made; he was offered a free agent tryout with several teams – the Kelowna Rockets included. Porter, who interviews like a seasoned veteran, believes the Okanagan is the best place to end his WHL career. Porter, who doesn’t turn 20 until September 23rd, played two years of minor hockey at Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy before eventually joining the West Kelowna Warriors. Safe to say he is familiar with the area. After a brief stint in the BCHL, Porter moved up to the Vancouver Giants before being dealt to the Calgary Hitmen in a five player deal in October of 2015 with then teammate Jackson Houck and Jakob Stukel.        
  •  Porter has high expectations for the team he hopes to represent this season. Porter talked about winning the Memorial Cup and anything less would be a disappointing season. How do I view that comment? I love it. I don’t want a player, especially a veteran on my team that would be content by sitting in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference standings and choosing mediocrity. I like the fact that Porter has the bar set high heading into the season.
  •  I had my first look at 17 year-old European defenceman Libor Zabransky during Monday’s workout. The dude can definitely skate and has the look of a good player.  Chosen in the 1st round – 51st overall in the CHL Import draft, Zabransky won a silver medal by losing to Nolan Foote and Team Canada at the most recent Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. Zabransky, whose father played in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, clearly has an offensive upside but getting used to the smaller North American ice surface will be a challenge. 
  • I shouldn’t be putting the cart before the horse but I will. I think Zabransky can be a top 6 d-man on the roster this season. With the loss of Devante Stephens and Lucas Johansen, I can’t see why Zabransky is unable to play significant minutes in his rookie season in the WHL.   
  • Leif Mattson, for my money, may be one of the more intriguing forwards to watch this season. Now 18, it’s go time for the Thompson, Manitoba product. In other words, Mattson, an 8th round bantam pick of the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2014, has to show he is worthy of earning a significant spot on the team after playing fourth line minutes last year. In speaking to Mattson this morning, he clearly has dropped some weight and looks in good shape after spending a portion of the summer in Calgary. 
  • One of my favourite interviews on the team is Erik Gardiner. Like his brother Reid, there is a certain honestly about the questions he answers and he too has more upside then downside in his overall game. Needing to work on his foot-speed, Gardiner made sure that was a focus this summer as he too elected to train away from home in Humboldt by sweating it out in nearby Saskatoon. Heck, Erik had the benefit of eating grandma's cooking. Gardiner can shoot the puck without question. That's his greatest strength. It will be interesting to see him evolve this season, which will only be his second season in the WHL.
  • It is hard to believe that the Rockets were able to play so late into April despite being one of the most penalized teams in the WHL last season. Will that change in 2017-2018? Did undisciplined play cost them last season?  Was it a factor in two or three games and did it result in a loss rather than a win? If it did, it cost the team a BC Division title and a banner up in the rafters.  
  • I still believe a BC banner should be hanging high at Prospera Place had it not been for a demoralizing loss to the dreadful Vancouver Giants in January. I will never forget that night when the team looked listless and fell behind 4-1 halfway through the game. Going through the motions, the far superior team would score three of the final four goals before losing 5-4. Had they won that game against a G-Men squad that earned only 20 victories, the Rockets, not the Cougars would be raising a banner to the rafters on opening night. 
  • Overage defenceman Devante Stephens is attending Rockets main camp this week. Signed by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, ‘Devo’ will surely play pro hockey this season but wanted to use Rockets main camp for conditioning before embarking on his pro career. Stephens is one of six-overage players on the Rockets. What will happen with 20 year-old Tomas Soustal? Unsigned, Soustal is also at training camp but will receive a pro opportunity this fall.  If he remains unsigned, management will have some interesting decisions to make as the Czech forward is a two spotter as an overage and one of two Europeans allowed on a WHL roster.
  •  Gordie Ballhorn, James Hilsendager, goalie Cody Porter and forward Carsen Twarynski round out the six players that are competing for three 20 year-old spots at training camp. All four are unsigned free agents. Twarynski must sign a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers by next June. The power forward was selected in the third round of the 2016 NHL draft.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The other 'Ethan' ain't bad either


Ethan Ernst
  • I have no idea which path Ethan Bowen chooses to take in his hockey career, but one thing is abundantly clear. Bowen is a man of his word. When I saw the 15 year-old prospect take part in Tuesday's first on-ice session at Kelowna Rockets rookie camp, that's the first thing that came to mind. Bowen, on the advice of his family (What 15 year-old doesn't receive advice from his parents?) made it to camp to give the Rockets a 'test drive'. It was something they promised to do when the WHL team selected the Chilliwack, BC prospect with their first pick in the 2017 WHL bantam draft. Teams stayed clear of Bowen at the draft as if he had a contagious disease. The skilled forward told many that he was considering the NCAA route and signed a players contract with the hometown Chilliwack Chiefs shortly after being chosen in the draft 39th overall. The fact is, the Bowen's are not coming into the WHL uninformed. Older son Ryan has played with the Moose Jaw Warriors and Lethbridge Hurricanes. The Bowen's know what the WHL can and cannot provide. That said....that said...I will argue that playing for the Kelowna Rockets is different than what the Bowen's have experienced with the Warriors and Hurricanes. My advice is to talk around. Ask former parents of what the Kelowna Rockets experience has been for their son and the family and make a decision from there. Let's use this analogy. You could say all Porsche's drive the same, but ask a expert driver and they will tell you that even though they are the same model, some just drive differently.  
  • Attending the morning session, two players stood out. The other Ethan - Ethan Ernst - really looked good. Ernst is the Rockets third round pick from May and looks like the real deal. Ernst, from Weyburn, Saskatchewan (God bless him) has size, speed and skill. Ernst looked like he could play now. With an above average frame, the 15 year-old was awarded a penalty shot in the morning scrimmage and made a nice backhand to forehand deke, only to be denied by the paddle of the goaltender's stick. Keep your eye on Ernst, specifically at main camp, as he hopes to turn more than a few heads. Playing in Notre Dame, he caught my attention during my brief viewing at Prospera Place.
  • Officiating the mid-morning session was forward Nolan Foote and defenceman Brayden Chizen. The two called a solid game, awarding Ethan Ernst a penalty shot, yet they failed to see a clear infraction when Ethan Bowen was hooked down when cutting hard to the net. I say that all in jest fellas. Nice to see both guys on the ice and back for another season. Heck, Foote has a gold medal around his neck and a permanent smile on his face after helping Canada win it at the Ivan Hlinka. Both will play significant roles with the team this season.
  • It appears Adam Brown has taken over the full time role as goaltending coach. Those duties were split between Brown and assistant coach Travis Crickard last season. But as we found out during the 2016-2017 campaign, Crickard was the architect behind the Kelowna Rockets power play.  It was the third best unit among the 22 teams and was only outdone by the Regina Pats and Medicine Hat Tigers. Crickard is a smart hockey mind and thinks the game on a different level. With Brown now taking the full time reins as goalie coach, 'Cricks' can become the Rockets 'Offensive Coordinator". I am not sure he will ever acquire such a title, which first came to light when ex-NHLer Pierre Turgeon was named the LA Kings 'Offensive Coordinator' in July, but it would sure look good on him. 
  • I mentioned on Twitter than Prospera Place is featuring new glass and boards. I had a close encounter with it at the morning skate when on two separate occasions, two board battles in front of me had the glass, specifically, bend as two players made contact with one another before momentum took them both into the new glass. It made a thunderous thud, which should only add to the speed and physicality of the game for the hockey fan chewing on popcorn. More importantly, the new glass will provide some cushioning which means it will be safer for the player giving the hit and the player receiving it.
  • Nice to shake hands with long time Rockets scout Bob Fawcett. Always positive and a keen eye for talent, the Saskatoon resident is another reason why the team has so much success at the WHL bantam draft table. 
  • I am interested to meet more of the veterans as the week goes along. I am often amazed how they change over a few short months. I haven't seen most of the veterans since the season came to an end April 30th against the Seattle Thunder Birds. What I want to see is who took their conditioning seriously and paid the price in the gym. Who mailed it in and believes they can make an impact on talent or luck alone? Every team has them, but a less than stellar off-season work ethic will soon have them exposed. Few can get away with it at the major junior level. I've heard a few veterans have stood out with their overall appearance. I won't mention them now until I see them for myself.
  • The new boards at Prospera Place have no advertising on them. It is old school. Remember the days when that was the norm?
  • The Rockets have won 40 or more games in five consecutive seasons. Can they make it 6 this season? The last team to do it? The Portland Winterhawks between 2009 and 2015.     

Monday, August 21, 2017

Back in the saddle

Brodan Salmond - Shoot the Breeze Photo 
  • How was your summer? The summer of 2017 will go down as one of the best - ever. Our family had the privileged of spending two weekends down in Osoyoos; one at Walnut Beach Resort and another at Spirit Ridge Resort. We explored Fairmont Hot Springs, a place we prairie people simply adored when I was a kid. I had the chance to take my boys white water rafting for the first time in Golden, BC thanks to Alpine Rafting. Alpine should be your only choice for getting thrills while going down the Kicking Horse River in a safe manner. Throw in a little golf at Black Mountain GC and Shannon Lake/Two Eagles and it was one of the best on record. It wasn't all leisure. Garage doors were painted, trees were trimmed and gutters cleaned, but the grunt work was taken care of way back in June. I could have done without the forest fire smoke, but hey, our entire family felt we took full advantage of the off-time that only summer provides. 
  • Let's talk some hockey. For me, the biggest question mark heading into Kelowna Rockets training camp is goaltending. With the graduation of Michael Herringer, who will play this season at the University of Regina, the question must be asked if Brodan Salmond is able to carry the mail as the teams #1 goalie? The 18 year-old has 30 starts under his belt at the WHL level and the coaching staff have done a nice job of shielding him. The Calgary resident has been given the chance to get his feet wet at the major junior level with starts against what would be considered lower tier competition. That's the way it should be. A 10th round bantam pick in 2013, Salmond will be given a chance to show he is worthy of being a starter. I've been asked repeatedly this summer if the Rockets are looking at making a trade for a veteran goalie? This is nothing new for an organization that acquired Michael Herringer, Jackson Whistle, Mark Guggenberger, Kelly Guard and Shane Bendera via trade in order to shore up one of the most crucial positions on the ice. 
  • It will be interesting to watch 16 year-old rookie goaltender Roman Basran at main camp. Can the Delta, BC product push Salmond? Is Basran even being considered for the back up spot, or is the goalie of the future better served by playing more games at a lower level?  Let's not forget about 17 year-old James Porter either. The 7th round pick of the Rockets from 2015 spent time with the team last season during its run towards a fourth consecutive birth in the Western Conference final. While only used as a practice player, does the American born goalie make a bid for the back up position? This is why training camp is always intriguing.     
  • What can you look forward too when rookie camp opens next week at Prospera Place? How about seeing the white in the eyes of 15 year-old prospect Ethan Bowen as a start. The Rockets picked the Chilliwack resident with their first selection, in the second round, in May's WHL bantam draft. Had Bowen not scared off more teams with the suggestion he is likely going the NCAA route, the slick skating forward would have been a top three pick. Instead he slid to the Rockets, who crossed their fingers and toes, and chose him 39th overall. Ethan's father says his son will attend rookie camp with an open mind of possibly choosing the WHL over the NCAA down the road. What is clear is Bowen will play for the hometown Chilliwack Chiefs before decided where his hockey path will take him. I'm just interested to see if he indeed is the real deal. I am told he is. 
  • Outside of Bowen, the other player at rookie camp that I will be watching is 15 year-old forward Ethan Ernst. A third round bantam pick of the Rockets, Erst had 19 goals playing bantam triple 'A' with the Notre Dame Hounds last season and even saw limited duty with the Hounds midget team. Heck, Erst is from Saskatchewan (Weyburn,) so he is a winner in my eyes already. 
  • Like any new season, the team has several holes to fill. Nick Merkley, Captain Rodney Southam, MVP Calvin Thurkauf, Lucas Johansen, Devante Stephens, playoff MVP Reid Gardiner and goalie Michael Herringer are no longer around. That is seven quality players missing, but the cupboards are anything but bare. When you have Dillon Dube, Kole Lind, Cal and Nolan Foote and three quality 20 year-old's returning, the team will still enter the season with a loaded gun. And like any season, players who made small contributions are asked to give more and traditionally deliver. 
  • The 20 year-old battle when main camp opens could be very interesting with four players vying for three spots. Carsen Twarynski and Tomas Soustal are the lone forwards with Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager attempting to earn a spot on the blue line. My gut feeling is Soustal will turn pro as the Rockets likely wouldn't want to use a European born player for one of only three overage spots. The last time that happened was in 2000-2001 when forward Jan Fadrny scored 32 goals and led the team in scoring. Fadry was acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings that season in the Nolan Yonkman deal. 
  • Of those four 20 year-old's potentially returning, the one that made the greatest impact, in my eyes last season, was James Hilsendager. I thought he was the most physical defender by a mile and appeared to regain any confidence that may have been lost while with the Regina Pats. As we know, Hilsendager's efforts in 2016-2017 count for little entering a new season, but it sure is nice to know he isn't a weak link as one of the elder statesmen on the team.  
  • Three forwards intrigue me coming into main camp. Those three are Kyle Topping. Connor Bruggen-Cate and Leif Mattson. What strides have all three made over the summer? Are they better conditioned heading into camp? They have to be wiser with a WHL season under their belt. Or do they rest on their laurels believing a spot will be given to them regardless of what type of camp they have? Look for Ted Brennan to come into camp with extra motivation after being cut by the team as a 16 year-old. Look for second year forward Jack Cowell to make some significant strides too in an effort to earn more ice time.  
  • Topping may be the most offensively gifted of the bunch, but let's not forger about Eric Gardiner either. While playing in the shadows of older brother Reid last season. can the soon to be 18 year-old turn his game up a notch? Foot speed remains an issue, but if that area of his game improves, Eric will score some goals. The Humboldt, Saskatchewan product has demonstrated the ability to shoot the puck when finding the open area. 
  • We finally have the privilege of watching 16 year-old d-man Kaedan Korczak full time.
    Kaedan Korczak
    The Rockets first round bantam pick from 2016 should make an impact in his rookie season in the WHL. Can he be as productive as Tyson Barrie and Madison Bowey when they earned 43 and 21 points respectively in their first season while wearing Kelowna Rockets colours? Both Barrie and Bowey would eventually become team captains, would play for Canada at the World Junior's and would win WHL championships. It wouldn't surprise me if Korczak follows a similar path - eventually. How good was Korczak last season? He was named a Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League first team all-star with 11+18=29 in 42 games with the Yorkton Maulers.
  • For the first time since the 2013-2014 season, the Rockets will have the luxury of having the same head coach. Ryan Huska was the last head coach to guide the team in back-to-back seasons. Since then, Dan Lambert was one and done as was Brad Ralph. Last season, the players had to get used to new head coach Jason Smith. The good news is Smith is back and the familiarity will surely help the team get up to speed quickly in what is anticipated to be another tight race in the BC Division.    
  • That's it for now, but we have so many more things to discuss as camp opens. See you at the rink!  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rockets select ex-NHLer's son

Libor Zabransky
Here is the newest member of the Kelowna Rockets.
This is 17 year-old Czech Republic born defenceman Libor Zabransky. Zabransky was taken with the Rockets first round selection in Wednesday's CHL Import Draft.
It is very rare for the Rockets to select a defenceman, with only two other examples where a European born player has patrolled the blue line. In the 2001 CHL Import Draft, the Rockets selected Tomas Slovak, who would become one of the highest scoring d-men in franchise history. Slovak, a 2nd round pick of the NHL's Nashville Predators, was an important, yet unappreciated component of the Rockets 2003 WHL championship team. The only other example is Alex Edler, now of the Vancouver Canucks, who was chosen in the 2005 CHL Import Draft. Edler played one short season in Kelowna, picking up 53 points in 62 WHL games.
In my brief texting conversation with Zabransky, he is extremely excited to join the Rockets organization this fall. No stranger to North America, his father Libor (yes same name) played 40 games in the NHL as a defenceman with the St. Louis Blues in the mid 90's (playing with Brett Hill in 1996-97) before being forced to retire because of injury. The elder Zabransky was a 9th round pick of the Blues in the 1995 NHL draft. As mentioned earlier, Libor Zabransky (Junior) is a defenceman, who hopefully will fill the void left by the departure of Lucas Johansen, Devante Stephens and likely one of two overage d-men this season in either Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager. Or does the team employ two 20 year-old's on the blue-line in 2017-2018? Wait and see on that situation when training camp unfolds in August.
Zabransky's teammate - 17 year-old forward Marek Skyrne - was the Rockets second round selection in the draft. Skyre will hopefully fill the void left by MVP Calvin Thurkauf, who is destined for pro hockey this fall in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
So where does that leave forward Tomas Soustal, who could return as a 20 year-old this season? My gut says he won't be back, but the hockey club will update his status later this summer.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Things that make me go hmm

Colton Sissons
  • After a 28 day hiatus from this blog, we have much to talk about since the Kelowna Rockets were eliminated from the WHL playoffs. The Seattle Thunderbirds were a worthy league champion who played with the urgency needed when the regular season ended. They rode a hot rookie goaltender and received massive contributions from secondary sources on their way to the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Seattle's best players were their best players, but they were also given massive contributions from lesser players when the heavy lifting was necessary. It was impressive to watch. The Ed Chynoweth Cup is one of the toughest trophies to win because of the length of a WHL schedule (72 games) and the travel over a large geographical area. The T-Birds simply didn't have anymore to give when they landed in Windsor, Ontario and no one can second guess how good of a team they were. At their best, they could score, skate, play physical and were a determined group. They were the best the WHL had to offer in 2017 - period..
  • Colton Sissons and Vern Fiddler will play for the Stanley Cup. How cool is it to see two former Kelowna Rockets attempting to win hockey's ultimate prize? Sissons has only 109 NHL regular season games under his belt, but it is a much different story for grizzled Fiddler. The 37 year-old has played about 800 regular season games and is close to retirement. Could this be his last season? Of course on the other side is Justin Schultz. Born in Kelowna and raised in West Kelowna, Schultz will be going after his second cup, hoping to match the one he earned with the Penguins in 2016.    
  • This big story this week was the revelation that 15 year-old forward Ethan Bowen, the Kelowna Rockets first pick in the WHL bantam draft, has committed to playing with the University of North Dakota. That essentially shuts the door on the Chillwack resident playing a game wearing Kelowna Rockets colours. Or does it? Despite Bowen's VERBAL commitment to NCAA hockey in the future, the skilled forward will attend Rockets rookie camp this fall. Bowen can attend a WHL training camp without jeopardizing his NCAA eligibility. It is an encouraging sign and a class move on behalf of the Bowen's to give the Rockets a chance. Why wouldn't they? It's like buying a car. It doesn't hurt to look around, kick the tires, take a test drive and look at all the options in front of you. There is no need to make a hasty decision one way or the other.
  • As mentioned, Bowen has made a verbal commitment to play at the University of North Dakota in the 2020 season. If he signs a letter of intent, that essentially slams the door shut on the prospect choosing to play in the Okanagan in the near future. 
  • Can you imagine being a 14/15 year-old player trying to make a decision on whether to play junior hockey or go the U.S college route? It can't be easy for the family, who wants to make the best decision for their son. The Bowen's are no strangers to the WHL, considering Ethan's older brother Ryan is a member of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The Bowen's know the process. They know what the WHL has to offer.  Ryan Bowen was originally drafted by the Moose Jaw Warriors before being traded to the Hurricanes last season. I don't know what the Bowen's WHL experience has been like to this point, but Kelowna has to be regarded as one of the premiere organizations to be a part of. I've witnessed how the players are coached and how they are treated on a daily basis and it is clearly a breeding ground for hockey success.
  • The Kelowna Rockets do not use pressure tactics to obtain players. Never have, never will. This organization is about building good people. General Manager Bruce Hamilton says it every year before the start of rookie camp. It isn't empty words. Hamilton wants every player, whether you are a top end guy or a fourth line grinder, to excel in all areas of life. Completing high school is a must. Sure, winning is a big part of why the Rockets are so attractive too, but Hamilton wants to see the player leave the organization at 19 or 20 as a better person from the one that stepped inside the dressing room as a rookie. The common theme among players traded away from Kelowna is they didn't realize how well they were treated while playing here. As the old saying goes - 'You don't know what you've got until it's gone'.    
  • The list of players that left the NCAA route to play for the Kelowna Rockets is not a long one. Duncan Keith left the University of Michigan as a 19 year-old and ended up winning a WHL championship in 2003. Chuck Kobasew left Boston College in 2001 and went on to score 41 times as the Rockets lost to eventual Memorial Cup champion Kootenay. The last player the Rockets shook the dice on with heavy leanings towards NCAA hockey was Luke Moffatt. Chosen 2nd overall in 1997, Moffatt played four seasons with the University of Michigan where he was eventually selected in the 7th round of the 2010 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche. Moffatt never attended Rockets training camp. The 24 year old is now playing in Europe. 
  • Bruce Hamilton has a busy winter ahead of him. The General Manager of the Kelowna Rockets will be on the management team for Hockey Canada's Under 18 squad, which includes the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is a similar role to the one he held with Hockey Canada in 2014 and against in 2015 at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
  • A bombshell this week when the Rochester Americans elected to part ways with head coach Dan Lambert. Lambert lasted only one season with the Americans, who failed to make the playoffs. With one more year remaining on his contract, I can't see the personable Lambert from being out of work long. 'Lambo' is best know in these parts as an assistant coach to Ryan Huska for 5 years before leading the team to a WHL title in 2015 as head coach.  

Monday, May 1, 2017

Can't cry over spilled milk

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  • The Seattle Thunderbirds have ended the Kelowna Rockets season for a second consecutive year. A three goal second period led the T-Birds to their second consecutive Western Conference championship and another birth in the WHL finals. It is safe to say it was the Rockets worst effort of the playoffs Sunday night. Manufacturing scoring chances has been a hallmark of the team all season long and the 2017 playoffs were no exception - up until game six that is. While opening the scoring, the Rockets were only able to generate 4 shots on net in the opening period and stumbled mightily when T-Birds forward Keegan Kolesar was accessed a five minute major penalty for checking from behind on Devante Stephens. With the 19 year-old ejected from the game (the T-Birds leading playoff scorer), the Rockets were unable to set up in the offensive zone and wasted away a segment of the game that could have ultimately propelled them to victory. In my opinion, that five minute power play and lack of execution was the starting point of one of the roughest outings we've witnessed at Prospera Place this season. Unfortunately, it came at the most crucial time of the year. The T-Birds win the game 3-1 and advance to the WHL final against Regina with a 6 game series win.  
  • Hats off to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Losing their top defenceman, Ethan Bear, to injury in game three and hardly missing a beat is impressive. Racking up a 12 and 2 record in the 2017 playoffs with rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski is eye popping. At the end of the day, Stankowski out-dueled Michael Herringer plain and simple. The 17 year-old had to make bigger saves and was one of the reasons why the T-Birds had a fighting chance against a Rockets team, that I believe, had more depth when you compare the two team's on paper. But as we know, depth on paper does little. Playing the games with determination, no matter what the circumstances, is the true sign of a champion. Don't count the T-Birds out no matter what cards they are dealt. They are more resilient than many people believe, including me. I'm now a believer. It is no fluke where they are today.
  • If you can lose your top goaltender before the playoffs even start and play in the first round without Mathew Barzal and still advance, that indeed is something special. If you can sweep a second round series against the US Division regular season champions with a rookie goalie, hats off to you. If you can lose your best defenceman for three games in the third round and still knock off an elite team like the Rockets, is that not the mark of a champion? 
  • The WHL careers of Rodney Southam, Michael Herringer and Reid Gardiner came to an abrupt end Sunday night. I was glad that all three could receive a sendoff in front of the home fans. I also felt good for both Southam and Herringer that they had the experience of winning a WHL championship in 2015. Sadly, Reid Gardiner, who had not played past the opening round, failed to reach his goal. My hope is he did enough in these playoffs (A franchise record 15 goals) to earn a pro contract.       
  • Michael Herringer's time with the Kelowna Rockets was interesting to say the least. Filled with ups and downs, what type of situation would the team have been in had they not plucked him off waivers in September of 2015? He saved the day in the run towards the 2015 WHL championship by bailing out the team in series clinching games against Tri City, Seattle before coming into game 6 against Portland in the Western Conference championship to backstop the Rockets when starter Jackson Whistle was pulled after surrendering three goals. Herringer moves on following graduation, which creates a massive hole at that position. Is backup Brodan Salmond ready to take the reins as the full time starter? That answer will become clearer in four short months. 
  • The Rockets will lose, with my best guess, 7 players from this years roster. Reid Gardiner, Rodney Southam and Michael Herringer are gone to graduation. Calvin Thurkauf, Nick Merkley, Lucas Johansen and Devante Stephens are all signed players by the respective NHL teams that drafted them. If I were a betting man, of those signed players, Stephens may be the only one sent back to the WHL as a 20 year-old. Heck, T-Birds sharp shooter Ryan Gropp is a 20 year-old and was sent back as a second round pick of the New York Rangers. It does happen.     
  • The Rockets will have to fill three overage spots next season with essentially four players in the mix. Do you bring back Tomas Soustal to fill one of those spots? Soustal would also take one of your European spots, so it will be interesting to see what they do with that skilled, yet somewhat inconsistent player. Carsen Twarynski, acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline, could also fill an overage spot if he is not signed by the Philadelphia Flyers by June 1st. Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager are the other 20's on the roster that also need to be considered. Hilsendager may be the most valuable of the bunch. The former Regina Pat was missed when he was hurt in game four and couldn't play in either game five or six. Hilsendager brings the most physicality on the blue line. Lots of interesting decisions to make. 
  • What type of team will the Rockets ice next season? I'm optimistic considering others also lose top end players. Look for Cal Foote and Kole Lind to be first round NHL picks this summer. Both of those players, the Rockets top defenceman this season and leading scorer, return in 2017-2018. How good is Nolan Foote going to be? The sky is the limit for the 16 year-old forward. Dillon Dube returns to the team as a 19 year-old and will undoubtedly play for Canada again at the 2018 World Juniors. I think Kyle Topping is just scratches the surface on his potential. Leif Mattson is an intriguing player. First round bantam pick Kaeden Korczak will be a nice player to watch. The team will likely make two selections in the CHL Import draft and hopefully those two player make an offensive impact.     
  • At the end of the day, this was a great season. Picking up 45 wins in the toughest division in the WHL was impressive. Collecting 95 points, especially when the team was without so many players at the World Junior Hockey Champjonships was a delight to watch. That Christmas road trip where the team, despite being short staffed, surprised even me at how hard they played under rookie head coach Jason Smith.  The overtime win against Regina, at home, was a fun game during a regular season which is often a grind. I really liked this group of players. All the guys were fun to be around.
  • Think about this for a second. The Rockets have played in four consecutive Western Conference championships. In those four seasons, the team has played a total of 360 games (regular season/playoffs combined). Has any other WHL team over that four year span played more?  
  • I will miss Lucas Johansen. Why? He was such a great interview. His calm, pro demeanour in our conversations made it feel like I was talking to a pro. Johansen spoke the truth without throwing anyone under the bus. I really like his personality. Reid Gardiner was also well spoken. In every conversation I had with Reid, he too pro written all over him. The way he spoke, the way he acted around his teammates and the way he prepared, had me believing he was going to be a difference maker when he arrived on the scene in early January. The 21 year-old delivered and set a new playoff franchise record in the process.
  • On this blog post, I want to thank Kent Simpson for his help on the radio broadcasts this season. Simpson knows the game, having played at a high level. He too wanted the team to win but wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade when a player made a mistake. 'Simmer' always brought a smile and a great attitude to the broadcast booth. I also want to thank Gord McGarva for filling in when Kent was away. McGarva was a rock star in game 6 specifically, when on short notice, he had to make some changes in his Sunday plans to be by my side to call the series clincher. McGarva's work on the post game show was exceptional, with great reaction from the three 20 year-old's at the conclusion of the game. I also want to thank you! Ya, you the reader of this blog and for those that listen over the winter to the radio broadcasts on AM 1150. I appreciate your ears at the other end of the radio.     

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Rockets worst enemy

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  • The Kelowna Rockets were their worst enemy Friday night at ShoWare Center. In game five of their Western Conference championship series with the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Rockets essentially gave two 'gift goals' to the home team in a 5-3 road loss. Reid Gardiner's uncharacteristic cross ice pass resulted in a breakaway goal from Scott Eansor and then defenceman Devante Stephens fumbled the puck at the T-Birds blue-line, allowing forward Sami Moilanen to skate in and beat Michael Herringer for another breakaway goal seven minutes later. With only 5 shots on net, the T-Birds and their fans were enjoying a 2-0 lead. That was a pretty good start for a Seattle team that really had nothing going on in the opening period. Heck, they were out-shot 17-8 and must have been shaking their heads in amazement at their good fortune. The Rockets did battle back with power play goals from Calvin Thurkauf and Nick Merkley, but then surrendered two goals in a span of 1:20 late in the second period and it was lights out. The fact is, this Rockets team is much better than they showed in game five. Now they find themselves trailing this series 3 games to 2 and facing elimination with the teams season on the line at Prospera Place Sunday afternoon (5:05 pm)
  • In a game dominated by penalty calls and power play chances, the Rockets were awarded several early power play opportunities. As the game went along though, it was the Rockets who had the tables turned on them as they made six consecutive trips to the penalty box. The crucial calls against Tomas Soustal and Lucas Johansen allowed Seattle to score two power play goals in 80 seconds and it was an uphill climb heading into the second intermission.
  • It was a rough night for the Rockets on so many levels. Giving up those two goals early in the first period was only compounded with Michael Herringer's inability to bail his team out. Herringer's success rate in shootout situations in flawless (career 17-17 in shootouts), yet he was beaten twice on backhand breakaway goals. At the other end, rookie Carl Stankowski made no less than four goal saving stops and, for a 5th consecutive game, received significantly more work than his counterpart at the other end. That needs to change, and change immediately if the Rockets season extends beyond Sunday night. Herringer must match Stankowski, save for save, in the game six rematch. But again, Herringer doesn't need to be spectacular, just steady. Stankowski, in this series, must be and has been excellent. 
  • Stankowski has faced 50 more shots than Herringer in this series. The Rockets have fired 175 shots at the T-Birds net in the first five games. Seattle has, on average, been able to generate just 25 shots per game on the 21 year-old goaltender.
  • A scary moment in the second period when forward Kole Lind was hurt after a scrum behind the Rockets net with T-Birds forward Keegan Kolesar. The two started pushing one another and a huge gathering of players saw Lind fall down, with a much bigger Kolesar landing on top of him. Shortly after the two fell to the ice, one of the referee's signaled for medical aid with Rockets athletic therapist Scott Hoyer running out quickly to investigate. You could see blood on the ice as Lind was helped to the dressing room. Thankfully, after a few stitches, the Rockets leading scorer from the regular season was back in the game for the start of the third period.
  • Seattle fans won't like me saying this, but honestly, would you rather I lie to you or speak the truth? With the loss of Ethan Bear following a game three injury to Seattle's marquee defenceman, this series has, or should be slanted significantly in the Kelowna Rockets direction. Prior to Bear's departure, it was a saw-off between these two teams to see who would advance to the WHL final. Bear's loss cannot be understated. Therefore, it stuns me that the T-Birds have the Rockets on the ropes after a game five win. It really does. When I look at the series as a whole, the Rockets have been the better team. I sincerely believe that. I will give the T-Birds credit for being extremely opportunistic. 
  • Bear took the pre-game warm-up Friday night and attempted to shoot the puck. The fracture in his left hand simply does not allow him to following through on a shot. It is sad to see such a great player unable to play in this series. I am all about 'best on best', but Bear's injury after blocking a Reid Gardiner shot is not a short term thing. 
  • Facing elimination, the Rockets will undoubtedly play their best game of the series on Sunday. With so many players having faced elimination squarely in the face, twice, in the 2016 post season, I expect a tremendous effort from the goaltender on-out in game six. Specifically, look for the three 20 year-old's to make significant impacts. I expect Michael Herringer, Reid Gardiner and Rodney Southam to step up, big time, with the prospect of their major junior careers coming to an abrupt end. This Rockets team is too good to go down without swinging.  
  • Nick Merkley, Dillon Dube and Calvin Thurkauf extended their playoff point streaks with goals in game five. Thurkauf is enjoying an 8 game point streak while Merkley and Dube have 7 game point streaks heading into Sunday's showdown.           

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Small goalie comes up large

This Kelowna Rockets playoff blog is brought to you by Veranda Beach. Looking for a great summer vacation? Veranda Beach is located on the shores of Lake Osoyoos in Oroville, Washington. Book today by going to verandabeach.com

Carl Stankowski - www.shootthebreeze.ca
  • The smallest player on the ice made the biggest impact in game three of the Western Conference final. A generous 5 foot 9 and a slight 159 pounds, Seattle Thunderbirds goaltender Carl Stankowski made 34 saves in a 2-1 win. The rookie made several solid saves, including a skate blade stop against Calvin Thurkauf and point blank scoring chances on Tomas Soustal and Nolan Foote to name a few. Keegan Kolesar, the T-Birds best skater, opening the scoring essentially halfway through the second period and then potted the game winner with 20 seconds left in regulation time. For a second straight game, the T-Birds were able to win the game in the dying seconds. Ethan Bear scored a power play goal with 11.2 seconds left in regulation time in a 5-4 victory in game one. 
  • As good as Stankowski was last night, secondary chances by the Rockets were few and far between. When you record 35 shots on goal, you must get rebound chances, but the forwards were unwilling to get there in an effort to score a tap-in goal. Again, at this time of the year, style points don't count. I am sure the Rockets coaching staff were not pleased with the execution on the power play, where they manufactured a goal, but it came after missing on six previous chances. The lone goal did come with controversy, but on this night, the home team   should have never needed a video review goal to get them back into the game. 
  • Calvin Thurkauf's goal came with controversy after Nick Merkley's wrist shot missed the net, came quickly off the glass and struck the cross bar behind Stankowski. As the puck was rolling down towards the ice, Thurkauf struck the puck with his stick in mid-air and it looked like it was a high stick. The referee, in a great position, called it a goal. After video review, it was declared a good goal, much to the dismay of Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk. What thoroughly impressed me was Konowalchuk's reaction. After receiving the bad news from the officiating staff, he verbally expressed his anger for less than 5 seconds, then quickly, like a switch went off, the veteran coach quickly regained his composure and had his team looking at 'getting the next one'. Konowalchuk could have gone off the rails. He could have stomped up and down in disagreement. He could have made a massive display on the bench for all to see, but he chose an approach, that I believe, worked in his teams favour. Konowalchuk didn't come unglued and either did his team.  
  • This has been a crazy series. The team that deserves the win has been on the losing end in all three games. I thought the Rockets were the better team in game one. The T-Birds deserved a better fate in game two and suffered a setback. Game three was clearly dominated by the Rockets, yet the T-Birds scored two goals on a season low 14 shots. One thing remains a constant though. The team that opens the scoring ends up winning the game. 
  • While Michael Herringer had a very lite workload, he didn't play poorly by any stretch of the imagination. The 21 year-old made a few point blank stops, including a nice right pad stop on a quick shot that seemed to find Kolesar's stick, who quickly fired it low only to see Herringer kick it out with cat like reflexes. 
  • Seattle fans will disagree because of the discrepancy in power plays (7-1), but the T-Birds deserved the majority, if not all of the penalties they took in game three. Twice, they gifted the Rockets by shooting the puck over the glass for delay of game minor penalties. Sadly, the Rockets couldn't capitalize on those gift wrapped chances. T-Birds  fans may be more confused on how the Rockets, the most penalized team during the regular season, is taking so few trips to the box. All I can say is, with the T-Birds power play looking 'lights out terrific' when they get a chance, the Rockets players know full well that it is hockey suicide to make endless trips to the sin bin.      
  • The Rockets are 5 for 20 (25%) on the power play in this series while the T-Birds are 3 for 8 with the extra man (37.5%).    
  • The line of Calvin Thurkauf, Nick Merkley and Reid Gardiner were primarily matched up against the Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar line in game three. As mentioned, Kolesar scored both goals, but Barzal and Gropp were, for the most part, very quiet in the one goal win. The match-up didn't work entirely though. Reid Gardiner was no where near as effective as he was in games one and two. Gardiner had three shots on goal, but it was the unit of Dillon Dube, Tomas Soustal and Carsen Twarynski that were able to carry the majority of the offensive load. Soustal had a team high 5 shots on net and had several good looks. Dube was also buzzing and exuded the most energy. But at the end of the day, that trio didn't hit the score-sheet outside of Dube picking up an assist on Thurkauf's power play goal.
  • Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland was in the house. Holland, graciously, joined color analyst Kent Simpson in our 1st intermission on AM 1150.
  • The road team has now won back-to-back games in this series. Seattle is now 5-0 on opposition ice in the 2017 playoffs. The Rockets are 5-2 at home. 
  • All three games have been decided by a single goal.
  • Six of the T-Birds 10 goals scored in this series have come in the 3rd period. The Rockets have out-scored Seattle 3-1 in the first period and appear to be the better starting team in all three games. 
  • Game four is tonight at Prospera Place. Talk to you on the radio at 6:30.