Call it a dress rehearsal.
The WHL exhibition schedule for the Kelowna Rockets is just that, a tune up of things to come.
Is it imperative to have success in pre-season play? With this group, the answer is yes. With as many returning players as the Rockets have heading into this season, the winning feeling needs to emerge early for a squad that got kicked in the teeth more than a few times last season. After watching training camp, what's my feeling about the 2007-2008 edition with less than a month remaining before game one?
When you evaluate the defensive core, I can see why GM Bruce Hamilton is leaning towards adding a veteran overage presence back on the blueline. Luke Schenn is your number one d-man, but he is still just 17 (He turns 18 - Nov 2nd). Schenn hasn't even been drafted yet! Tyler Myers and Tyson Barrie are solid defenseman, but when you are just 17 and 16 respectively, mistakes are going to be made between the two. Nineteen year-old Colin Joe and Tysen Dowzak have a leg up on Matt Brusciano and Riley McIntosh, but are they significantly better? You tell me. In exhibition, both Dowzak and Joe must separate themselves from those two, while eliminating the chance of a rookie d-man stealing a spot from a veteran.
My comfort level when looking at the forwards is much better than what I see on the blueline.
Age and experience may be the reason why. Nineteen year-old Justin Bernhardt is looking at getting back to his form of two years ago when he scored 22 goals in his 17 year-old season. 'Bernie' is better and I'm betting on Colin Long making an impact this year too. Cody Almond has been the best player at camp - when he wants to be. Throw in the Bloodoff boys, Brandon McMillan and Kyle St. Denis and you have a young group that will only complement what I hope are the 'big three' - Bernhardt, Long and Almond. I for one, am not putting huge pressure on St. Denis to score. Oh sure he will get his fair share of points, but it's how he reacts to the WHL grind - long term - that will be interesting to watch. Bigger, sturdier d-men will be trying to knock St. Denis to the ice. It's how he handles the tight checking which remains the unknown. He was great in his short stint with the Rockets last season,but let's not get carried away into thinking he will be the savior this season when it comes to goal scoring. Remember Justin Keller scored 25 goals as a 17 year old, so if St. Denis can come close to that, he's met my expectations. James McEwan's heart and determination is valuable enough to earn an overage spot up front.
My question marks are Myles MacRae, Dylan Hood, Milan Kytnar and Jason MacDonald. Why those four? I really don't know what to expect from them this season. I have watched all of them at training camp, but game conditions against those other than friendly teammates is needed, for me to gauge what those four bring to the table.
As was the case last season, Kristofer Westblom and Torrie Jung will face quality shots again this season. The change is, they won't see as many. The reason? A stronger forward core means the puck will be in the oppositions end more often. Sure both goaltenders will have to preform at a high level with the hope of stealing a game or two, but they won't have to pull off a miracle like last season. This year Westblom and Jung can make a mistake, knowing that the team has the ability to get one back on the scoreboard.
Good luck this weekend guys in an exhibition tournament in Edmonton!