Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cougars going 'business casual'

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • The Prince George Cougars are a relaxed bunch and it shows in their 4-0-0-0 record to start the Western Hockey League regular season. Wearing team track suits into the building before Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Kelowna Rockets, the casual attire is working for the BC Division's leading team. Dressing down over the traditional tie and suit which is typical of teams in the WHL is paying off for the Cougars, who have yet to play a home game this season after four straight away from CN Centre. They will have a chance to show their fans that they are indeed for real when they host the Kelowna Rockets in back-to-back games this weekend. The Cougars home opener is Friday night.
  • The casual track suit look may have been visible before game time, but what was also clearly eye catching was the way the Cougars played under new head coach Richard Matvichuk. The stupid penalties were eliminated and a much greater commitment to defensive hockey was clearly evident to the 43 hundred patrons who witnessed a rare home loss. The visitors surrendered only three power play chances and took only one trip to the penalty box in the first 44 minutes of the game. The Rockets allowed the Cougars six power play chances and were fingered to the penalty box four times for tripping alone. Fortunately, the PK came up large and failed to surrender a goal while a teammate was serving time. 
  • While Prince George forward Jared Bethune opened the scoring :56 seconds into the game and teammate Yan Khomenko scored the game winning goal late in the second period, the most dangerous forward for the Cougars was Brad Morrison. The 19 year-old New York Rangers draft pick created numerous offensive chances and was slippery every time he attempted to skate past a Rockets defender. Morrison, the brother-in-law of Josh Gorges, ended the game without a point.
  • The Rockets had little puck luck, with both Tomas Soustal and Kole Lind hitting the goal post.
  • Michael Herringer's left pad save on Cougars leading scorer Jared Bethune in the second period is worth taking another look it. It was a sure goal taken away. You will want to take a look at the highlites on the Kelowna Rockets website.  It has to be a candidate for the WHL plays of the week. 
  • What a heads up play by defenceman Cal Foote on the Rockets lone goal. Foote, while shorthanded, dumped the puck inside the Cougars zone but noticed they were making a line change. Foote chased the puck down in the corner, located Tomas Soustal all alone in front of the net, and the 19 year-old made a great move before sliding the puck past Prince George goaltender Ty Edmonds. Foote's awareness on the ice may be the best on the team. The draft eligible Foote's hockey IQ is excellent.  
  • The Rockets welcomed defencemen Brayden Chizen and Devante Stephens back to the line-up Wednesday. Chizen returned from the training camp of the Minnesota Wild while Stephens spent time with the Buffalo Sabres. 
  • Chizen was hurt in the third period when he awkwardly went into the side boards after being hit by Cougars forward Kolby Johnson.With no penalty on the play, Chizen made his way slowly off the ice but appeared to suffer an upper body injury and never returned.   
  • The Rockets are off to Prince George Thursday for the long trip to PG. Last season the team went 4-0-0-0 at the CN Centre, but wins won't come as easy up there as they have in the past.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wet behind the ear WHL coaches clash

Jake Kryski looks to wheel and deal vs. Cougars
  • It isn't often the Prince George Cougars come into Kelowna on a massive high, but that will be the case tonight. The Cougars make their first visit to Prospera Place this season to face-off against the Kelowna Rockets (AM 1150 broadcast starts with pre-game show at 6:30). The Cougars, who the Rockets have feasted upon for points over the last five seasons (Rockets are 19-5-0-0), are undefeated with three wins and not a single stumble in the early stages of the young season. That's an impressive start no matter how you cut it. All three wins have come on the road. Under new head coach Richard Matvichuk, the Cougars won back-to-back games in Victoria last weekend and then managed to pull out a 7-6 win in Vancouver (Langley) last night. While the Cougars roster consists of an older group, they are winning without 19 year-old Jansen Harkins, who remains with the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. It's early, but three of the top five scorers in the WHL all come from Prince George. Granted they have played a league high three games, but the point is they are off to a terrific start and are playing with confidence. The Rockets will have their hands full, not only tonight, but over the next four games when the two teams meet again at the CN Centre Friday and Saturday night. 
  • Am I surprised at the Cougars start? Yes and no. Stealing two games out of Victoria was awfully impressive, but lets not forget that Prince George is built to win and they have no one to blame but themselves if this season isn't a roaring success. Get it? Cougars and roaring success? If you don't, I am not about to explain. They should challenge for the BC Division title this season. When was the last time they won it? The answer is NEVER.
  • I said at the start of the season the Cougars would have to improve in two key areas. They had to commit to team defense. Oh ya, it is great to score goals, but you have to defend if you want to win. That needs, and should change under Matvichuk's watch. The 43 year-old spent 14 seasons in the NHL in an effort to keep the puck out of his own net and made a solid career of doing it successfully. The Cougars were also guilty of taking terrible penalties. Leading the WHL in fighting majors, in today's game, never translates into success in the standings. Sure they won 36 games last year, but they were quickly disposed of in the opening round of lat springs playoffs and that likely cost head coach Mark Hollick his job. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars play the game under Matvichuk. As any new coach will tell you, it will be hard to change all of the bad habits overnight, but we should see a solid improvement in those key areas (commitment to defence/discipline) as the season goes along.
  • For the Rockets, finally some good news on the player personnel front where Braydyn Chizen and Devante Stephens return to the line-up. Chizen was with the Minnesota Wild while Stephens was in camp with the Buffalo Sabres. Neither saw an NHL pre-season game but coming back from a pro experience can only benefit these two players heading into a new season. This now gives Assistant Coach Kris Mallette more options on match ups and rookie d-man Konrad Belcourt will be eased into the league, not thrown into the deep end of the pool without a life jacket. Only Lucas Johansen remains at an NHL camp among the d-core, which will be the same group from a season ago that didn't feature a 19 or 20 year-old blueliner.
  • The most intriguing part of tonight's game is likely the two rookie head coaches. Jason Smith and Richard Matvichuk have a combined 30 years of NHL playing experience. The objective for both of them was containing the other teams top scorers as shutdown defencemen. They played against one another for years at the NHL level and now find themselves coaching against one another. Both Smith and Matvichuk are first round NHL draft picks (Smith by New Jersey, 18th overall - 1992. Matvichuk by Minnesota, 8th overall in 1991) and both played for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Matvichuk played in 2002 while Smith played a season later in 2003. Smith has a gold medal. Matvichuk does not. Matvichuk has a Stanley Cup ring. Smith does not. Smith was named the WHL's Top D-man in 1992-93. Matvichuk won the award a season earlier with the Saskatoon Blades (1991-92).        

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Smith earns 1st coaching victory

Jason Smith wins his 1st game as a head coach at any level
Three Dog Night penned the hit song, 'One is the Loneliest Number'.
Kelowna Rockets Head Coach Jason Smith would disagree.
Smith earned his first WHL coaching victory Saturday night when his team went out and scored a 5-1 home ice win over the Kamloops Blazers. It was a stark contrast to his WHL coaching debut Friday night in Kamloops, where he watched his team crumble in a 9-2 road loss.
"It's exciting. It is nice to bounce back from last night. The guys played a much more complete game out there. They did a lot of the little things we have been talking about over the last couple of weeks, with pressuring the puck, skating and making smart, simple plays and obviously getting the puck to the net."
How did the players treat their new head coach to his first of what will hopefully be many wins behind the Rockets bench this season?      
"In the room, I always go in and say something after the game. The guys had the puck. They scooped it up off the ice after the game and presented it to me. It was a great moment. It is something I will remember for a long time", Smith added.

Quick Hits:

  • Riley Stadel scored twice in the win. The 20 year-old had two goals all of last season playing as a forward. This weekend with a lack of defenceman, Stadel was back on defence but was able to find the back of the net twice. Those two goals allowed Stadel to hit the 100 point mark in his WHL career.
  • Connor Bruggen-Cate earned his first career WHL point on Stadel's opening goal. 
  • Jordan Borstmayer found the back of the net for the first time this season. If you take into consideration the goal and assist he earned in the final regular season game of the 2016 season, the 18 year-old has two goals in his last three games. Oh ya, it is a stretch, but I am always looking for positives!
  • Michael Herringer was solid in the win. While not tested to the degree he was Friday night in Kamloops where he gave up four goals on 18 shots, you could see the 20 year-old was locked in. I think he is a terrific goalie that at times struggles with consistency. It is typical at this level.
  • The discipline was much improved than a night ago. Could it have been any worse Friday? 
  • Cal Foote went quietly about his business and collected three assists. Man, I love when he shoots the puck. 
  • Rookie Kyle Topping has assists in back-to-back games.
  • I thought rookie defenceman Konrad Belcourt was about to score his first career goal when he came off the bench with fresh legs in the third period, kept a puck in at the left point and ripped a slap shot that went just wide of the far post. 
  • Jonathan Smart has a goal and a fight in the first two games of the season. Great start for the personable player. 
  • I sure like Gordie Ballhorn's play, How about his great defensive play in the third period where he used his stick to break up a good scoring chance?  
  • Last night's home opener crowd was 5348. That was down 116 fans from a season ago.
  • For a second straight game the Rockets played without 6 regulars. Nick Merkley, Calvin Thurkauf, Braydyn Chizen, Lucas Johansen, Devante Stephens and Dillon Dube are all at NHL main camps. Only the Calgary Hitmen, with 7 regulars, were missing more players on the opening weekend of the WHL season. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Rough start to Rockets season

  • It will be a night Joe Gatenby won't soon forget. Either will new Kelowna Rockets head coach Jason Smith. Newly acquired defenceman Joe Gatenby had his first career two-goal game, against his old team, in the Kamloops Blazers 9-2 win Friday night at Sandman Centre. Gatenby opened the scoring late in the first period on a power play slapper that beat Rockets starting goaltender Michael Herringer.  Gatenby would then be awarded a second period goal which originally was given to rookie Scott Mahovlich. Thanks to improved video replay, Gatenby's weak shot on goal was stopped by goaltender Brodan Salmond, (Salmond replaced starter Michael Herringer after surrendering 4 goals on 18 shots) but as Salmond attempted to reel the puck in, it slid into the net with Mahovlich attempting to bang at it. Video replay showed the rookie forward didn't make contact with the puck so it was Gatenby's goal. The 19 year-old also chipped in with an assist and was named the games first star. Not a bad debut for Gatenby, who the Blazers obtained from the Rockets in the Jake Kryski deal this summer. As for Jason Smith, it had to have felt like a long night for the first year head coach. I am sure he didn't envision his first WHL game behind the bench resulting in such a lopsided loss.
  • The real undoing for the Rockets in this game would be the number of trips they made to the penalty box. The Blazers were given 10 power play chances and scored on six of them. The Rockets took 7 of the first 8 minors in the game, and with a team that had only 15 skaters, it was a recipe for disaster. The Rockets were given eight power play opportunities, including a 5 on 3 with under five minutes left, but they failed to cash in on that chance thanks to solid goaltending from Blazers starter Dylan Ferguson. 
  • The Rockets played this game without Dillon Dube, Nick Merkley, Calvin Thurkauf, Lucas Johansen, Bradyn Chizen and Devante Stephens. All six are still at NHL training camps. Was it a factor in the lopsided loss? Sure. But the Blazers had three elite players out of the line-up too, including 19 year-old goaltender Connor Ingram. 
  • Positives? Kole Lind and Jake Kryski each scored once and added an assist in the loss. Outside of those two players though, little in the way of scoring chances were created from the visitors.
  • Rookie Kyle Topping earned his first career WHL point with an assist on Kole Lind's second period goal. Topping, Jake Cowell and Conrad Belcourt were all making their WHL debuts in last nights setback.
  • The Blazers scored several goals by owning the front of the net. Tap-ins or being allowed to jam away for secondary chances were plentiful. The Rockets d-core needs to have more bite and an increased battle level in front of their own goaltender.
  • The good news? The two teams meet again tonight at Prospera Place in the Rockets home opener. The Rockets will again be short staffed, but so will the Blazers.   

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rockets/Blazers rivalry renewed

Tonight’s Preview: This is the first of ten meetings between the Rockets and Blazers this season. If you want to throw pre-season games into the mix, these two BC rivals will have played each other 13 times before the regular season ends. Did I mention they last faced one another in an epic seven game opening round playoff series in the 2016 post season? The Rockets won that affair 4 games to 3 with four of the games being decided by a single goal. Last season, the Rockets were 5-2-1-0 in eight regular season meetings against Kamloops, but 7 of those 8 games were again decided by one goal. The Rockets are 29-11-4-0 in the last five seasons against Kamloops including winning 16 of their last 20 regular season games at Prospera Place. Last season the Rockets opened the regular season against Kamloops, winning opening night (4-3) before earning a victory (7-3) a night later in Kamloops. These two teams meet tomorrow night in Kelowna to wrap up a weekend home and home series. The Rockets play 6 of their first 8 games on the road including two games in Prince George next weekend (September 30/October 1st).

What the heck happened? Last season, the Rockets won 48 games and finished this season with 100 points. Only Victoria (106) and Brandon (102) had more points than the Rockets last season. The Rockets scored the 4th most goals in the WHL (269) while allowing the 6th fewest (218). The team advanced all the way to the Western Conference final for a third consecutive season after playoff series wins over Kamloops (7 games) and Victoria (7 games). The team was eliminated by the Seattle Thunderbirds (four straight games) in the Western Conference final. In each of the last two seasons, the Rockets season has ended in overtime. Tyson Baillie led the team in scoring last season with 95 points and was named a 1st team Western Conference all-star. In 2015-16, the Rockets longest winning streak reached five games (twice) with its longest losing streak being two games (four times). The club played in 28-one goal games last season.

Gator-aide: The Kelowna Rockets made a head coaching change at seasons end. After just one year on the job, Brad Ralph parted ways with the team on May 9th. Then on July 6th, Jason Smith was hired as Brad Ralph’s replacement. Smith is the Rockets fourth coach in the last four years. Smith, who retired September 2, 2009, played 16 seasons in the NHL before joining the coaching staff of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, a role Smith has held for the last four seasons’. Smith won a gold medal for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 1993 and was named the WHL Defenceman of the Year that same season.

Winds of Change: The Kelowna Rockets have lost three of their top four scorers from last season. Tyson Baillie (95 pts.), Justin Kirkland (67 pts.) and Cole Linaker (50 pts.) are no longer with the team. There is an outside chance Kirkland could return if he fails to stick with Nashville’s AHL affiliate. Goaltender Jackson Whistle also graduated. Joe Gatenby was traded to Kamloops for Jake Kryski on August 18th. The Rockets return 19 players from last season’s team. The only other change saw Adam Brown join the team as a part time coach. Brown owns the Kelowna Rockets franchise record for games played (200) and saves made (5,079).

Broadcasters Bits: The Rockets were 3 and 2 in five pre-season games. Jake Kryski and Kole Lind led the team in pre-season points with 8 each….Nine members of the Rockets participated in NHL training camps. Tomas Soustal and Gordie Ballhorn earned tryouts with Edmonton and Dallas respectively. Nick Merkley (Arizona), Lucas Johansen (Washington), Dillon Dube (Calgary), Devante Stephens (Buffalo), Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus), Braydyn Chizen (Minnesota) and Justin Kirkland (Nashville) are all drafted players…The Rockets received an honourable mention in this week’s CHL Top 10 pre-season rankings.  

Roster Stats:
Player total: 24
Year by Year Breakdown:
20’s – 3   Stadel, Herringer, Southam
19’s – 8   Johansen, Merkley, Soustal, Stephens, Wishnowski, Coughlin, Thurkauf, Ballhorn
18’s – 6   Dube, Kryski, Lind, Borstmayer, Chizen, Salmond,
17’s -  5   C. Foote, Topping, Bruggen-Cate, Cowell, Smart
16’s – 2   N. Foote, Belcourt

Game Notes Compiled by Regan Bartel of AM 1150

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Foote rated first rounder

Cal Foote - Shoot the Breeze

TSN prospect analyst Craig Button has released his list of the top 30 players eligible for next June's NHL draft in Chicago.

Kelowna Rockets defenceman Cal Foote is ranked 20th according to Button.

The 17 year-old (won't turn 18 until December 13th) admits he has heard the pre-draft hype and the possibility of following in his fathers footsteps.    

"With all the draft stuff, I am going to try to keep it as far away as possible. I am going to try to play my game and leave what people say outside of the rink. I am going to try to not worry about it, play the right way and just worry about that".   

It can't be easy playing in the shadows of his famous hockey father, Adam, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. Adam Foote is considered one of the best shutdown defenceman during a career that saw him play with the Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets. Adam Foote was a second round selection of the Nordiques, 22nd overall, in the 1989 entry draft. 

The elder Foote says he doesn't want to get in Cal's way of achieving his goal of eventually playing in the NHL.

"Paying attention and seeing these NHLers kids through time make it, some are around more than others, it is there time. It is there game. It is there career. It is not mine. It is not about me. It is about them and I really believe that I have to stay out of it and I want to stay out of it", Foote told me.       

While Cal is projected to be a high pick in next summer's draft, younger brother Nolan, 16, will be making his Western Hockey League debut this season.

Adam will have the pleasure of watching both sons closely, with the plan of building a home in Kelowna and having both Cal and Nolan under the same roof, the same way the two boys grew up while being raised in Denver, Colorado.

"I knew they (Rockets) were a real good organization, but when I really looked into it, I didn't know they had these many banners. I was aware of the defenceman that they have developed. I got to coach him (Cal) for four years and now it is fun for me to let him (Cal) go and let someone else develop him and I think he needs that", Foote added.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Salmond successful in solidifying backup spot

Brodan Salmond earned back up job to Michael Herringer 
  • Brodan Salmond (pictured) was pushed to earn the backup spot to Michael Herringer and promptly delivered. The sophomore from Calgary was sharp in two pre-season appearances against Victoria and Kamloops and showed he has taken another step in his overall development as a goalie. Salmond was challenged by 16 year-old James Porter for the #2 duties. Fifteen year-old Roman Basran also impressed, but the Delta product can't play full time until next season, so essentially it was a two horse race between Salmond and Porter. At the end of the day, Salmond's number were significantly better in pre-season despite a rather small sample size. Salmond stopped 32 of 35 shots for a save percentage of .914 and a goals against average of 3.31. Porter, who will be heard from again next fall at training camp, stopped 32 of 39 shots in two games and sported an inflated goals against average of 7.48. 
  • It appears 16 year-old defenceman Konrad Belcourt has made the opening day roster. It has been suggested that a spot was available for a rookie blueliner and it was Belcourt's or newcomer Kelvin Hair's to lose. Belcourt is one of seven bodies on the Rockets d-core, which includes Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn, Lucas Johansen, Brayden Chizen, Devante Stephens and Jonathan Smart. Stephens is yet to see any playing time during the pre-season.  
  • The Rockets re-assigned six players on Tuesday. Liam Kindree, Kaedan Korczak, Roman Basran, James Porter, Kelvin Hair and Ted Brennan will play elsewhere this season. With Kindree and Brennan sent to play midget and Junior 'B' respectively, it is a clear sign 17 year-old listed player Jake Cowell has made the team. Cowell had an assist against Victoria and then added a goal in Kamloops on the weekend to solidify his spot on what will eventually be a 23 man roster.
  • Right now the team has 24 players in camp, which mean one cut must be made. That one player move is expected at forward. One rookie who has solidified his spot on the team despite failing to play in a pre-season game is 16 year-old Nolan Foote. Foote remains out with mono but is practicing with the team. The only veteran forward who has yet to dress in a exhibition game is Jordan Borstmayer. 
  • The Rockets welcomed three NHL players to practice on Tuesday. Josh Gorges (Buffalo), Jordon Tootoo (Chicago) and Luke Schenn (Arizona) took part in full drills. Tootoo is often seen going 100 miles an hour during the drills, which only increases the intensity of the workouts.
  • The Rockets will send two players to the Young Stars tournament later this month in Penticton. Tomas Soustal will suit up for the Edmonton Oilers while Dillon Dube will play for the Calgary Flames. Soustal is no stranger to the Oilers, who invited him to an orientation camp in July while Dube was a second round pick of the Flames in June's NHL draft. The Young Stars tournament is at the South Okanagan Events Centre September 16th to the 19th. 
  • Cal Foote had a short summer. The draft eligible defenceman says he took about two and a half weeks off before resuming training following a rookie season that saw him dress in 71 regular season games and an additional 18 playoff games. Foote was busy attending Hockey Canada's summer evaluation camp for the World Junior team.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Cowell close to making opening day roster

Rockets rookie Jake Cowell
  • I don't claim to have been at every Kelowna Rockets workout at Prospera Place during training camp, nor will I watch the team on a consistent basis in practice during the regular season, but when I took in Thursday's on-ice sessions a few impressive things stood out. 1) The pace of the practice. I have always been told the pace in which you practice is the pace in which you will play. If you go through the motions, will that not affect your performance in a game? Do you hit golf balls at the range with reckless abandon and then expect to hit it straight when you play for real? The answer is no. The Rockets practice sessions are high pace and purposeful. 2) Short, sweet and to the point. In the practices I've witnessed under the watchful eye of head coach Jason Smith, they involve up tempo drills, instruction and include chalk talk with both assistant coaches Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard. 3) Smith had the players skating lines at the end of practice on Thursday. Again, I do not attend every Kelowna Rockets practice at home, so it may be something more common place than I am led to believe. The last time I witnessed the team skating wind sprints was when Ryan Huska was behind the bench and the team was being taught a harsh lesson on the ice surface of the Saddledome in Calgary. I think it's awesome. It is old school.
  • Watching the players push through the fatigue at the end of practice with the series of skating drills was impressive. Tomas Soustal, Devante Stephens and Lucas Johansen were leading the charge. Rookie goaltender Roman Basran can skate well for a big man too. Yep, the goalies are involved in the skating drills. Even assistant Travis Crickard was participating. I thought all the players on the ice dug deep as Coach Smith barked out the signals on what he wanted the players to do. 
  • The practice sessions are giving me a chance to watch players like Jake Kryski a little more closely. Acquired from the Kamloops Blazers in the Joe Gatenby/Danny Gatenby deal, Kryski's skating style reminds me in many ways of former Rockets captain Tyler Spurgeon. Kryski is somewhat upright and has short explosive strides.         
  • The rookie that stood out Thursday was 17 year-old forward Jake Cowell. Cowell is a player the Rockets listed after Director of Player Personnel Lorne Frey received an e-mail suggesting he take a look at the Winnipeg resident who was playing high school hockey. Frey told Manitoba scout David Jacobson to take a look at him and came away impressed. But Frey had to get a look with his own two eyes. Frey too came away thinking Cowell could potential play if given the opportunity. Cowell did play bantam hockey at Pursuit of Excellence a few years ago but failed to hear his name called in the WHL bantam draft. The reason? In bantam, Cowell was close to 5 foot 7. Fast forward to today and Cowell is close to 6'1. Cowell has a good shot of making the opening day roster.  
  • Like their arch enemy Victoria Royals, the Kelowna Rockets are using heart monitors at practice. Each player wears a heart monitor which is then displayed on Prospera Place's video screen. The computerized program calculates everything from calories burned to heart beats per minute for every player on the ice. It essentially shows the coaches and training staff who is working hard in practice and pushing themselves physical, and weeds out those that appear to be working hard visually, but statistically aren't pushed themselves to the limit.  The Royals have used the program for the last four to five years. On average, a player will burn close to a thousand calories per practice. 
  • Former Kelowna Rockets forward Shane McColgan is going to rookie camp with the LA Kings.
  • Carter Rigby has elected to retire. The former Kelowna Rockets forward is an assistant coach with the KIJHL's Summerland Steam.
  • See ya at the rink this weekend. We will not be broadcasting the pre-season games on AM 1150 but I will be tweeting away for those interested. Our first radio broadcast of the year is September 23rd in Kamloops.