Monday, March 6, 2017

Rockets roll'n at right time

Head Coach Jason Smith ( 
  • No matter how strong the Kelowna Rockets finish the regular season, they will be unable to earn the same number of wins or points as they did a year ago. Does that really matter though? A 100 point season for a 5th consecutive year is not in the cards, but is this team not more playoff ready than they were a season ago? Last years 48 win, 100 point team struggled down the stretch and were inconsistent heading into a first round playoff series with the Kamloops Blazers. It showed as they had to use overtime in the 7th and deciding game to dispose of a Blazers team that probably played a better 'team game' but were out-skilled by a Rockets team that was better on paper. Forced again to play a 7 game series against Victoria in round two, the 14 game emotional roller coaster ride to get to Seattle for the Western Conference final took its toll. It appears under rookie head coach Jason Smith, the team is peaking at the right time, playing their best hockey with 6 games left in the regular season. At this same time a year ago, the Rockets were a very average 4-4-1-0 in their final 9 regular season games. Will this solid play down the stretch pay dividends in late March and into April? We are about to find out in three short weeks.
  • My belief is this years team is better than last years. Why? More scoring depth and little to no time played in the defensive zone. So why isn't the record better than? The Western Conference is crazy good, that's why. The BC Division has four teams that could compete with anyone. Wins this year have been hard earned. Let's remember, of the 21 losses this year, 12 have been against teams within the division.  
  • Quietly playing under the radar this season is Nolan Foote. While other first year players are making a bigger splash on the score-sheet, Foote has scored the most goals of any 16 year-old rookie. That's right, other first year players have more points but Foote just turned 16 on November 29th. Foote scored his 16th goal Saturday night. It would have been his 17th, if you were able to count a shootout winner in Everett Friday night. 'Little Footer', as his teammates call him, snapped a 7 game goal scoring drought with the game winner in a 4-2 comeback victory Saturday night over visiting Tri City. It was his longest goalless drought of the season up until his sharp angle snap shot beat Americans goaltender Evan Sarthou to the short side. Foote has scored those 16 goals in just 46 games. Had he been healthy and played in another 20 games, the pace he is on this season would give him 23 goals. The bottom line is he can score, and score a lot with one of the best releases on the team. Let's keep it quiet right now and let Nolan Foote play in the shadows before he catches every ones attention when he is draft eligible, not next season, but the season after that (2019). The fact is, he won't be able to hide much longer. When you are 6'3 and are still growing, scouts are already noticing that the soft spoken forward is speaking volumes with his terrific play.
  • With the loss of Rourke Chartier, Tyson Baillie and Justin Kirkland, goal scoring was expected to be hard to come by for the Kelowna Rockets this season. Who would score? Would it be scoring by committee with no one player standing out this season? After 66 games a season ago, the team had scored 237 times. This season after 66 games, the 2016-2017 edition has found the back of the net 254 times, which is a 17 goal improvement from a year ago. Career years from Kole Lind, Calvin Thurkauf, Rodney Southam and Devante Stephens have helped bolster the goal scoring totals and now gives them the bragging rights of having the 4th best offense in the WHL.
  • If you can't defend, you are cooked. Score all the goals you want, but if you can't keep them out of your own net the road to success will always be a bumpy one. It looks like that element of the game is taking a turn for the better and it starts with one player. While a small sample size, Michael Herringer was extremely good in back-to-back wins over Prince George and Everett last week. In the 3-2 shootout win, Herringer didn't allow a goal on 6 shooters. In a relief appearance Saturday, he didn't surrender a goal in two periods of work. While plagued with inconsistency this season, what we do know now is the 21 year-old goalie wasn't a fluke last season with his tremendous play. He can be the best player, or near the best player on the ice when he is 'locked in'.  At the end of the season, Herringer's numbers won't be top 5 in any category among goaltenders across the league. Right now he has the 10th best goals against average and a save percentage that has him between 15 and 19th in the league. Those numbers are not flattering, but he can play like a top end goalie when he is dialed in. Herringer's recent play gives me the belief he has the tools necessary to be the anchor when the real season starts on March 24th.
  • Let's discuss discipline. Have you noticed how it has improved significantly over the past 10 games? The most penalized team in the WHL still has its off nights when trips to the penalty box are frequent, but they only took 4 minors against Prince George, 4 against Everett and three against Tri City. Bad habits are tough to break, but is it any wonder that the lower number of trips to the penalty box has translated into wins? The last time they found themselves in penalty trouble was in Seattle. They ended up losing that game 5-3.
  • Congratulations to Reid Gardiner for earning his 250th career point with a goal in Saturday's 4-2 win over the Americans. Since arriving with the Rockets 21 games ago, Gardiner routinely leads the team in shots taken and is rewarded for his efforts. The 21 year-old had a team high 8 against Tri City (tied with Dillon Dube) and a team high 5 in Everett on Friday. Gardiner has the highest points per game average on the team (1.36) followed by Dillon Dube, who has been lights out terrific, at 1.32 points per game.
  • Many were wondering what type of impact Reid Gardiner would make on the Rockets when he joined the team on January 7th. With 30 points in 22 games, he is just 6 points shy of the 36 points Leon Draisaitl put up over the same number of games with the Rockets in 2015. Both are different players, so it may not be fair to compare....but I did anyway. Draisaitl was a center while Gardiner is a shoot first winger, but it is still interesting to look at the offensive numbers and take note that Gardiner is making a significant contribution since his rights were acquired from the Prince Albert Raiders for a 1st round WHL bantam pick.    
  • I'm often asked, if I had choice, who would the Rockets match up best against in the opening round of the WHL playoffs? It is hard for me to answer that question, especially after what the Prince George Cougars did to the Kamloops Blazers on the weekend. That is the type of dominance I expected from the first place Cougars after the trade deadline, but it never really materialized until this weekend. Sure, they pummeled Edmonton by putting up 11 during an Alberta road trip, but the Blazers and Oil Kings are in two different stratospheres. Let me answer that question when I see the Cougars and Blazers meet two more times this season. If the Cougars again destroy the Blazers, I will look forward to interviewing Kamloops head coach Don Hay on several occasions in round one. Don't count out the Victoria Royals either. They may be more in the mix than many people are giving them credit for, sitting three points back of Kamloops for 3rd with two games in hand.   

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