Friday, August 24, 2018

Roster spots a plenty

  • Roster spots are a plenty as the Kelowna Rockets open main camp at Prospera Place. We haven't seen a huge turnover in talent in these parts for years, where significant high end players have moved on to play pro allowing new blood to emerge and cut their teeth at the WHL level. To refresh ones memory, the team loses its top four point producers in Kole Lind, Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote. Lind was the leading scorer. Dube was the teams most dynamic player and Foote was the captain and top defenceman. That is 321 points combined from those four that have now exited the building. That leaves fourth leading point producer Kyle Topping (22+43=65) and Leif Mattson (25+35=60) tasked with doing the heavy lifting. But honestly, it is 19 and 20 year-old's that traditionally carry the mail. If you are a rookie forward or you played a limited role one season ago, now is the chance to prove that you are worthy of taking the next step.
  • The last time the Rockets lost their top four point producers was after the 2008-2009 season when Colin Long, Jamie Benn, Cody Almond and Ian Duval all graduated after winning the WHL championship and just came up short in the title game at the 2009 Memorial Cup in Rimouski.  
  • The blue line has also taken a significant hit. While Cal Foote moves on to play either in the NHL or with the Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL affiliate, 20 year-old's Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager are also off to play Canadian college hockey. That leaves the team thin on defence, with veterans Brayden Chizen, Libor Zabransky and Kaedan Korzak returning. We can probably throw Kelvin Hair's name into the mix too, who played both as a defenceman and forward last season. Lassi Thomson, obtained at the CHL Import Draft in July, is expected to be the real deal and the hope is he can squeeze into a top four role.
  • Before we put massive pressure on Thomson, let's remember it was a significant learning curve last season for Libor Zabransky, who never found his game despite dressing in all 72 in his rookie campaign. The belief is the Czech resident will be much better in his second season while  playing with more motivation after failing to hear his name called at the NHL draft. Like Zabransky, Thomson will have to adapt to the smaller North American ice surface.  
  • Realistically, of the returning d-men, Kaedan Korczak is the big horse back there. The second year defender will log huge minutes which include power play time, possibly with Thomson, who has the most offensive upside of any of the returning d-men. The team has brought in 18 year-old rookie defenceman Devin Steffler, who was born in Colorado, but played in Europe last season.Can he make the team? Is he Gordie Ballhorn 2.0? Ballhorn was also undrafted yet made the team and made a significant impact. 
  • Leadership? The team is in the need of a new captain with the graduation of defenceman Cal Foote. Who wears the 'C' this season? Honestly, I don't have one candidate that really stands out. I think Leif Mattson has really matured over the last few seasons. Entering his third in the WHL, the 25 goal man is one of a handful of  19 year-old's, which also includes Erik Gardner, Connor Bruggen-Cate, Jack Cowell and Kyle Topping. Gardiner plays with the most passion and heart as he sacrifices his body at every turn. Someone in that group must emerge as a leader. Or do you go completely off the charts and look at 18 year-old Nolan Foote or 17 year-old Kaedan Korczak? Quiet yet respected by teammates, could those two players grow into that leadership spot? Sure, laugh at me now but remember a young player by the name of Colton Sissons was named captain in his 18 year-old season. Sissons was reserved, quiet but played hard and turned into a terrific player. Sissons would end up captaining the team in both his 18 and 19 year-old seasons. And with all honesty, I don't think the captain is as crucial as many believe at the major junior level.  
  • Looking quickly back to last season, while the team won 40+ games, it's record would have been significantly better had it not been for all the injuries. It was stupid at times. Nolan Foote may be the best example. After 19 goals in his rookie season, the second year forward had just 13 goals in 50 games. A broken knuckle in Everett didn't help his cause. I think Nolan can score 30 goals this season if he stays healthy. Erik Gardiner had a rough season after being hit in the head with a puck. Playing in only 31 games, the hardworking Gardiner found the back of the net only 7 times. The biggest disappointment was likely Jack Cowell, only because he was so good in pre-season. Cowell came into camp in awesome shape and it translated into a confident player, but something happened. I think missed offensive opportunities early in the season derailed his confidence and he was never able to get it back. That is why games in the first month of the season are so crucial, both as a team and as an individual. It is the building blocks for success. When self doubt enters the mind, it is extremely hard to get it back. Cowell scored just 10 goals in 71 games and was a team worst -19. 
  • Goaltending. It was a circus in 2017-2018. Essentially four goalies were used when Brodan Salmond (MCL), Roman Basran (Lower Body) and James Porter Junior (Upper Body) all went down at various points of the season with injuries. It was nuts. It was such a mess that the team had to recruit the services of 15 year-old affiliated player Cole Tisdale to fill the crease. Tisdale did remarkably well. In my evaluation of the three returning goalies (Brodan Salmond has been released), my belief, despite a small sample size is Basran is the best of the bunch. He is also the largest where size in goaltending does matter, especially if you are quick like the Delta, BC resident appears to be. The now 17 year-old had a sparkling 6-2-0-0 record last season and a goals against average of 2.28. The save percentage was also solid at .926. That said, Porter Junior and Tisdale need to make Basran sweat and make it hard for him to earn the #1 duties. Internal competition at that position is crucial.
  • What I would really like to see this season is a better 'team concept' game plan. I guess the dumb downed way of saying it is those on the ice need to play better as a unit of five.Last season the team was able to escape with victories thanks to great individual skill by several marquee players. This season it would be satisfying to witness more 'team wins' than individuals stepping up in an effort to win. The coaching staff, who are now together for a third consecutive season, have the know how to get it done. Let's see the players follow their lead.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wong weighing options with eyes wide open

Trevor Wong
There is much to like about Trevor Wong. The same can be said about his father Ed. The apple truly doesn't fall far from the tree. I had a chance to meet both of them prior to Tuesday's Kelowna Rockets rookie camp workout at Prospera Place.
Trevor is a well-spoken 15 year-old, who is still undecided on whether his path to what he hopes will be a long career in the NHL includes the Kelowna Rockets, or if the lure of the NCAA is a better way of getting there.
Wong says whatever direction he takes, it's a win-win for him.
"Making a decision like this is hard. I am going to have to eventually make it, and hopefully it is the right one".
Wong was selected 18th overall in May's WHL bantam draft, a day he won't soon forget. "I was in Philadelphia and got off the ice and I heard I was taken by Kelowna. It was unbelievable. I had heard nothing but good things about the organization. I was excited to be a Rocket. Now that I am here at camp.....its surreal."
Wong made a verbal commitment to Denver in November, but by no means is it a signed and sealed deal that he will choose the NCAA. If it was, Wong wouldn't be in Kelowna this week.
"When I committed to Denver, that kind of cleared out some (WHL) teams that I didn't want to go too, but their were a couple I would consider and Kelowna was definitely one of them".
The Wong's are well versed in what both programs offer. Wong's agent/adviser is well respected Gerry Johannson and the family is friends with Kamloops Blazers majority owner Tom Gaglardi. Johannson played in the WHL with the New Westminster Bruins in the mid 80's, so knows the benefits of major junior hockey. Heck, the 51 year-old also was an assistant coach/director of player personnel and assistant GM with the Tri City Americans for five seasons. Gaglardi's son played minor hockey with Trevor and has spoken glowingly about the Kelowna Rockets organization and the tremendous options available should they consider the Canadian Hockey League.
What will be the tipping point on which direction Trevor Wong chooses?
"Obviously, Kelowna and Denver both send guys to the NHL and that's what I want to do. At the end of the day it will probably come down to what suits me the best and my family. I am just trying to concentrate on Kelowna right now."
Mimicking his game after Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, the 5'8, 140 pound slick skating forward knows this season will be his greatest challenge when he joins the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BC Major Midget League where he will face older, stiffer competition. 
"I try to make players around me better by playing at a higher pace. I like to push the pace. I want to be a 200 foot player which is what will make me the next level player".
If Wong goes to Denver, it comes with a full ride American scholarship. If he elects to play with the Kelowna Rockets, the chance exists of playing in the 2020 Memorial Cup.
"The Mem Cup is huge and super exciting. Like I said, my decision will come down to what fits me best and my family, but the Mem Cup in Kelowna would be super cool and maybe that would be what pushes it one way or the other".

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Let the games begin

  • A sure sign that summer is almost over. Smokey skies. No that's not it. I should say Kelowna Rockets rookie camp is about to start at Prospera Place. The Rockets are getting the quickest start of any team in the WHL when it opens camp on Monday with close to 100 - fourteen and fifteen year-old's lining up for registration before officially taking to the ice on Tuesday. The Kamloops Blazers, by comparison, don't start camp until Thursday. The Victoria Royals open rookie camp on Tuesday. Heck, with the grayish skies outside, why not focus on hockey. It sure isn't beach weather.
  • Is rookie camp intriguing or a bit of a yawnfest? For the average fan it may be a little dull, but it is often my first chance to see the crop of players that Director of Player Personnel Lorne Frey and his scouting staff selected in May's WHL bantam draft. My eyes are on those players specifically. That doesn't mean the 80 or so other hopeful's don't have a chance to impress, but it is often hard for me to weed out the real players from the pretenders. That said, I was able to identify Ethan Ernst out of the huge pack of players at last years rookie camp as a standout. Ernst will now attend main camp this season and is a sure bet to make the roster in 2018-2019 unless something horribly goes wrong. 
  • I attended last years rookie camp with only one intention. I wanted to see Ethan Bowen up close. I had never seen him play. Bowen was the Rockets first pick in 2017, but they had to wait to take the Chilliwack resident in the second round as they had no first round pick after dealing it away in the Reid Gardiner trade. The question remains. Will Ethan Bowen attend main camp despite making a verbal commitment to the University of North Dakota? 
  • Who am I really watching at rookie camp? The honest answer is Trevor Wong. Wong was the Rockets first pick, 18th overall, in the 2018 WHL bantam draft. Highly skilled, Wong is an elite player and his offensive  numbers are no fluke. I won't come on this blog and lie to you by suggesting I know much about him. I don't. I've seen video clips. I have looked at 'Elite Prospects' to get a better idea of his success over the years, but I need to see him first hand. I spoke to both Trevor his father Ed after the draft and both seemed excited about the Rockets selected him despite his verbal commitment to play NCAA hockey down the road. It will be interesting to chat with them both, face to face.
  • For the record, I have already made the mistake of calling Trevor Wong, Tyler Wong. Tyler Wong, for all of you WHL followers, was a marquee player for the Lethbridge Hurricanes who scored 51 goals in his 20 year-old season as the team captain. If Trevor Wong indeed chooses the WHL, let's hope he generates the type of numbers Tyler did in his time in major junior hockey.
  • The Rockets selected 11 players in the 2018 WHL bantam draft, including one goalie by the name of Justin Dueck. Dueck is intriguing for me for one reason only. The 10th round pick grew up where I did, in southwest Saskatchewan. While I am originally from Swift Current, Dueck is from Waldeck, Saskatchewan and played bantam hockey in Swift Current. Dueck is still too young to make the team, but if he does down the road, he would be the first Saskatchewan born goalie since Kristofer Westblom to wear Kelowna Rockets colours. Westblom was taken in the 4th round back in 2002 and was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.  
  • As always, on-ice sessions are open to the public. Rookie camp starts with registration Monday and on-ice scheduled from Tuesday through Thursday. Main camp begins Friday with the veterans arriving for the start of physical testing under the watchful eye of athletic therapist Scott Hoyer. I will dive into main camp and what I hope to see in a blog post later this week.