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.  

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