Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Keeping head above water 1/4 into season

  • Here we are at the one quarter poll of the season. The Kelowna Rockets have played 17 games. The team is 7-10-0-0 in the opening 6 weeks of the season. So much has happened. The worst start in franchise history. The team winning the bid to host the 2020 Memorial Cup. The trading for Dalton Gally and Lane Zablocki. The dismissal of Jason Smith as head coach and the hiring of Adam Foote. The 2018-2019 season has been more than just a little interesting for its struggles on the ice and the news the hockey club has made off it. Never a dull day in these parts, management, coaches and players are wishing that winning hockey games was the focal point. Maybe we have arrived at that point? With 1/4 of the season behind us, let's look at what has happened on the ice for a team that sits 4 points out of second place in the BC Division.
  • At the 1/4 point of the season, Kyle Topping is leading the team with 23 points. That should come as no surprise considering he was the top returning forward after earning a career high 65 points last season. Concerns over his play came early in the season though, when he wasn't scoring and generated little in the way of chances for his line-mates. With 1 goal in the opening 7 games, with a team void of secondary scoring, it was imperative that the 19 year-old be among the leaders on the score-sheet. Early on, like his teammates, Topping wasn't. Maybe his mind wasn't clear yet after being overlooked in the NHL draft and then failing to receive a long look at the rookie camp of the San Jose Sharks? Whatever it was, Topping is proving he can be dangerous, having been held off the scoreboard only three times this season. Getting into a rare fight October 13th against the Tri City Americans was another sign that his heart is in it to prove the naysayers wrong that Kole Lind was a significant reason why he was able to hit career highs in goals, assists and points last season. After 17 games a year ago, Topping had 7 goals and 11 assists=18 points. Interesting isn't it? The Salt Spring Island product has the exact same number of goals and 5 more points without Lind at his side.
  • Why did the Rockets have only one win in it's opening 9 games? The power play was horrid and the team couldn't score even strength. Topping was struggling. Nolan Foote wasn't very good (3 goals in the opening 9 games) and only Leif Mattson was carrying the mail consistently. Mattson had 8 goals in the teams opening 9 games. It was Leif Mattson or bust at that point. I remember commenting to assistant coach Travis Crickard, in Prince George in early October, that the power play was dead last with an efficiency rate of 6%. He told me that he didn't even want to look at that number four games into the season. It was irrelevant to him knowing it was a process to work out the kinks. Man, was he right. Now it's most dangerous weapon, the Rockets own the 4th best power play unit in the league by electing to use four forwards on the five man unit. It is executing at an alarming rate and is winning games, not losing them. It has been so good, it is bound to slowdown at some point. Right now it's as good as you can get.   
  • The goaltending in the opening 17 games has just been adequate. It really wasn't until recently that the goalies, or in this case goalie, has stolen games with timely saves. The reason? My belief is they essentially went with a two man system to start the season and neither Roman Basran nor James Porter were able to get into a groove. It all changed when Basran started getting the bulk of the games. The performance in the crease now looks significantly better. The 17 year-old has started in twice as many games as Porter but the numbers still need to improve. Neither his goals against average (3.36) or save percentage (.887) will put fear into opposition shooters. That said, like many of the teams draft eligible players, all of them are trending upward which bodes well for an exciting second half of the season?
  • Who has been the biggest surprise in the opening 17 games? The answer is rookie import Lassi Thomson. While highly touted coming from Finland, you just don't know what type of player you will get as they make the transition to North American hockey. More times than not, in what I've witnessed, it's best to keep your expectations very low for players who were born overseas. Few have walked into the Rockets dressing room and have made a significant impact. Of the players the organization has selected in the CHL Import Draft, only Tomas Oravec, Tomas Slovak and Alex Edler can be considered top line players. Oravec had 21+44=65 in 2000-2001 while Slovak had 18 goals and 71 points in 2002-2003. Edler had 13+40=53 in the 2004-2005 campaign. Sure, Leon Draisaitl, Mikael Backlund and Jan Fadrny have been excellent, but two of them were acquired through trade while Backlund joined the team after the Christmas break in 2009. Thomson has been arguably one of the teams top five players at the 1/4 mark. Thomson is third in rookie scoring in the WHL and tops in rookie defenceman scoring. The 18 yer-old is tied for the league lead in goals, among defenceman, with 7. You might as well  engraved his name on the Rockets Rookie of the Year trophy right now to be frank.       
  • The best trade? The team has made three. The one I like the most is the acquisition of 20 year-old Dalton Gally. Obtained from Medicine Hat for a 10th round pick, I think the big man has been noticeable more times than not. With 4 assists in 8 games with his new team, Gally has allowed the coaches to separate Kaedan Korczak and Lassi Thomson as d-partners. For a team with limited depth on the blue-line, it was tough to have your top two defenders on the ice at the same time. The team is better served with Thomson and Gally playing together as a unit. While I also like the addition of Lane Zablocki as an upgrade of the three 20 year-old's, I am still sticking with Gally as the best pickup by GM Bruce Hamilton.    
  • The team is still taking way to many penalties. The Rockets have been shorthanded 80 times this season, or the 5th most of anyone in the WHL. Shockingly Portland is first. The second most penalized team in the league needs to do a better job of staying out of the box, mainly because their penalty killing unit isn't very good. Having surrendered 23 goals against, only bottom feeders Regina and Swift Current have allowed more when a man down. Forward Mark Liwiski leads all rookies with 39 penalty minutes. I like Liwitski's reckless approach with and without the puck, but sometimes less is more.    
  • Thanks to a three game winning streak, the Rockets (7-10-0-0) are pretty much where I thought they'd be at this point in the season. I thought anything over .500 would be a bonus for a team that is clearly in transition. If they were slightly above .500, let's say 9 and 8 for argument sake, the team would be tied with Victoria for second place in the BC Division. The Royals tremendous start was aided by a heavy home schedule and a large portion of their games against teams in the BC Division, which outside of Vancouver, are all in rebuild mode. 
  • Let's remember that the Rockets, up until a few games ago, were often times playing one overage player short. That was a factor in the extremely slow start where fellow 20 year-old Ryan Bowen was held pointless before he and the organization parted ways and Braydyn Chizen, who has only 10 career goals in 190 career games, isn't going to manufacture much in the way of offense from the blue line. Now that Chizen, Gally and Zablocki can be injected into the lineup on a consistent basis, the odds of winning clearly increases.   
  • With Erik Gardiner finding his game, the Rockets open a six game road trip Friday in Seattle. Facing 11 games in 22 days to close out November, this will be a tough test for a team, which is better prepared for this portion of the schedule than when the puck dropped for the start of the regular season on September 21st in Kamloops.  

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