September 2, 2016
by Larry Fisher, Kelowna Daily Courier
The Kelowna Rockets open preseason play Saturday night against the defending B.C. Division champion Victoria Royals.
The Rockets held that title for the previous three years, and Kelowna still got the final laugh last season by rallying to defeat the Royals in their second-round playoff series, prevailing in overtime of Game 7 in Victoria on Calvin Thurkauf’s spin-around goal.
The Rockets are also coming off their fourth consecutive 100-point regular season, finishing second in the B.C. Division — just two wins and six points behind the top-ranked Royals.
A lot has changed since then, at least for Kelowna, which enters this season with its fourth different bench boss in as many years, having replaced Brad Ralph with Jason Smith — the former NHL defenceman and captain but first-time head coach.
Dave Lowry is still calling the shots in Victoria, entering his fifth season as Royals head coach after garnering some NHL interest again in the offseason.
On the ice, both teams are returning the majority of their rosters and are expected to be title contenders again, though they will be pushed by the Kamloops Blazers, who nearly knocked off Kelowna in the first round of playoffs, as well as an older Prince George Cougars club and an upstart Vancouver Giants team that will benefit from a healthy Tyler Benson.
Tonight’s exhibition contest — 7 p.m. at Prospera Place in Kelowna — will be more of a feeling-out process than a renewed rivalry, with the Rockets and Royals still auditioning several newcomers for roster spots.
Kelowna is down to 30 players — 17 forwards, nine defencemen and four goaltenders — from 55 at the start of training camp, with seven more cuts to come in finalizing its 23-man roster for the regular season.
The Rockets have five exhibition games before opening the campaign with a home-and-home against the Blazers — in Kamloops on Friday, Sept. 23 and at Prospera Place on Saturday, Sept. 24.
Those rivals will be well acquainted by then, with Kelowna’s next three preseason games all against the Blazers, starting Sunday in Kamloops.
“These games are going to give us a good idea of where we’re at and some things that we need to really work at over the next bunch of days,” Smith said of this weekend’s action.
The entire preseason will be a learning experience for Smith, who served as an assistant coach for the NHL’s Ottawa Senators the past two seasons following two years in player development with that organization.
Being new to the division and not being around the league since his playing days — with the Regina Pats in the early 1990s — Smith hopes to be a quick study, but his focus will primarily be on the Rockets over the next few weeks.
“You take it as a day-to-day process,” he said of the ongoing evaluations. “I’ve got a better feel for our group and the team we’ll have here.
“I like the direction we’re going. We seem to be making progress with the repetition and getting better at the things we’re working at. That’s positive, but it’s still early and we have to continue to work at it.”
Smith is still getting to know his players — both returning and prospective — and he’s looking forward to seeing them in an actual game setting for the first time tonight.
“Every day I want the players to make an impression with me, that their working and looking to get better and improving and growing their game,” Smith said.
“Obviously you have your returning players and we have a good group of them, and we’re excited about that group. And then you’ve got the progression of some young guys, who are looking to make that impression and that impact and join our group.”
Tonight’s lineup will include 12 players from Kelowna’s playoff roster, plus eight potential newcomers.
Fans are projected to get their first look at Jake Kryski in a Rockets’ jersey, a third-year WHL forward acquired last month from Kamloops for the Gatenby brothers, defencemen Joe and Danny.
Kelowna’s first-round bantam draft pick from May, defenceman Kaedan Korczak (Yorton Maulers, Midget AAA), will also debut tonight. He’ll likely be joined on the blue line by 2015 draft picks Kelvin Hair (OHA Prep) and Konrad Belcourt (Sherwood Park Kings Midget AAA) who may form a pairing but will be competing for the same roster spot.
Up front, there is plenty of hype surrounding Jack Cowell, a 17-year-old centre from Winnipeg who came to training camp as a listed player but has since been signed for this season (Vincent Massey Trojans, Winnipeg High School Hockey League). Cowell was passed over in the 2014 draft as a 5’8, 126 lb bantam player out of PoE, but lit up the mostly unscouted High School league and is now pushing 6’2″.
Liam Kindree (North Vancouver, Northwest Giants MML) and Ted Brennan (Malahat, South Island Royals MML), two more promising 16 year olds from the 2015 draft class, will also factor into the forward lines against Victoria.
“I’ve seen a lot of positive things from the young guys,” Smith said. “That’s something you want to have within your organizational depth. You want players that are young pushing the veteran players, and then you want your veteran players to lead by example and make sure they’re putting the work in to continue to earn the right that they’ve earned in past seasons.”
Kelowna will be missing a handful of players due to injuries and illness this weekend, including forwards Nick Merkley, Dillon Dube, Jordan Borstmayer, Nolan Foote and Kyle Topping, along with over-age goaltender Michael Herringer.
“Injury-wise, we’re progressing and guys are getting to feel better,” Smith said. “We’re going to have some guys that aren’t ready to play yet, but that’s part of the process, is making sure your lineup is healthy for Day 1 of the regular season.”
The Rockets will be working several older players into the lineup this weekend, including some who will head off to NHL rookie camps and tournaments in the coming weeks.
Calvin Thurkauf and Braydyn Chizen, both seventh-round NHL draft picks in June, are slated to play tonight. Tomas Soustal, who attended the Edmonton Oilers’ development camp in July and could be on their roster for the upcoming Young Stars tournament in Penticton (Sept. 16-19), will also be suiting up.
“It’s important for those guys to get some game experience,” Smith said. “You want to give them the best opportunity to go there and perform, and I think getting them some game opportunity before (they leave) is something that will help them along that way.”
Once that group departs, Smith will be working with a short bench and there will be plenty of opportunity for those aforementioned prospects to force their way onto the regular-season roster.
“It gives other players a chance to kind of rise to the occasion, and to take the experience that they’re going to get in maybe earning more ice-time and being in situations where they may not normally be,” Smith said. “They are going to get opportunities to showcase themselves.”