3.Kelowna Rockets- The Rockets concluded the 2014-2015 campaign an Anthony Cirelli goal away from winning the Memorial Cup in Quebec City. An overtime loss to the Oshawa Generals was a bitter cap to an otherwise very successful season. Some would've argued that prior to making the acquisition of Leon Draisatl from Prince Albert, that next year would've been the measured target for the Rockets but things got expedited for obvious reasons when the 2014 third overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers came in to be that calming veteran influence that in hindsight the troops from the Okanagan needed to make that championship leap. Usually in the junior hockey cycle, a year after winning a league championship can be viewed as a retool year, but not for the Rockets who have enough in the tank to have their rocket ignited once again.
Projections are an unusual phenomenon in a sense that when you promote rookies or young players into a nucleus that has the positive, winning culture, it can throw you for a loop because on a team that doesn't have that same culture and experience that very same young player won't have half the success he would've otherwise had. Case in point to this theory, young Dillon Dube. His real coming out party was the playoffs but when you spend the majority of the regular season on the fourth line due to the depth and can still amount to twenty-seven points his forecast for his seventeen year old season is scary good. Everybody is naturally singing high praises for Rourke Chartier and 2015 NHL first round pick of Nic Merkley and rightfully so as they will be the catalysts for the pending offensive production, but lesser known but at the same time equally important Cole Linaker may be the X-Factor that Simon Cowell's failed reality show on FOX was in desperate search for.
Linaker provides a high energy that's unrivalled to most others in the dub and what impresses me most about his trade is his under-appreciated skating ability. Due to his Blake Wheeler-esque choppy skating style, most scouts don't see this as a strength but he gets around the ice just fine and compliments the smaller Chartier and Merkley perfectly. I look at the projected depth chart line one through four and each line will have the capability of contributing on each and every night. My sense is that due to the assets thrown away during last year's title run they may not have the stomach to make any move that damage the long term outlook that General Manager Bruce Hamilton is always consciousness of, but the truth may be that this forward group has enough to romp through the Western conference without any tangible additions.
This Devante led defense will be the key for the Rockets. Devante Stephens, who in my opinion was one of the bigger steals in this past National Hockey League draft being selected one hundred and twenty second overall in the fifth round by the Buffalo Sabres will be asked to fill the oversized shoes of the graduating Madison Bowey and ask to anchor this defensive ship across the Okanagan. If it wasn't for a devastating knee injury that sidelined Stephens for most of the early part of the season, it's likely that he would be available nowhere close to the fifth round. He's projecting as one of the Western Hockey League's premier shut down defenders with this blogger ranking him within the top three of that category with arguably only Edmonton's Aaron Irving and Tri-Cities Parker Wotherspoon ranking ahead of him. It would be advisable of coach Lambert to work on his puck skills because that is certainly the one area he needs improvement on. Aside from the stud Stephens, the two others expected to lead this defensive corpse are Lucas Johansen and Joe Gatenby. Johansen particularly has an opposite skill set to Devante as just like his older brother Ryan,he is a wizard with the puck. As a disclaimer, any one player who attempts moves from the Mighty Ducks trilogy during an all-star competition like Ryan did earns mad props in my books. Lucas to reach that next level and to continue the aspirations to get his name called in next summer's draft will have to beef up and become much more responsible in the defensive zone as this was a facet that Lambert saw as concerning this past season.
Goaltending, like most other teams in the dub is the ultimate conundrum for the Rockets due to the twenty year old age limit in the league. Jackson Whistle, last year's starting goaltender on normal circumstances would be a sure bet to return but with Michael Herringer grasping at the bit for playing time and a potential desire to use these twenties in more contributable roles, some wonder including myself to whether Rockets blow the whistle on Jackson and make him trade bait. There are a multitude of teams in the league that would covet the services of Whistle and I can only imagine the dilemma Bruce Hamilton will face when it comes to constructing the roster. If Whistle returns, this is a known commodity who will be a candidate for the Western conference goaltender of the year, conversely if it's Herringer, you're referring to an unknown commodity who could pan out but unfortunately could become the next Liam Liston. Either way, with the team around them expect Whistle or Herringer to not be an issue and help the Rockets get back to the promised land.
4) Red Deer Rebels- As a born and raised hockey fan from Regina, when I hear the words, Rebels, and Memorial Cup, instantaneous memories pop up from the Rebels competing in and against Regina in the 2001 Memorial Cup. 2001 was Regina's turn, 2015 Red Deer plans to take the keys and run away with it. After reigning victorious via earning their way to the four team tournament, fourteen years later Brent Sutter and company will be faced with new challenges such as keeping the team motivated throughout the year and peaking for playoffs/Memorial Cup. The team has some beautiful pieces already in place, but the intriguing question will be what pieces the Rebels choose to add to fill their cupboard.
I will go on record right now and say barring injures, Connor Bleackley will win the Most Valuable Player. Bold perhaps.... but keep in mind that as team captain, Sutter will be sure to led him run as far as he wants to with this hockey team and playing alongside newly acquired Euro Michal Spacek will create migraines for the Central Divison and aid his point total in a positive direction. I am well aware that Spacek has yet to commit to playing in Red Deer but the aura of the guaranteed spot in the Memorial Cup will be too much to pass on. Preston Kopeck, who was the main piece sent back to Red Deer when star Matt Dumba was sent to the Portland Winterhawks, will be entering his twenty year old season, it's imperative that Kopeck fulfills the potential the Rebels saw when they originally made that trade and that he improves upon his fourty eight point total from a year ago. Being how he will be anchoring the second line, a healthy 70 + points will need to be in the cards. Adam Musil, a player that I'm not particularly sold on just like I wasn't completely buying what his older brother David was trying to sell with the Vancouver Giants has to step up his game or I have a sense he may be used in a trade to propel a more proven and reliable troop into Red Deer. Like I just mentioned, trades are inevitable anytime your hosting the Memorial Cup, but if the Rebels don't show a propensity for a quick strike offense early in the season, those trades may be consummated prior to the end of October.
Before I get on with the defense, and I apologize for the endless rambling in this blog but a point needs clarification before I go any further and that as of July 3rd, 2015 I do not see the Rebels having the fourth best team, the reason for the exceeded ranking is solely based off the inevitable moves that are bound to happen which I touched on in the previous paragraph. Haydn Fleury on paper is the Rebs best defender but the jury is still out on the Carlyle, Saskatchewan and Carolina Hurricanes prospect. Throughout particular points of last year, Fleury found himself inside Sutter's dog house in which plenty junior and NHLers have found themselves over the year. Fleury has visible, above average hockey sense but it's his unwillingness to showcase his hockey I.Q on a nightly basis that drives Sutter bonkers. Due to the Rebels national attention they will receive, this year could be the coming out party that Fleury so desperately craves but on the other side of the token, this very well could be the year that plummets Fleury out of complete favor with not only the Rebels, but also the Carolina Hurricanes. Another question I have is who's going to replace the contributions of someone who possessed a Jiri Niemi type slapshot, that being Brett Cote? I expect the answer to this possibly unsolvable riddle to be Nelson Nogier who's in like to make his second memorial cup appearance as part of a host team as he was in Saskatoon with the Blades for the 2013 edition won by the Halifax Mooseheads. Nogier is an excellent skater, something that I may repeat but it's a glaring need for any defenceman to succeed in today's game and Nogier definitely has the opportunity to succeed. Will he use his Memorial Cup experience and along with Fleury, attempt to replicate the success the 2001 version of the Rebels had.
Rylan Toth's campaign was marred by two complete halves. In the first half, he had the look of being overwhelemed, somebody who wasn't ready to take the every day load in the WHL and had the citizens of Red Deer screaming for a goaltender via trade. Well in the second half, he along with the Rebels were statistically one of the league's hotter teams. No other reason for the sudden half success was more prevalent then the improved play of Toth. Toth went from having post rookie year Jim Carey characteristics to someone who was moreso mirroring the play of a different Carey, a better Carey, Carey Price. Some feel goaltending could be the Rebels down fall next season, and not unusually, I'm disagreeing with the majority by saying Rylan"second half" Toth might be the unheralded solider that will leave the experts in shock and awe.