7.Kelowna Rockets-Before I divulge into my thoughts pertaining to the Kelowna Rockets, let me take a second to pat myself on the back for correctly identifying Jason Smith as a plausible coaching candidate for the Kelowna Rockets. Reminiscing all the way back to the Summer of 2015, in a piece I called Kelowna's "Rocket Man" (http://brettmurray.blogspot.ca/2015/07/kelownas-rocket-man.html),I created a blog post labelling five coaching commodities who could've been stellar fits for the Rockets, now granted at that time they went ahead with the ill advised decision to hire Brad Ralph, a year later they came to their senses and hired a man primed to do great things with this organization. Jason Smith is about as hard nosed as they come, a quality that wasn't applicable to the ECHL tested Ralph but somebody who's come in at the right time in Kelowna as the superb skill is evident, the question or concern that some would have is if there's enough pugnacity on the back-end to compete with the Seattle's and Kamloops' of the world. With the impending losses of Rourke Chartier, and Tyson Baillie, two key cogs that carried the Rockets attack the last two seasons, the narrative will be centered around Arizona Coyote property Nick Merkley who after an injury plagued season will be counted upon to produce gawdly numbers.
I find the twenty year old situation intriguing in the Okanagan. Assuming Rourke Chartier is gone to the American Hockey League, which I believe is a formality being as how he's signed by the San Jose Sharks, the three twenties will all be forwards in Riley Stadel, Justin Kirkland and Rodney Southam. Kirkland along with the aforementioned Merkley will be the catalyst of this offence so he's locked in to the top three. Stadel with his versatility has to find his way on this squad but the one where I do opine whether an upgrade would be advisable is with Southam. Rodney who had the captaincy label bestowed upon him last year which could be his saving grace.for staying with Kelowna but don't shoot the messenger when I say I'm not so settled that Southam is Major Junior talent and that there should be an upgrade possibility on the open market. Let's talk further about Riley Stadel. Having only watched about three to four Rocket games last season, I'm puzzled asto what happened to his offensive levels. From forty three points in 2014-2015 to a whopping eight in 15/16. Yes,I'm aware that Stadel often alternates between forward and defence and that attributes to the penal statistics but aside from that recognition, I think I've pinpointed for why Stadel's numbers stalled. Under Brad Ralph and much will be the same with Jason Smith. he inherited more responsibility and forewent the desire to jump into the play and took more pride with protecting a overhauled defensive core, as was the case last year and helping out a young, inexperienced goaltender in Michael Herringer. The old rather be safe than sorry approach. I also find the increase in penalty minutes perplexing to Riley. Prior to this past season, Riley was a trust worthy presence under Dan Lambert but when Ralph began to call the shots, the discipline went out the window and that's partly why I believe General Manager Bruce Hamilton moved in a different direction, their was a lack of respect between player and coach. I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the legendary work ethic Stadel carries with him to the rink each night. It's a rare occurrence that Stadel quits moving his feet, although you could argue last year the complication was that he left his feet too often attributing for the high quantity of penalties. It was a repeated observation that Riley and coach Ralph weren't a match made to succeed, but rest assured Jason Smith was made to develop players like Riley. In his NHL career Jason Smith was a rugged defenceman but let's not overlook the fact, at least from my vantage point had some puck skills, unfortunately for him had a shot that would make Charles Barkley proud(queue the Barkley-Kypreos video from last year's all star game). If he had any resemblance of a shot whatsoever we have may seen thirty to forty point seasons consistently This attention to detail whilst encouraging enough freedom will be a welcome system for Mr.Stadel. I preface the profiling of Stadel by saying by a wake of a miracle and Rourke is returned, Stadel conceivably could be on the move. All the chatter before the 2014-2015 season was how excited Rocket fans were with the pending debut of Dillon Dube. The scouting report that I read was insiders marvelling about his all around game but from what I've seen, I'm highly questioning this assertion. The first name that comes to mind regarding Dillon is Mike Fisher. Is Dillon set to wed an attractive up and coming country artist, you never know but it's the propensity to favor the pass even in paramount shooting areas that confirm the comparison but with the role he'll be asked to play,by Smith, somehow they have to re assure him that he's one of the leaders and Dube needs to add a selfish proponent. I find that on the power-play the unselfish reputation that he possesses is a hinderance because he seems to find the open areas with relative ease but then makes the unnecessary extra pass. The back checking component is also where Dillon could improve and more than anything that's where Jason will be an asset. Dillon and Stadel are at opposite ends of the spectrum in how the buy in to the defensive philosophy. This was accepted(at times) last year because their was an influx of scoring but with goal guarantees expected to deplete, he has to be 1000 X more consciousness of looking after his assignments in the defensive zone. He was seen as a potential first round pick in last summers NHL draft, and I tend to believe it was his one sided game that dropped him to late in the second rounds. Concerns about being too small upfront are had by more than me correct? With who I anticipate to return, fore checking and picking apart a defence will be a difficult task. Hamilton's teams were big and fast in nature especially up front, but this group will rely on finesse and positioning. The most staunch Rocket supporters won't be used to this structure but sometimes you have to adjust to incorporate the skill set you've been handed.
All Kelowna does is produce defenceman right? This is a long standing misnomer as sure they've sent the likes of Luke Schenn, Shea Weber and Tyler Myers among others to the National Hockey League but in all actuality and feel free to disagree. the forwards have mostly driven the organization but not this go around. After last year was a transitioning year which saw Devante Stephens, who I'll get to in a New York minute, Cal Foote and Lucas Johansen step into leadership roles with the club and in year two of this movement much more will be expected. The back end unequivocally is the calling card for Kelowna and is only bolstered through Smith's experience. I already was fascinated with how good Devante could one day become and with Jason on board the sky is literally the limit. I recall I fantasized over his plight in last year's preview and would say he had a C + plus season after having the Buffalo Sabres pick him in the fifth round. There's just a little something missing in his game, it's hard to illustrate but there wasn't enough decisiveness in his repertoire. He has top end speed but the problem facing Devante, a problem facing many other juniors his age is that he hasn't figured out when and when not to jump into the play, It's not an exact science I'll admit that but I would anticipate that Smith will teach him that he can attack more frequently due to his speed. I admittedlty saw more Kelowna contests the year before last and would say their that Stephens was more engaged in all facets, and the compete level fell of a tad under Ralph. I don't know how many times I can stress that Ralph and Hamilton stated as much, the right fit at the wrong time for where they were in the program. Smith's tutelage for Devante is practically invaluable and I guarantee we'll see him reach the thirty point plateau without evaporating the punishing style Rocket fans have become accustomed to. Another decorated defenceman the Rockets have their hands on is none other than Adam Foote's son, Cal. All it took was one International Summer tournament for my opinion on the player to drastically season. After flirting with NCAA commitments, Cal joined Kelowna as a seventeen year old and left a lot to be desired. I thought he was slow on foot(forgive the pun) and didn't exude a National Hockey League prospect. What a difference a summer makes as he went from an afterthought to someone I'm genuinely excited in watching this year. Cal was invited to Hockey Canada's summer showcase which consisted of exhibition matches against the Americans, Fins,etc etc and was extravagant to put it mildly. Thomas Chabot I would probably consider Canada's top defenceman in these brief viewings but conversely I have no problem proclaiming that Foote may of been the second best d-man there. I was taken away by his performance. This slow footed, stationery defenceman that I was privy to last season transformed into a puck moving defenceman who wasn't a liability in his own zone. Perhaps I watched Cal's off nights as these performances are seemingly a thing of the past and although I'll reveal my awards after the preview is completed has been shortlisted for Defenceman of the Year. From a top three perspective, the way I see things dusting off are Cal slotting in as the number one, the brute physique in Stephens as the number two and the offensive dynamo as the third on the depth chart. Pair these three with Jonathan Smart and you all of a sudden have a very formidable top four, a top four that goes unrivaled by anyone else. If they address some offensive shortcomings I foresee then I will be the first to fall on my sword and indicate I've rated these Rockets too low. The Kamloops Blazers, a team for which they just handed off Joe Gatenby, a deal made possible from the aforementioned tremendous depth will be the top challenger in the division and we could see another year of captivating Blazer-Rocket rivalry hockey.
On multiple occasions, I referenced the fact that there are select teams in the league that have staggering depth between the pipes and a handful of teams that could be in need of one, I choose to include the Kelowna Rockets in this list. After Jackson Whistle prematurely put a halt on his junior career due to an injury, the team called up Brodan Salmond from Camrose of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but the front page story is what to do Michael Herringer. Is Herringer worth making one of Stadel or Southham expendable? If that's the mindset of the organization, I simply do not agree. I eloquently laid out the role of where I see Riley fitting in and Rodney is the heart and soul of the franchise. Let's face the facts here, Herringer was given ample playing time and frankly didn't make the most of it. Full disclosure that he shockingly transitioned into a poor man's Kelly Guard when they narrowly escaped the Victoria Royals in what unquestionably was one of the more epic series in some time, but it was the regular season splits that leave me skeptical. Ignore wins and losses as team quality will dictate that but there were waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many games that Michael forgot to show up and would lay a stinker. For a team that I would hope has championship aspirations this lack of consistency can't be tolerated. If I was Hamilton, this is the direction I would take.....to me Salmond showed enough in limited action that ideally if needed he could start thirty games for you and there's a kid out of Moose Jaw who no one talks about as he'll again hide behind Zach Sawchenko in Brody Wilms that would be the exqusite fan in Rocket land. I'm telling you all, this guys a stud and it would be a better use of asset management going to war with Salmond-Wilms opposed to the alternative. Herringer has a noble and loyal member of the organization but unfortunately falls victim to more pressing team needs.