Dillon Hamaliuk couldn’t have scripted a better debut for the Kelowna Rockets — at least on the scoresheet.
“It was like the best, worst game for me,” he joked following his four-point, first-star performance with two goals and two assists, including the game-winner — an overtime buzzer-beater, lifting the Rockets to a 4-3 victory over the Spokane Chiefs in Saturday’s home opener.
“I got lucky at times, but I still got to clean up a lot of things — a lot of system stuff I need to work on,” Hamaliuk continued in his self-evaluation. “We’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do still, and then I think we’re going to have a terrific team.”
Best, Worst Game?
That was quite the sound bite — best, worst game — but his new head coach, Adam Foote, totally understood it. Told of the mixed review, Foote chuckled before sharing his take on Hamaliuk’s productive debut.
“You could tell he hasn’t played since (December). The first half, I think he was starting to get a little bit frustrated,” Foote said, “but I love guys that will throw the body around when they’re not (having success) — that’s a true power forward.
“You got to love hockey players that when things don’t go your way, you can get a little bit dirty and get yourself into the game, and that’s what he did.”
Indeed, it took Hamaliuk some time to get going — to work off some of that rust. Thus the ‘worst’ part.
“It was tough for me to start,” he admitted. “First time putting on the Rockets’ jersey, it was a little nerve-racking. …
“It’s also a confidence thing as well. I have to build that and it started tonight. A little more confidence and then I’ll be back — back on track like I was last year.”
Came As Advertised
If this is just the start of things to come from Hamaliuk — who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury — that bodes well for the Rockets, who acquired him from Seattle in a May blockbuster as the key piece to bolster their Memorial Cup roster. He’ll be a top-six forward, forming a potent 1-2 punch with Nolan Foote on left wing.
Foote missed the season opener while attending Tampa Bay’s training camp, suiting up for an NHL preseason game on the same night before getting reassigned to Kelowna the next day.
In his absence, Hamaliuk stepped up to make an immediate impact and a strong first impression. He came as advertised — a physical presence with a nose for the net.
“Everything that (assistant coach Kris) Mallette told us of what he was, it happened tonight,” Adam Foote said, referencing the scouting report on a player that he hadn’t recalled seeing before.
Reminded of Hamaliuk’s strong showing in Kelowna last October — when he recorded four assists for third-star honours in Seattle’s 9-6 road win on Oct. 10, two weeks before Foote replaced Jason Smith as the Rockets’ bench boss, with Mallette the lone holdover on the current staff — Foote acknowledged he was likely in attendance that night: “When you’re a fan and you’ve got kids in the game, you don’t remember — you get caught watching.”
Now that he’s the coach and they are on the same team?
“We needed a guy with that net presence. We’ve got a couple good goal-line players, but someone that likes to go into those dirty areas is going to give defenders fits,” Foote said of Hamaliuk.
For the record, it was watching that particular game when Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton and director of player personnel Lorne Frey identified Hamaliuk as a potential target for their Memorial Cup team, with Kelowna winning the hosting rights the week before on Oct. 3.
“We saw him play here against us before Christmas and he was arguably (Seattle’s) best player in my mind, and Lorne’s mind also,” Hamilton said in discussing that trade prior to training camp — before seeing Hamaliuk in a Rockets’ jersey.
“We needed some size for sure, but we needed some guys that have some finish and that’s what we think he’s going to bring. I don’t think we’ve seen his true game yet either, because he missed half a year.”
How poetic that proved to be in his Kelowna debut, and for those who weren’t paying close attention to Hamaliuk that night — nearly a year ago now — he painted a pretty good picture in the present of what to expect from him this season.
“Just what I showed out there, just a lot of being in front of the net type of goals,” Hamaliuk said, “and my physicality … just being able to bring the team up and almost motivate guys. Like if I’m out there hitting, it kind of fires the bench up a little bit and everybody likes to see that.”
Cleaning Up Rebounds
Hamaliuk was cleaning up rebounds on this night, pulling Kelowna even at 2-2 on a third-period power play, then putting on the finishing touch as time expired in the extra frame. He also had a goal disallowed in the first period, redirecting a point shot into the net but getting called for goaltender interference in the process to prevent Kelowna from taking a 2-0 lead at the time. His winner was reviewed to see if the clock had run out before the puck crossed the line — it was close, but it counted and set off quite the celebration to start off this Memorial Cup campaign.
“It’s definitely a good start. It was good to get that win under our belt,” said third-year defenceman Kaedan Korczak, who netted the 3-3 equalizer on another power play to force overtime and didn’t seem to mind that his tying goal got overshadowed by Hamaliuk’s efforts. “He adds a lot to our offence, he’s a good guy to have. He’s a great player, even better teammate.”
Hamaliuk’s goals — all three of them, including the first tally that was taken away — came from in and around the crease. That is going to be his office and where he’ll make his living if he makes it as a pro. Not that he doesn’t have a decent shot off the rush or the hands to pull off a breakaway deke, but Hamaliuk knows the bulk of his goals will come close to the net — and that his future earnings will be a reward for paying the price to take up that real estate.
Call them greasy goals — or even garbage — but they all count the same and will pay the bills some day down the road for the San Jose Sharks’ prospect, drafted in the second round (55th overall) this June.
And some of his goals, no matter how they go in, will be special — like his overtime winner that stood up.
“It was right where I wanted to be, in front of the net … and I was able to bang that one home and it felt pretty good,” Hamaliuk said, noting there were nervous moments while awaiting word from the video goal judge. “I thought it was going to be just like the first one and it wasn’t going to count … so I was kind of lucky there.”
Lucky for the result, but the sequence that led up to that deciding announcement showcased Hamaliuk’s offensive skill-set.
On the final shift of the 3-on-3 session with a shootout looming, Hamaliuk gained speed through the neutral zone in bursting up the middle of the ice and managed to stay onside in receiving a perfectly timed pass from Kyle Topping before surging between the defenders and nearly scoring with a high blocker-side shot. That would have been more of a highlight-reel finish, but the puck clipped the shaft of the goaltender’s stick and sailed wide left.
Hamaliuk stayed with it and Topping helped worked the puck back to Jake Lee at the point. By then, Hamaliuk was setting up a screen for Lee’s incoming shot, which was losing steam on its way to the net. Hamaliuk sped it up with his first swipe at the puck, giving it enough of a boost to garner a rebound, and his second swipe slid the puck past a sprawled and outstretched Campbell Arnold just as the buzzer sounded to end overtime.
Hamaliuk’s first goal as a Rocket — the one in the third period — was a product of being in the right place at the right time. Jake Poole’s low shot off the left pad of Spokane’s goaltender kicked out to Hamaliuk on the doorstep and it appeared he might have kicked it in — that it may have gone off his skate as much as his stick, but that is allowed under the WHL’s revised rules. No longer a review required there.
Regardless, Hamaliuk delivered two clutch goals and ensured he’ll continue to be a go-to guy for Kelowna, even with Nolan Foote returning to the fold this week. They will be deployed on separate lines at even strength — due to playing the same position — but could become a dynamic scoring duo on the power play and in other key situations.
“They give me a lot of opportunity here, which is amazing. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Hamaliuk said.
Now that he’s endeared himself to the coach — not only through the damage he did on the scoresheet, but his work away from the puck and aggressive approach to getting it back — that opportunity is only going to grow.
“We were playing him in a lesser role early, just to get his feet in there,” Adam Foote said of easing Hamaliuk into the lineup, starting him alongside Liam Kindree and new import Pavel Novak but playing him more with overagers Topping and Leif Mattson as the game progressed.
“He just goes to the hard areas and when things don’t go his way, he gets upset and just throws the body around — and we need guys like that,” Foote reiterated.
The lines will look a little different again this weekend as Nolan Foote makes his season debut during a busy three-in-three stretch, with Kelowna in Kamloops on Friday, home to Everett on Saturday, and in Langley to face Vancouver on Sunday.
“That’s not an easy weekend. It’s hard, but everyone in the league has got different schedules,” Adam Foote said. “What’s nice is we’re deeper than we were last year already, so we can use more players and not burn out some of our top players.”
Overall, Foote was thrilled to open the regular season on a winning note — netting an early two points in the standings. And it was a fun one for the 5,302 partisan fans at Prospera Place.
“We’ll definitely take it,” said Foote, whose squad led 1-0 after the first period — it would have been 3-0 if not for Hamaliuk’s disallowed goal and Alex Swetlikoff pinging a post — but trailed 2-1 at the second intermission. “It didn’t seem like things were going our way, there were some momentum swings. Last year, we might have broke if things like that didn’t go our way early, so it’s a good sign that we hung in there. We could have been up and we didn’t let it bother us. We have a stronger mindset, for sure, in our room.”
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.