Bruce Hamilton liked what he saw last weekend.
The Kelowna Rockets’ general manager and architect of this season’s Memorial Cup host team watched the future of his franchise as much as the present with young lineups defeating the Victoria Royals 4-0 at home to open the WHL preseason last Friday, then falling 5-3 to the rival Blazers in Kamloops on Sunday afternoon. Kamloops iced a more veteran squad — including their projected top forward line — but Kelowna managed to erase a 3-0 first-period deficit before the Blazers pulled away again to prevail.
“I saw some of our players from last year have moved along (in their development),” Hamilton said. “(Devin) Steffler is probably the most improved guy from last year’s team, from what we’ve seen so far. We’re excited about him. (Liam) Kindree had a real good game up in Kamloops. I thought (Kyle) Crosbie was really good in the game here (against Victoria). And I was really impressed with all the young defencemen, they played real well.”
This weekend, the Rockets are in Everett to face the Silvertips on Saturday night and home to the Prince George Cougars on Sunday evening.
Kelowna will be on the younger side again, continuing to audition several prospects with seven regulars away at NHL rookie camps — Nolan Foote (Tampa Bay), Kaedan Korczak (Vegas), Dillon Hamaliuk (San Jose), Jake Lee (San Jose), Kyle Topping (Carolina), Leif Mattson (Carolina) and Sean Comrie (Philadelphia). The first three were drafted this year, while the latter four have been invited on a tryout basis. None of those seven suited up for Kelowna last weekend either.
“Time will tell, but we anticipate them all being back for opening night,” Hamilton said.
Absentees Creating Opportunities
Hamilton has indicated a handful of roster spots remain up for grabs and those players on the bubble — both prospects and returnees — will be in his sights this weekend. For some, it could be their final chance to impress.
“It’s an opportunity for a number of guys to do something here to move themselves into a more permanent role with the hockey club,” Hamilton said. “And it’s giving an opportunity for some of these other guys who didn’t play as much last year to show us what they can do. They can earn opportunities that they wouldn’t normally get.
It’s an opportunity for some of these guys to step out and show us what they really are.
Goaltending Decisions Looming
The regular season is still two weeks away — starting Sept. 21, with the home opener against the Spokane Chiefs — but Kelowna could be making more roster cuts following this weekend’s games and ahead of next weekend’s home-and-home set with Kamloops to conclude the preseason.
There will be some difficult decisions, including in goal — where the two Coles, Schwebius and Tisdale, split the shutout against Victoria before the two returnees, Roman Basran and James Porter, were beaten by the Blazers.
Cole Schwebius, an 18-year-old Kelowna product acquired from Seattle in May as the perceived lesser piece in a blockbuster trade, had a stellar home debut in stopping all nine shots he faced, while Cole Tisdale turned aside all five in relief.
“I’m so happy for (Schwebius). He’s excited to be a part of the team here, and to get a shutout at home in his first game here was awesome for him,” said Alex Swetlikoff, a sophomore forward and fellow local. “He actually lives just down the road from me, so growing up we played together and we’re good friends.”
Schwebius has also looked sharp in practice sessions — seemingly pushing Porter, who yielded three goals on 23 shots in Kamloops during a busy first half in that contest, which included a 17-shot first-period barrage by the victorious hosts. Basran stopped 18 of 20 over the second half in taking the loss.
Basran’s spot is presumed safe as the Rockets’ starter, but Schwebius is challenging Porter for the backup role, and Tisdale is still in that mix too.
“We’ll probably split them all through this weekend again, then decide after that what we’re going to do,” Hamilton said of the goaltending situation.
“Both goalies in the first game played really well, Schwebius and Tisdale. The next night, our goalies got tested more because Kamloops obviously had an older team. Porter got caught on a couple and (Basran) got caught on one for sure, but it’s their first games too,” Hamilton added of the ongoing evaluation process. “I want to see the goaltending settle in and see where we are there.”
Young Defenders Looking Like Keepers
It’s becoming evident that Kelowna did very well in last year’s bantam draft and that 2018 class has shone brightly throughout training camp to this point.
Trevor Wong, the Rockets’ first-round pick (18th overall), is going to make the team as a 16-year-old forward and a trio of defenders — second-rounder Elias Carmichael and fourth-rounders Jackson DeSouza and Noah Dorey — are also making strong cases to stick.
“We have a really good group of players coming, and I’m sure every team feels the same, but we feel there are three of these 16-year-old defencemen that are all going to be real good players for us in the future,” Hamilton said. “I’m assuming there is going to be room for possibly one of them to stay here and the other two will probably go back to midget for another year, which won’t hurt them at all, and then be in a position where we can use them throughout the year if we have injuries or anything like that.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how they finish out here (over the four remaining preseason games).”
Carmichael scored the 2-0 goal against Victoria on a third-period power play — getting off a quick, accurate shot from the point — and didn’t look out of place in forming the top pairing with Steffler on that night. It’s entirely possible that they could comprise the third pairing come opening night — playing behind Koczak, Lee, Comrie and perhaps Cayde Augustine as the top four.
The other two 16 year olds were paired together versus Victoria, with Dorey holding his own and DeSouza drawing a favourable comparison to Damon Severson from Rockets play-by-play man Regan Bartel.
Severson, the 25-year-old Rockets’ alum now entering his sixth season with the New Jersey Devils, has been top of mind since he’s skating with his former junior team ahead of NHL training camp. Tyler Myers has been another practice participant and Carey Price even took the ice for Thursday’s session.
Rule Will Limit 16 Year Olds
Complicating matters — especially in a Memorial Cup year — is the CHL rule that 16 year olds must play a minimum of 40 games over the 68-game schedule.
If not for that rule, Kelowna may have kept two or potentially all three of Carmichael, DeSouza and Dorey to develop under the watchful eye of Adam Foote — a 20-year NHL defenceman, two-time Stanley Cup winner and Olympic champion who took over as the Rockets’ head coach last October.
“That’s a great big part of it. Sometimes that’s a good rule and at other times I don’t think it’s the greatest rule because in some cases some of these guys would be better staying and being with our coaches and practising every day and working on their game,” Hamilton said. “But that’s the rule and, in our case, the one 16-year-old that we do keep likely, it’ll be a challenge to get him into the 40 games he needs just because of the kind of people we’re going to have playing ahead of him likely.”
The expectation is that Kelowna will load up between now and the Jan. 10 trade deadline — acquiring at least a few older ringers, which would further limit the playing time for the couple youngsters that do crack the roster — but Hamilton pumped the brakes on that theory.
“Everybody thinks that, but I think our team is going to be just fine,” he said. “If there’s a chance to make us better, that makes sense, we’ll do that. But everybody is going around thinking that we’re just going to panic and trade and trade. We’ve already made a number of big trades that have made our hockey club better, and we have to see what we have before we worry about anything else.”
New Import, Novak, Getting Rave Reviews
Pavel Novak notched an assist in his North American debut, combining with Kindree to set up Augustine’s goal in getting Kelowna on the board in Kamloops.
A talented winger from the Czech Republic, Novak only arrived in the Okanagan last Tuesday and didn’t get on the ice until Thursday while awaiting his international transfer. He sat out Friday’s exhibition opener but, by all accounts, was impressive against Kamloops — showing flashes of his potential heading into his NHL draft year. Even Blazers broadcaster Jon Keen took notice.
So did Novak’s new teammates, who have now been practising with him for a full week.
“He’s really skilled and speedy,” Swetlikoff said. “I think he’ll be able to create plays and he has a good scoring touch, so hopefully he can bring some scoring for our team this year.”
Kindree has been centering Novak thus far and echoed that praise with superlatives such as “special” and “tremendous” in describing his skill-set.
“He’s a smaller player but a stockier guy and really hard on the puck, with great hockey IQ,” Kindree said. “It’s been a pleasure playing with him. Although the English may not be up to par yet, his hockey is definitely up to par.”
Hamilton, for his part, tried to temper the expectations for Novak, who was a standout for the host Czechs at last month’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup — scoring the overtime winner in the fifth-place game against the United States after previously displaying one of his go-to moves on a penalty shot and in a shootout.
“He’s good with the puck, but he got his eyes opened up in Kamloops because they were on him in a hurry. They had a fast lineup in place that night, and he just found out that it’s not near as easy … it’s not like practice,” Hamilton said. “He’s got a lot of talent and we’re looking forward to watching him come along, but expectations have to be fair.”
Finding Right Fits For Kindree
Kindree’s other winger, Michael Farren, is more of a familiar face.
“We’ve grown up together (in the Vancouver area). I’ve known him since I was about eight years old, we played on the Brick team together at West Edmonton Mall, so I’ve had some chemistry with him for a long time,” Kindree said.
That is subject to change, of course, once Nolan Foote and Hamaliuk are inserted into the lineup, along with Topping and Mattson.
Kindree was flanked by Foote for parts of last season and would welcome the chance to continue working on their connection.
“I’d love to get a shot like that on my wing,” Kindree said of the first-round NHL draft pick. “He’s got such a deadly shot and he’s able to get it off in pretty much any scenario. So getting the puck to him, especially with me being a pass-first mentality, it’s somebody that I’d love to have on my wing, but I’m ready to play with anybody.”
If Foote is paired with Kindree again, it’s possible that Novak and Farren are currently competing for the opportunity to round out that top line. Russian import Daniil Gutik could also get a look there if and when he reports to Kelowna.
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Swetlikoff’s Checking Line Taking Shape
Hamilton insisted nothing is set in stone through this stage of training camp, with Adam Foote and his coaching staff making those decisions closer to opening night and as the regular season progresses. But the belief is Topping and Mattson will continue to be a pairing on the other top-six line, while Swetlikoff centres a checking line alongside Mark Liwiski.
“We obviously have a little spark together, and I think it starts with our off-ice connection,” Swetlikoff said of playing with Liwiski.
Those two gained momentum after being paired together down the stretch last season. The third member of that line could be 18-year-old prospect Deegan Mofford, who seemed to fit well there against Victoria.
“They had some chemistry right away,” Hamilton said. “You’ve got a great skater in Liwiski and you’ve got a big, smart centreman in Swetlikoff, and then you’ve got a guy who should be a banger in Mofford. Playing with two guys like that will help (Mofford).”
In saying that, Hamilton wasn’t ready to declare Mofford had made the team.
“He’s got four more games to show us what he can do,” Hamilton said. “He’s had a real good camp. Big, physical guy, it’s just if he can keep moving his feet fast enough to keep up with the pace. And he’s got to have a physical presence in every game. He’s got great hands, so if he gets the puck, he can shoot, but he’s got to get to those spots in order to do it.
So far, he’s worked real hard, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares the next two weeks.
Hamilton also heralded the offseason work put in by Swetlikoff and Liwiski.
“In Swetlikoff’s case, I know he worked extremely hard this summer on his foot speed and just getting bigger and stronger,” Hamilton said. “He’s a big rig of a man that is only going to get better … and everyone wants a big centreman.”
Swetlikoff, who went undrafted in June after being ranked 175th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, has scored twice in the preseason — finding the back of the net in both games last weekend.
Consistency will be key for him, not so much from an offensive standpoint but simply staying engaged — staying in the fight per se, from shift to shift, period to period, game to game.
“Towards the end of the season, I thought I got better every game, so I just wanted to pick up where I left off,” Swetlikoff said. “I had a good offseason. I worked on a lot of speed and conditioning.
“I’m excited for this year, big year obviously, and I like how things are going so far.”
Staying engaged has never been an issue for Liwiski, who is a spark plug with a nose for the net but also a short fuse at times.
“The big challenge for him will be getting a little more finish to his game and a little more discipline to his game. That will enable him to play in a lot more roles,” Hamilton said. “He had a good summer, he did what he was asked to do. I don’t think we’ve seen the true skill-set of Liwiski yet. I think he’s got lots to offer still and is going to be a real good player for us.”
Naming Captain Not Imminent
With better discipline, Liwiski’s on-ice personality — full of tenacity, drive and determination — could evolve into a leadership role in the years to come.
It is anticipated that Nolan Foote will be named this season’s captain — his older brother Cal was the last to wear the ‘C’ in Kelowna, with the Rockets going without a captain last season — but Hamilton wasn’t prepared to disclose, nor discuss, those plans. As of today, it doesn’t sound like Kelowna will have a captain for opening night.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close right now. We’ll make that decision later on, between myself and the coaching staff,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got some new players here that we need to find out what kind of guys they are before we name any captains. That will be a big part of it.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented to go two full seasons without a captain. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since Dion Phaneuf in 2016. The New York Rangers could be entering their third season without. As could Vegas, with the Golden Knights yet to name the first captain in their franchise history. The Vancouver Canucks haven’t appointed a successor for Henrik Sedin either, though speculation suggests Bo Horvat could be getting that ‘C’ sooner than later.
Hamilton admitted he would eventually like to have a captain in Kelowna for the Memorial Cup campaign.
“Yeah, I think so. It would be nice,” he said, “but it’ll depend what we feel as a group. I’m not worried about that right now.”
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.