Kelowna Rockets Preseason Update: Prospects Pushing for Roster Spots

Cole Schwebius and Deegan Mofford have been making the most of their opportunities with the Kelowna Rockets through two weeks of training camp.

Now four games into the WHL preseason, they have emerged as two of the biggest standouts — both 18-year-old prospects doing their best to stick on the roster of the Memorial Cup host team.

So far, so good — especially for Schwebius, who entered camp as No. 3 on Kelowna’s goaltending depth chart but has yet to allow a goal in exhibition action. He’s stopped all 30 shots he’s faced through 90 minutes, posting a 21-save shutout in Sunday’s 7-0 rout of the Prince George Cougars after turning aside nine shots in the first half of a 4-0 victory over the Victoria Royals to open the preseason the previous weekend.

“First game against Victoria, there were a couple whacky bounces early and I was a little bit nervous, but I settled into it,” Schwebius said following Sunday’s whitewashing. “Today, it was just kind of the way it went and I ended up with a shutout. You go into a game, you don’t really prepare for that to happen, but it was nice for sure.”

Both were home starts for his hometown team, with the Rockets acquiring the Kelowna product from the Seattle Thunderbirds as part of a blockbuster trade in May that also brought top-six forward Dillon Hamaliuk and top-four defenceman Jake Lee to the Okanagan.

“It’s been a good transition so far. It was pretty exciting getting dealt here in the offseason … it’s a pretty amazing opportunity,” Schwebius said. “I’m just trying to soak it up as much as I can and take advantage of it.

I feel pretty strong and I feel pretty good about how it’s gone so far.

Pushing Porter for Backup Role

Schwebius made 18 appearances with Seattle last season, posting a sub-.900 save percentage and near 3.90 goals-against average as a WHL rookie. Those aren’t impressive numbers, so his audition with the Rockets didn’t come with any assurances — not with Kelowna returning both netminders from last season in 18-year-old starter Roman Basran and 19-year-old backup James Porter.

Roman Basran Kelowna Rockets
Roman Basran has allowed three goals through two preseason games for the Kelowna Rockets, while James Porter surrendered three goals in his lone half-game appearance against the Kamloops Blazers, a 5-3 loss on Sept. 1. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

Cole Tisdale, 17, was also in the mix as Kelowna’s top prospect at that position. Tisdale has performed admirably in the preseason too, finishing off the shutout against Victoria with five saves, then stopping all nine shots he faced in the second half of Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Everett Silvertips in Langley.

“It was kept pretty simple, I was told I’d have an opportunity, and there’s not much more you can say than that,” Schwebius said of the message from management and the coaching staff prior to camp in addressing how he fit into Kelowna’s plans.

A crowded crease was nothing new to Schwebius, who had to beat out Eric Ward for the right to back up fellow Kelowna product Liam Hughes as Seattle’s starter a year ago. And that arrangement didn’t last either. Ward was traded to Red Deer in December and Hughes was dealt to Lethbridge ahead of the Jan. 10 deadline, with Roddy Ross starting for Seattle down the stretch en route to getting drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in June.

“It’s a little bit nerve-racking going into camp with so many numbers and stuff, but it was kind of a similar situation in Seattle. I had to battle for a spot last year, and I think that experience really helped me,” Schwebius said.

At the end of the day, you can’t worry about anybody else, you’ve just got to worry about yourself and do what you can do.

It appears Tisdale will be ticketed for the AJHL’s Camrose Kodiaks, the same Junior-A program that developed Ross for Seattle last season. The difficult decision for Kelowna will be between Schwebius and Porter, who produced similar stats with an .899 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average over 30 appearances last season as a sophomore for the Rockets. As a 17-year-old rookie, Porter’s numbers were .895 and 3.27 in 42 regular-season appearances, then .835 and 5.87 in Kelowna’s four-game playoff sweep at the hands of Tri-City in 2018.

The Rockets missed the playoffs in 2019, falling to the rival Kamloops Blazers 5-1 in a tiebreaker game that saw Basran struggle in the third period with a couple costly puckhandling miscues.

Schwebius Displaying Confidence

There is uncertainty in goal for Kelowna going forward, but that isn’t fazing Schwebius, who believes he belongs at the WHL level.

“Yeah, I think so. I came into camp, I wanted to prove that, and I’m going to try to keep proving that — every start I get, every single opportunity I get.”

The Rockets are starting to believe in Schwebius too.

“He is (making a good impression),” head coach Adam Foote said after watching Sunday’s shutout from the press box — opting for a different view than behind the bench. “I was happy for him. Cole did his job early, he let the puck hit him instead of trying to make the big save. I think he played the percentages well tonight. He did his job and we like how he carries himself.”

That extends beyond game action, with Foote adding: “I like Cole’s work ethic in practice and I like how he carries himself on and off the ice. He’s calm and he seems like a really good teammate. I think he’s very mature.”

Mofford Making Impact

Mofford is also making a strong case to crack Kelowna’s roster, proving effective in a variety of roles thus far.

In the two home games, he debuted on a checking line with Alex Swetlikoff and Mark Liwiski against Victoria, then transitioned onto a scoring line with Liam Kindree and Michael Farren against Prince George. Those are both pairings of returnees projected to start the regular season together — Swetlikoff and Liwiski combining size and physicality, Kindree and Farren attacking with speed and skill — and Mofford didn’t look out of place in rounding out either line.

In fact, he fit right in. Mofford added a power-forward element to the Kindree-Farren pairing and got rewarded for his efforts by netting his first goal of the preseason — finishing off a centering feed from Farren to open the scoring just two minutes 15 seconds into Sunday’s contest.

“We were crashing the net, Farren made a nice pass right out front and I happened to be there,” Mofford said, modestly. “It was nice, I just wanted to go out there and make a difference.”

That stood up as the winner and Mofford stood out from start to finish. He was a difference-maker for Kelowna, nearly setting up another goal that Farren fanned on from the slot, and possessing the puck for a good amount of time in the offensive zone.

“I thought he made a couple heads-up plays for a big man today,” Foote said. “For a big man, he’s got some patience, which is nice. It’s hard to teach that, and it’s nice to see that he can see the ice, he can see the play develop, and he can make plays.”

Mofford has been impressive from Day 1 of camp, showing up in better shape than previous years and benefitting from that newfound commitment to conditioning.

Lorne Frey, the Rockets’ director of player personnel and chief scout, has always liked Mofford’s upside — since selecting him in the third round of the 2016 bantam draft, 45th overall — and it has been on full display this fall.

Better late than never, everyone would agree.

“The last couple years, I came in and I wasn’t really ready and didn’t show them that I wanted to play here,” Mofford admitted. “I worked as hard as I could this summer and came to camp knowing I had to earn a spot because they gave me another shot. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get the shot, so I knew if I did, I was going to have to prove a point.

I just came into camp trying to battle as hard as I could and found my way to preseason and now I’m just trying to find a roster spot.

There are still two preseason games to go — a home-and-home set with Kamloops this coming weekend to close out the exhibition schedule. In the midst of redemption, Mofford’s physical presence will be needed again in that matchup to secure his spot.

“I’m feeling pretty strong and skating a lot better than last year. It’s nice to keep up with the play,” said the pride of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., who led his Red Deer midget team in goals (19) last season after getting cut relatively early by the Rockets.

Mofford hasn’t let up this time around despite already earning some praise from general manager Bruce Hamilton for his performance against Victoria on opening weekend. He took those compliments in stride — if he even saw Hamilton’s comments — and kept pushing forward against Prince George.

“I like his work ethic, I like the way he keeps going after the grind he’s been in,” Foote said of Mofford.

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Mofford’s Role Going Forward

Assuming he makes the team, it is more likely that Mofford will start on that checking line since the top-line spot is reserved for Nolan Foote once he returns from NHL rookie camp as a first-round pick for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Foote is expected back for opening night, along with Kelowna’s six other players attending NHL camps.

Still, it was promising to see Mofford excelling in all situations and showing he’s capable of complementing skill players.

“I’m out there trying to create some space for them, banging the body and just getting the puck loose, so they can come in and grab it,” Mofford said of flanking Kindree and Farren. “With Liwiski and Swetlikoff, we’re just out there creating space for each other. It’s nice playing with big, good guys, it opens the ice up a lot for you. When you get out of your end, you’re always playing with the puck, so it gives you a lot more confidence.”

Mofford has also got a couple looks on Kelowna’s power play in the preseason — and looks like he could be a net-front option as a big body with the ability to not only screen and occupy space for potential rebounds but to redirect incoming shots thanks to his eye-hand coordination.

“I’m just out there trying to get in front of the goalie’s eyes, so he can’t see, and if the puck ends up in front of the net, I’m trying to bang it in,” he said.

Others Gaining Momentum

Mofford and Schwebius got most of the press after clobbering the Cougars, but the Rockets got contributions from everybody with 10 of their 12 forwards recording a point.

That included two younger prospects, with 16-year-old Steel Quiring earning his first WHL point by setting up Ethan Ernst’s breakaway goal to stretch Kelowna’s lead to 6-0 in the second period, while 17-year-old Jake Poole picked up his third assist of the preseason by feeding fellow Manitoba product Dallon Wilton to round out the scoring less than two minutes later.

Those two — Quiring and Poole — were much improved from the previous weekend against Victoria. Granted, Poole was credited with two assists in that win over the Royals — one of which should have went to Mofford — but he seemed a half-step behind the play before catching up against Prince George.

“They both made some plays and saw a lot of ice, so that was nice,” said Foote, noting the assistant coaches did a good job in shortening the bench for the third period to allow the bubble players more opportunity to shine. “It allowed them to get a little bit more involved, and they got some confidence.

“These guys are young and they are going to be nervous for the first couple games. Any young guy, once you get a couple games under your belt, you get some more confidence, you get more acclimatized to the environment … and I think they showed that tonight.”

Novak Shows Glimpses of Potential

Pavel Novak was one of Kelowna’s two forwards held off the scoresheet — along with fellow 17-year-old Cole Carrier — but the Czech import had a helping hand on Kelowna’s fourth power-play goal of the game.

Novak made a terrific play to hold the line when the puck was awkwardly passed into his skates, spinning away from pressure and delivering a perfect cross-ice feed to Swetlikoff for a Grade-A chance that was stopped but not smothered by Prince George goaltender Tyler Brennan. The puck never left the zone and Kyle Crosbie netted his second goal of the night shortly thereafter to make it 5-0.

Novak started the game on a line with Swetlikoff and Liwiski but later took some spins with Kindree and Farren before their line was shut down for much of the third period.

Making his home debut in his third preseason appearance, Novak came as advertised for the most part — displaying both his playmaking ability and his willingness to shoot — but he was also surprisingly physical in finishing most of his checks and not shying away from any contact.

Novak was more noticeable with Kindree and Farren — the pairing he had practised with for most of the week — but expect him to see additional ice-time against Kamloops this weekend in Kelowna’s final tune-ups for the regular-season opener on Sept. 21, at home to the Spokane Chiefs.

Recapping Weekend Results

The weekend got off to a rough start when the Rockets and Silvertips both showed up with white jerseys for warmups in Langley. As a result, Kelowna had to wear the Vancouver Giants’ black jerseys for that afternoon affair in which the Rockets couldn’t solve Everett’s new goaltender Keegan Karki, who stood tall for a 25-save shutout.

A 19-year-old American coming to the WHL from the USHL, Karki literally stands tall at 6-foot-5 but is expected to back up the much shorter Dustin Wolf, who is listed perhaps generously at an even six feet.

The lone goal in Saturday’s setback was a power-play marker midway through the first period by Aidan Sutter, a 16-year-old defenceman from Kamloops who isn’t related to the famous Sutter family from Viking, Alta.

“I loved the guys’ game (Saturday), I thought our players played well,” Foote said. “Everett had two 5-on-3s early and they got the quick goal. We didn’t have the start … but I liked our response in the second period.”

Adam Foote Kelowna Rockets
Adam Foote, right, is entering his first full season as head coach of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

The response from Saturday to Sunday was even better, with Kelowna exploding for seven goals against Prince George. Farren and Liwiski had the other two that haven’t yet been referenced.

“Everett to tonight is two different teams and it’s hard to judge and get too ramped up early in preseason because there’s so many different lineups,” Foote said. “I know (the Cougars) were a little bit weak, but our guys were hopping. There were a lot of good things and guys are putting our game plan into play, so it was nice to see that happen.”