Kelowna Rockets Training Camp Preview: What to Watch for Memorial Cup Hosts

Bruce Hamilton had his game face on ahead of launching the Kelowna Rockets’ training camp and Memorial Cup season.

“We’ve been sitting around for a long time, so it’s time to get back to work,” Hamilton quipped earlier this week from his perch in the Prospera Place press box while watching the team’s rookie camp play out — featuring 160 prospects for future seasons.

The Rockets have been sidelined since March 19 when they lost a tiebreaker game to the rival Kamloops Blazers following the regular season, which left Kelowna out of the WHL playoffs.

It is rare for a major junior team to miss the playoffs when hosting the Memorial Cup the next season. It is rare for the Rockets to miss the playoffs period, with that occurring for only the second time since relocating from Tacoma, Wash., to Kelowna in 1995 — the other time was in 2006-07.

“We paid a price last year to stay the course, and the course was to play the guys that we had, to find out who can play, and now we’ll see how they come back out of the summer,” Hamilton said, with the first on-ice sessions for the Rockets’ returnees and prospective players taking place today.

“Making the team is the big challenge for a whole bunch of guys because there’s going to be competition here, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve got some guys coming in that we think are going to be real strong candidates.”

Missing the playoffs meant a lot of work leading up to May 2020 when the Canadian Hockey League’s championship tournament comes to town. Kelowna was awarded the hosting rights on Oct. 3, 2018 and changed coaches that same month, with Adam Foote replacing Jason Smith. From then on, every move has been made with the Memorial Cup in mind since the Rockets receive automatic entry as the host team.

RELATED: Rockets Commencing Memorial Cup Campaign

And Hamilton hasn’t been sitting around. He was busy at the bantam draft in May, acquiring two top-four defenders in Sean Comrie and Jake Lee as well as a top-six winger in Dillon Hamaliuk, who was selected in the second round of the NHL draft by San Jose in June.

Dillon Hamaliuk Seattle Thunderbirds
Dillon Hamaliuk, seen here with the Seattle Thunderbirds (22) protecting the puck from Lassi Thomson of the Kelowna Rockets (2), has been Kelowna’s biggest addition to date. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

The core is now in place to start camp, with the roster bolstered by those blockbuster trades. There will be more moves before the Jan. 10 deadline, with the Rockets short one overager as of today and potentially short on imports too.

RELATED: Rockets Will Be Waiting On Imports

Searching for Overager

The Rockets didn’t invite any free-agent overagers to training camp, but Hamilton won’t wait long to fill that hole. The deadline for other teams to declare their three overagers is Oct. 10, but Kelowna won’t want to settle for someone’s leftovers. Not in a Memorial Cup season.

“We’ll see who gets cut loose, but I don’t think we needed to bring somebody in just to have a body here,” Hamilton said. “Especially with 20 year olds, you want to be fair and up front with these guys right from the start. Unless it was somebody that was going to be a candidate to make our team, it wasn’t really what the plan was.”

A trade sooner than later is the more likely scenario, with a left-handed defenceman perhaps coveted to round out the Rockets’ top four with Kaedan Korczak and aforementioned newcomers Comrie and Lee, assuming Lassi Thomson won’t be returning.

Scouring the league for blueliners fitting that bill, the list includes a couple from reigning champion Prince Albert in Max Martin and Zack Hayes, plus Brandon’s Zach Wytinck, Tri-City’s Dom Schmiemann, Spokane’s Noah King, Red Deer’s Ethan Sakowich, and Ryan Schoettler from division rival Prince George, among those potentially available.

Two others were recently scratched off that list in Scott Walford, who was traded from Victoria to Saskatoon, and Seattle’s Jarret Tyszka, who plans to pursue his education rather than finish his WHL eligibility. Ironically, Walford and Tyszka were both drafted by Montreal in 2017 but went unsigned.

“Walford was never offered to anyone in the division because they didn’t want to have to play against him,” Hamilton said. “Tyszka is a good player and who knows with him, whether he changes his mind again.”

Jarret Tyszka
Jarret Tyszka could still be on the Rockets’ radar should he want to return to the WHL. Kelowna is familiar with him going back to the 2017 playoffs when Tyszka and the Seattle Thunderbirds — then led by Matt Barzal — defeated the Rockets in the conference final en route to winning the league championship. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

Everett’s Jake Christiansen, Edmonton’s Conner McDonald and Vancouver’s Dylan Plouffe could also be nice fits for Kelowna, but those three are less likely to be traded since their current teams could be contenders with them playing prominent roles.

Hamilton is keeping an open mind about that open overager spot. He could go with three forwards by acquiring a ringer to complement Kyle Topping and Leif Mattson. That seems unlikely unless the two import forwards — Pavel Novak and Daniil Gutik — don’t end up reporting, or unless Cayde Augustine appears ready for top-four duty during his NHL draft year.

“Augustine left here at 230 pounds (in March), he’s 205 pounds now, so he’s going to be a different guy,” Hamilton noted. “We need to see what Lee and Comrie can do. We know Korczak is going to be a dominant player. I keep saying the same thing, we’ve got to see what we’ve got.”

Learning From Last Year

That was a common theme throughout a wide-ranging pre-camp conversation — the Rockets are in wait-and-see mode for the most part — but Hamilton made it clear that adding another impactful overager in a timely fashion is a priority.

“That’s what killed us last year, we had no overagers that had an impact on the outcome. By and large, every night, we were in games and the overagers made the difference for the other team,” Hamilton said of also starting last season one short with only Braydyn Chizen and Ryan Bowen before upgrading to Dalton Gally and Schael Higson, while Matt Barberis and Lane Zablocki were limited by injuries during their stints in Kelowna.

In the meantime, Hamilton put the onus on Topping and Mattson to help carry the team, which they should be capable of as essentially point-per-game producers in each of the past two seasons. But can they get to another level?

“I’m looking forward to seeing how Topping has come out of the summer. I didn’t think he ended his season very well at all, and neither did Mattson,” Hamilton said of the longtime linemates who will be attending the Carolina Hurricanes’ rookie camp together in the coming weeks. “Those two guys need to get going early. They’re going to be 20 year olds, so they have to. They have to have an impact on the games early in particular.”

Kyle Topping of the Kelowna Rockets
Kyle Topping led the Kelowna Rockets in scoring last season with 69 points in 68 games. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

The New Guys

To the contrary, Hamilton tried to temper expectations for Kelowna’s offseason acquisitions.

“Lee and Hamaliuk are coming off injuries, so they’re going to be a little slower out of the gate and we’re going to be patient with them,” Hamilton said. “With Comrie, we need to be real patient and let him get adjusted to our league and make sure expectations are fair. But those are guys, we traded for them for a reason, because we think they can have an impact in the end.”

Hamaliuk missed the second half of last season with an undisclosed lower-body injury. He didn’t play at all in 2019 after putting up 26 points in 31 games through Dec. 29, 2018. Hamaliuk hadn’t fully recovered by the NHL draft combine in early June, opting out of the physical testing there, but he did participate in San Jose’s development camp in July.

“Hamaliuk is cleared and he’ll be going full bore now here,” Hamilton said in sharing that bit of good news.

A budding power forward, Hamilton and his head scout Lorne Frey took a liking to Hamaliuk before he got hurt and kept him near the top of their list of targets.

“We saw him play here against us before Christmas and he was arguably their best player in my mind, and Lorne’s mind also,” Hamilton said, referencing a wild 9-6 win for Seattle on Oct. 10, 2018 when Hamaliuk recorded four assists and earned third-star honours on the road.

“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.”

— Hamilton on Hamaliuk

The Goaltenders

The Rockets also acquired a goaltender in that trade with Seattle, getting 18-year-old Kelowna product Cole Schwebius in addition to Hamaliuk and Lee.

That prompted speculation that one of Kelowna’s returning goalies, Roman Basran and James Porter, might have been injured or may have requested a move, but that’s not the case.

“Everybody is healthy,” Hamilton assured. “(Schwebius) was offered and we just took him. It’s like defencemen, you can never have enough of them, and in goal, it’s the same way.”

Roman Basran Kelowna Rockets
Roman Basran remains the Rockets’ No. 1 netminder for this season. (Marissa Baecker/

Basran took over as Kelowna’s starter in the second half of last season after platooning with Porter for the first half — and also the previous campaign before suffering a season-ending injury — but had a forgettable finish when a couple of puckhandling miscues proved costly in that tiebreaker loss to Kamloops.

Still, Hamilton is confident in Basran and expects him to be mighty motivated after going undrafted.

“For sure, had we got into the playoffs, it would have made a big difference for him (getting drafted),” Hamilton stated. “Basran has been with us since he was 16 and he’s an 18-year-old player now, and this is when those guys become goalies. So I’m not as worried about our goaltending as some people might be.

“Basran and Porter, these other guys have to beat them out,” Hamilton added, mentioning Cole Tisdale as another prospect providing depth at that position.

The Centres

Kelowna’s position with the least depth might be centre, with Liam Kindree projected to play down the middle despite being a natural right-winger. Kindree did play centre for stretches of last season, often paired with leading goal-scorer Nolan Foote, though they didn’t develop great chemistry.

“Kindree has been hurt for two years, so we just need him to get out of the gate and be healthy, so we know what we have,” Hamilton said of the 19-year-old forward who will turn 20 in January. “He was a really highly thought of midget player, he won the scoring title (in the B.C. Major Midget League in 2016-17), so we’re looking forward to seeing that part of his game.”

Entering camp, Kindree is pencilled in to centre one of the top two lines and Topping the other, but Alex Swetlikoff and Kyle Crosbie could push for bigger roles after centering the third and fourth lines last season.

“That’s a fair group of centres and they’ll fight for who’s going to play with who. That’s what competition is all about,” Hamilton said.

Swetlikoff, another local product, came to the Rockets midway through last season and gained momentum down the stretch alongside prior acquisitions Mark Liwiski and Michael Farren. That trio will be counted on for secondary scoring this season — whether they are playing together or apart.

“Our coaching staff felt (Farren) came on pretty good at the end of the year and we’ll see what he does. I sure hope he can be a player because we paid a big price for him,” said Hamilton, who acquired Farren from Saskatoon on Oct. 11, 2018 for a third-round pick in the 2020 bantam draft.

“It’s the same thing with Liwiski, we want some miles out of him and we’re confident we’re going to get them,” added Hamilton, who got Liwiski from Everett on June 18, 2018 for a third-round pick in 2019 (the Silvertips selected 5-foot-4, 110-pound forward Ben Hemmerling at 49th overall).

Kelowna acquired Swetlikoff’s rights from Lethbridge on Dec. 6, 2018 for a fourth-round pick in 2022. He had been playing for the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers but joined the Rockets following the holiday break, debuting on Dec. 28.

The Rookies

The Rockets could also get an offensive boost from some impactful rookies. The hope is those new import forwards will show up in September — as late arrivals — but Trevor Wong was impressive in his call-ups last season as Kelowna’s first-round pick (18th overall) from the 2018 bantam draft. He got into five games as an affiliate — including that all-important tiebreaker — and scored his first WHL goal in his fourth regular-season appearance.

“Wong will be ready to play, there’s no doubt about that — he’s going to be an exciting player,” Hamilton said, noting the 16-year-old will likely start on the wing but could transition to his natural position of centre as the season progresses.

Another forward prospect to keep an eye on in camp and throughout the preseason is Jake Poole, a 17-year-old right-winger that the Rockets selected in the sixth round in 2017. He’s coming off a dominant midget season in Manitoba and will get a long look, according to Frey in this camp preview from DubNetwork’s Glen Erickson.

The Depth Chart

This is how the Rockets’ depth chart could look to start the 2019-20 season, though these assumptions were made without consulting head coach Adam Foote. He may very well have other plans, but this is how I see the team taking shape on paper.



Nolan Foote-Liam Kindree

Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff

Kyle Crosbie-Ethan Ernst

ANALYSIS: Most coaches prefer pairings over full lines and the Rockets are certainly set up to deploy these four pairings while mixing and matching the remaining wingers to round out their lines.

Balanced Lines

Nolan Foote-Liam Kindree-Michael Farren

Trevor Wong-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Dillon Hamaliuk-Kyle Crosbie-Ethan Ernst

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Dallon Wilton

Daniil Gutik/Pavel Novak/Jake Poole/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: Assuming the imports don’t report in time for the regular-season opener on Sept. 21 — at home to Spokane — the Rockets could start with these lines once everyone else returns from NHL camps. Farren gets the first shot on the top line, Wong gets insulated by the two overagers, Hamaliuk provides a big-bodied presence for the other youngsters, and Wilton forms a crash-and-bang checking line that can chip in offensively.

Stacked Lines

Nolan Foote-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Dillon Hamaliuk-Liam Kindree-Michael Farren

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Dallon Wilton

Trevor Wong-Kyle Crosbie-Ethan Ernst

Daniil Gutik/Pavel Novak/Jake Poole/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: The Rockets could go away from those pairings in favour of loading up their top two lines. Foote fit fairly well with Topping and Mattson last season — they were Kelowna’s most productive line when together, as to be expected as the team’s top three scorers. Hamaliuk could have more chemistry with Kindree than Foote, with Farren hanging around the top six. The checking line remains the same, while Wong slides down to form a kid line.

Familiar Lines

Nolan Foote-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Dillon Hamaliuk-Liam Kindree-Trevor Wong

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Michael Farren

Dallon Wilton-Kyle Crosbie-Ethan Ernst

Daniil Gutik/Pavel Novak/Jake Poole/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: The first, third and fourth lines all saw time together last season, while the two new faces up front — Hamaliuk and Wong — wind up flanking Kindree. Familiarity can be a good thing, but so can experimentation — especially early in the season.

Surprise Lines

Nolan Foote-Liam Kindree-Jake Poole

Trevor Wong-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Dillon Hamaliuk-Kyle Crosbie-Ethan Ernst

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Michael Farren

Dallon Wilton/Daniil Gutik/Pavel Novak/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: Well, there’s only one surprise here — that being Poole on the top line if he proves to be the real deal, thus bumping Farren down to a familiar spot and Wilton to the press box. Farren and Wilton could swap in and out depending on the opponent. Poole could also be a placeholder until Novak and/or Gutik arrive.

Optimal Lines

Nolan Foote-Liam Kindree-Daniil Gutik

Trevor Wong-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Dillon Hamaliuk-Kyle Crosbie-Pavel Novak

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Ethan Ernst

Michael Farren/Dallon Wilton/Jake Poole/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: If and when the imports are added to the mix, Kelowna would become that much deeper with as many as five new faces up front — Hamaliuk, Wong, Gutik, Novak and Poole. Gutik could get a long look on the top line with Foote, but Novak might also audition for that spot. Farren and Wilton could be the odd-men out to make room for the imports.

Crazy Lines

Daniil Gutik-Nolan Foote-Pavel Novak

Dillon Hamaliuk-Liam Kindree-Ethan Ernst

Trevor Wong-Kyle Topping-Leif Mattson

Mark Liwiski-Alex Swetlikoff-Jake Poole

Kyle Crosbie/Michael Farren/Dallon Wilton/Cole Carrier/Steel Quiring/Deegan Mofford

ANALYSIS: OK, this is crazy, but hear me out. Foote was drafted as a winger — Tampa Bay surely sees him as a winger in the NHL and Hockey Canada could have him slotted as a winger for the World Junior team — but Foote has played some centre in the WHL. Putting him between the two European playmakers could be dynamite. Hamaliuk and Ernst could be complementary wingers for Kindree, allowing Kelowna to roll three potent scoring lines. Poole sneaks in there to potentially add another offensive spark. This lineup speaks to the depth that Kelowna could possess if the imports do end up reporting, with Crosbie, Farren and Wilton on the outside looking in as a fifth line of sorts.


Projected Pairings

Jake Lee-Kaedan Korczak

TBD/OA-Sean Comrie

Cayde Augustine-Devin Steffler

Noah Dorey/Elias Carmichael/Jackson DeSouza

ANALYSIS: The defence seems more set heading into camp, though Comrie’s partner is to be determined with the likelihood of an overager eventually filling that hole. Lee should work well with Korczak and they should get plenty of time to develop chemistry. If that top pairing doesn’t pan out, Lee would presumably drop down with Comrie. Augustine and Steffler saw time together last season and both are best suited for third-pairing minutes on a contending team.

Temporary Pairings

Jake Lee-Kaedan Korczak

Cayde Augustine-Sean Comrie

Noah Dorey/Elias Carmichael-Devin Steffler

Jackson DeSouza

ANALYSIS: Temporary might not be the right word — current may be a better word — since Augustine could prove worthy of that role in making the most of his top-four audition. That would open the door for Dorey or Carmichael to crack the lineup on the left side of the third pairing, while DeSouza could also be knocking on the door on the right side in competing with fellow Colorado product Steffler.


Roman Basran

James Porter

Cole Schwebius

Cole Tisdale

ANALYSIS: This will be the goaltending depth chart, as previously discussed, with Porter backing up Basran again unless Schwebius or Tisdale play their way onto the team. In that case, Porter would likely be traded, with the Rockets dealing from a position of strength to address a need elsewhere in their lineup — perhaps fetching that left-handed defender for the second pairing or possibly a centre if they want to shift Kindree back to the wing.