Cayde Augustine slimmed down, from 230 to 205 pounds.
Devin Steffler, his potential defence partner, bulked up by almost 15 pounds.
Kyle Crosbie packed on 17 solid pounds as an undersized forward.
Deegan Mofford also committed to conditioning, trimming a little to take his game to the next level as an 18-year-old prospect.
“It was a good summer for them and others,” Kelowna Rockets head coach Adam Foote said in sharing some of the offseason success stories emerging from the first week of training camp ahead of their preseason opener tonight at home to the Victoria Royals. The Rockets are also in Kamloops on Sunday afternoon to face the rival Blazers on the opening weekend of the WHL exhibition schedule.
“Those players that put the weight on, they just naturally have more confidence. They don’t get pushed off pucks as easy and their speed is up,” Foote said. “You can tell the players that put the weight on and put the work in over the summer. We’re definitely seeing some change, for sure.”
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
The theme of every training camp — bigger, faster, stronger — the Rockets had several returnees report back with noticeable gains. Or leans.
That was important with a number of prospects — such as Mofford — showing up in shape to compete for coveted roster spots on a team that will be built to win in the national spotlight when the CHL’s championship tournament comes to town. Kelowna also hopes to contend for the WHL title — the Ed Chynoweth Cup — between now and then.
“It’s become very competitive and it’s exactly what we wanted and expected,” Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton said five days into training camp on Wednesday afternoon.
“I like all our guys, we can’t say we’ve been disappointed in anybody,” he added.
Mofford a Changed Man
A year ago, Mofford was something of a disappointment, with the Rockets’ brass quietly calling him out for a lack of conditioning and cutting him relatively quick to spoil his NHL draft year. But he went back to Red Deer and led his midget team in goal-scoring — netting 19 over 29 games — before returning to the Rockets with more pep in his step and perhaps a chip on his shoulder.
“From last year to this year, he’s just a different player completely,” said Foote, who wasn’t coaching the Rockets at last year’s camp but was following closely with his son Nolan also entering his draft year en route to getting selected in the first round by Tampa Bay after leading Kelowna in goals with 36 in 66 games.
“Mofford has been a big surprise,” echoed Hamilton. “He’s played a lot better and he’s committed himself to being in shape — another guy that got trimmed down. So far through camp, he’s looking good, but camp is camp and when we start shooting real bullets, we’ll know more.”
Mofford projects as a “power forward kind of guy,” according to Hamilton, who humoured a comparison to former Rocket Carter Rigby (2011-14). “He skates better than (Rigby) probably, but Rigs played in the league for a number of years and this guy hasn’t played here yet, so I don’t like comparing anybody to former players.”
Augustine, Steffler Much Improved
These are early days, but the early verdict is that Augustine and Steffler have made significant strides individually and as a possible pairing.
“Steffler had a real good summer and he’s looked real good here, but we’re going to find out a lot this weekend when we start to play some games as far as where everybody is at,” Hamilton said. “These scrimmages can be a little misleading because their intensity can be lacking at times. So we’ll see once we get into the games, but so far I’ve been really happy.”
Foote’s stance was much the same when discussing the standouts thus far. He didn’t want to jump to any conclusions in his evaluations.
“I try not to rank or rate the guys that were here before too much, especially the older players,” Foote said. “I try to pay more attention to our younger vets that were here — like Crosbie popped from last year and Steffler popped — but I look more at the young guys, the prospects here. There’s a lot of depth, a lot of young players have caught our eye. I think we’re deeper this year.”
Foote agreed that Steffler is off to a great start in camp, and expressed cautious optimism for Augustine as well. This is his draft year and there could be a spot for the taking in Kelowna’s top four, barring a trade or the addition of an overager to fill that hole. In that case, Augustine would likely settle in alongside Steffler on the third pairing.
“He’s put a lot of work in but, like I said, I don’t try to rank those guys or look into it good or bad right now,” Foote said of Augustine, who got into 43 games as a 17-year-old rookie, producing two goals and six points last season. “We’ll find out when the real games start.”
Hamilton commended Augustine for coming back lighter and looking more mobile — getting around the ice with less effort — but also wanted to withhold judgment.
“A lot of credit to Augustine for losing that weight, but now he’s got to play,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to see him play and find out whether he can be a productive guy or not.”
Defence Prospects Making Case
As good as Steffler and Augustine have been through the first week, they are still going to have to hold off a few hard-charging defence prospects to solidify their roles as regulars.
Steffler will be pushed by fellow Colorado product Jackson DeSouza on the right side, while Augustine has Elias Carmichael and Noah Dorey nipping at his heels on the left side of the depth chart.
“They have both been excellent,” Hamilton said of the latter two — the Rockets’ second- and fourth-round selections from the 2018 bantam draft. “I don’t know who’s sticking yet, but they’re pushing, so it’s good to see and it’s good for them. They have really played well.”
Foote played two decades in the NHL as a defenceman, so he’ll be able to help with their development should those three crack the Rockets’ roster.
“They have the skating ability, they have the power. They all have enough power, now it’s just rewiring. We work with their brains on how to manage the ice, manage the game,” Foote said. “We can’t expect them to come in and be seasoned like a three- or four-year WHL defenceman. That’s a process, but they have had a good camp.
“One of them will pop out, that can handle that rev up (to the regular season),” Foote continued. “Some guys need longer or might be further behind in the hockey IQ part, but that’s fine. We’re here to help them and teach them and develop them.”
Again, this is Week 1 of a long season and the returnees will be ramping up at their own pace. But there are a few new faces arriving as roster locks and generating plenty of interest. That includes a trio of offseason trade acquisitions in Dillon Hamaliuk, who was a second-round pick for San Jose in June, Jake Lee and Sean Comrie, plus Czech import Pavel Novak.
Starting with Comrie, Hamilton called him a “real pleasant surprise” after trading down from fifth overall in this year’s bantam draft to acquire his rights from Brandon before successfully recruiting Comrie to the WHL from the NCAA.
Foote raved about the 19-year-old defender who has been twice passed over in the NHL draft despite possessing the skill-set and playing style of a poor man’s Duncan Keith in the way he calmly processes the game and moves the puck with poise. Nobody was touching that comparison, but Comrie developed in the footsteps of a more recent Chicago second-rounder, Ian Mitchell, with AJHL Spruce Grove before being reunited at the University of Denver last season.
I had a really good feeling about him. He’s what I thought he would be, but I think he’s even better.— Foote on Comrie
“This guy is very calm and calm is fast for me, especially for a defender,” Foote elaborated. “I like his demeanour, and I think the year he had with the (University of Denver), being around older players, that maturity level and experience, I think will help our locker room. I’ve been very happy with him.”
The Rockets then traded out of the first round altogether by packaging the 10th overall pick to Seattle as part of a blockbuster that landed both Hamaliuk and Lee — as well as goaltender Cole Schwebius, who happens to be a Kelowna product.
Hamaliuk was the prize piece, a power forward who started strong in his draft year before getting hurt and missing the entire second half with an undisclosed lower-body injury, though his stock hardly suffered. He’s healthy again now and should become a go-to guy for Kelowna.
He’s definitely a power forward — hungry, plays with an edge, protects the puck well. He knows how to keep the play alive, and he’s tenacious — I can see his tenacious character. How he has puck control and keeps fighting for it, it’ll rub off and guys are going to learn just from watching him.— Foote on Hamaliuk
“In a seven-game series . . . with his big body and the way he thinks the game, that’s where he’ll shine,” Foote added. “Just a great addition.”
At the time of that trade — at the WHL bantam draft on May 2 — most expected Lee to also be selected in the NHL draft in June. Many scouts had him ranked in the top 150 — in the top five rounds. (I personally had Lee ranked No. 127, in the fifth round, and mocked at Nos. 118 and 113 in the fourth round.)
“I just can’t believe the kid didn’t get drafted. That shocks me,” Foote said two months after the fact.
As for the scouting report on Lee, Foote said: “He’s mean, he plays mean, he plays crusty, and I like it a lot. He’s got a little old-school in him.” And also a little skill? “I think so, and I don’t know how much (skill) because I haven’t seen enough, but I definitely see something there.”
Hamilton wasn’t sure if he’d suit up for tonight’s preseason opener after only getting into one camp session, but everyone is looking forward to Novak’s debut.
“It’s going to be exciting to see what kind of player he is,” Hamilton said.
The Rockets — and the rest of the hockey world — got a glimpse of Novak’s upside when he starred for the host Czechs at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup under-18 tournament earlier this month. Novak shone brightly in the first big event of his draft year, scoring the overtime winner in the fifth-place game against the United States and displaying a flair for the dramatic throughout that showcase by also scoring on a penalty shot and in a shootout.
“I did (watch the Hlinka), and he’s obviously got deception in his game — he’s got skill,” Foote said of Novak.
“Just meeting him for the first time this week, he’s excited, he’s hungry, he’s confident, he knows what he wants, and it’s going to be fun to see him in the lineup,” Foote added.
The other nice thing about Novak is that he’s already got a good handle on the English language. There isn’t much of a barrier, according to Foote.
“He’s better than I think he thought he was (at speaking English), and better than what I was told.”
Intriguing Forward Prospects
In addition to those four newcomers who will be in the fold this season, there are a couple other forward prospects turning heads in camp — namely Jake Poole and Arvega Hovsepyan.
Poole, who just turned 17 in June, tore up the Manitoba midget AAA league last season — leading his team in scoring by a whopping 23 points and finishing fifth among league leaders with 81 points, including 40 goals, over 48 games.
“He seems like a player. I like him, but I like a lot of guys,” Foote said of Poole. “And that’s why I don’t have the hard job — somebody else has to figure that out. Lorne (Frey, the Rockets’ assistant GM and director of player personnel) and Bruce and their group will figure that out.”
Poole will get a long look and is considered a strong candidate to stick with the Rockets.
Hovsepyan, a 16-year-old who hails from Los Angeles and is coming off a quality campaign at Shattuck St. Mary’s (31 points in 54 games), won’t likely be signing or sticking in Kelowna this fall. Trevor Wong — the Rockets’ first-round pick from 2018 — is expected to be the only 16-year-old forward on the roster for this Memorial Cup season.
However, Hovsepyan has already opened a lot of eyes during his short time in the Okanagan.
“He’s been really good,” Hamilton said. “He’s a very talented player. He doesn’t jump out until he has the puck, but when he has the puck, he has it a lot and makes very intelligent plays.”
The next step is getting that commitment from Hovsepyan, who will certainly have college options in the United States — NCAA programs will be recruiting him heavily over the next calendar year — and he could even be on the radar for the National Team Development Program for next season, which will be his NHL draft year.
The Rockets took a flyer on Hovsepyan in the eighth round of last year’s bantam draft (171st overall). He was arguably a first-round talent, but most teams assumed he’d be college bound. He still might be, but Kelowna has had success recruiting players from California in the past, including Colin Long and Shane McColgan.
“Lorne did a good job in finding this guy,” Hamilton said. “He’s an interesting kid. He’s probably going to go back to Shattuck and play, but we sure hope we can get him to come back next year. He’d have a chance to make our team for sure. We’re really excited about him.”
So who are Foote and Hamilton most looking forward to seeing in game action this weekend?
“All of them, all of them,” Foote insisted. “Even a guy that may not have looked too good out here in some of the stuff, he might pop in a game. Some players play better in structure, some players play better in the pylons, and some guys play better in shinny. So it’ll all kind of shift a bit.”
Hamilton also took the high road on that question.
“I don’t think I’m going to single anybody out,” he said before disclosing his lineup plans. “I never know with Kamloops and Victoria, what they’re going to dress, but we’re going to go with a bunch of young guys. We’re not going to play any of our guys that are going to (NHL rookie) camps, just out of respect — they don’t need to get scuffed up in one of these (exhibition games).
“So there’s going to be some guys that we’re going to get a look at. A couple of our 15s are going to play, that are signed now and committed. It’ll be interesting to see how they do.”
The Rockets started camp this past Saturday with 61 prospective players and were below 50 by Wednesday, with another round of cuts to come following Sunday’s game.
“After the weekend, the 15s will all pretty well be done,” Hamilton said of this year’s bantam draft class, with those kids only eligible to play five games as affiliated players this season.
“We’ll be down close to our team, and then some of the kids that will probably be on the midget team (Okanagan Rockets) at the end will probably be here for a while and we’ll give them a little more time.”
Foote is staying out of the roster selection process for the most part. This is his first training camp as a WHL head coach — he took over from Jason Smith one month into last season, on Oct. 23, 2018 — whereas Hamilton and Frey have been together since the Tacoma days, dating back nearly 30 years now to 1991.
“That’s not up to me,” Foote said when asked about the planned cuts and the preferred timeline for getting the regular-season roster in place. “Lorne and Bruce have done this for a long time. They might bring something to me (for feedback and input), but it’s been smooth — it’s been a great training camp and well designed by them.
“We’ve got lots of time to get ready. I’m not going to get too excited — it’s going to be a long, long year.”
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.