There’s no shortage of star power and firepower on display in the Western Hockey League’s first-round playoff matchup between the Tri-City Americans and Kelowna Rockets.
On paper, in comparing the rosters, this is a series fitting of a conference final, and both these teams could be considered Memorial Cup contenders.
Tri-City underachieved in the regular season but is finally healthy and firing on all cylinders, getting out to a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven thanks to 5-0 and 9-7 wins in Kelowna over the weekend.
The Rockets rolled to another B.C. Division banner this season but, to reach the second round, their goaltending and penalty-killing will need to improve when this quarterfinal series resumes tonight and Thursday in Kennewick, Wash.
As for all that talent, at least a half-dozen and likely upwards of a dozen players between the teams will have NHL futures down the road — perhaps as soon as next season for some.
Both franchises have a big three, with the Americans led by Michael Rasmussen and the dynamic defence duo of Juuso Valimaki and trade-deadline acquisition Jake Bean, while Kelowna counters with Cal Foote on the back end and a pair of top-end forwards in Dillon Dube and Kole Lind.
That’s not to mention Carsen Twarynski, the Rockets’ leading goal-scorer in the regular season, or potential 2019 first-rounders Nolan Foote and Kaedan Korczak for Kelowna. Sasha Mutala also fits that bill for Tri-City, which has another underrated blueliner in Dylan Coghlan and a handful of lesser-known high-skill forwards.
Twarynski (Philadelphia) and Coghlan (Vegas) are signed by their respective NHL clubs, but they are skating in the shadows of those aforementioned six high-profile prospects in this series.
Tri-City’s trio are all first-rounders, all top-20 draft picks, and all ranked in the top 50 of The Hockey News’ recently published Top 100 NHL-owned prospects. Valimaki took top billing on that list at No. 16, followed by Rasmussen (30), Bean (36), Foote (59) and Dube (87), while Lind was strangely snubbed as a glaring omission.
The Hockey News is no longer the gospel that it once was, but its list is still telling and a good indicator of their upside.
Of that elite group, Rasmussen was the highest pick (2017, 1st Round, 9th overall, Detroit Red Wings) ahead of Bean (2016, 1st Round, 13th overall, Carolina Hurricanes), Foote (2017, 1st Round, 14th overall, Tampa Bay Lightning), Valimaki (2017, 1st Round, 16th overall, Calgary Flames), Lind (2017, 2nd Round, 33rd overall, Vancouver Canucks) and Dube (2016, 2nd Round, 56th overall, Calgary Flames).
Enjoying the Competition
For their part, they are enjoying the head-to-head competition.
“It’s pretty cool and it makes for a good series,” said Dube. “It’s exciting to see the guys who are in this series. There’s a lot of great players out here and it’s good for the fans.
“It’s awesome getting right into it like this — it’s a good first round, a good test,” he added. “If we can win this series, it’ll show a lot for our team. It would give us a lot of confidence moving on.”
So far, the Americans have had the upper hand, but it’s evident that no lead is safe and it could be a high-scoring series the rest of the way. For as long as it lasts.
“Any time you can play with good players, and play against good players, it’s a lot of fun,” echoed Bean. “To have that combination going on, in the playoffs, it’s pretty special. And whoever moves on, I’m sure you’re going to see more of that as the playoffs go on.
“We’ve got it pretty locked down here, so hopefully we can keep our success going.”
Sharing the ice with this calibre of prospects is nothing new to Bean and Dube, who have represented Canada at the past two World Junior Championships, winning gold together in Buffalo in January. Foote, for Canada, and Valimaki, for Finland, were also part of this year’s best-on-best tournament, where the rosters are stacked from top to bottom.
“I’m really happy with the guys we have here. That’s what I’m more focused on, but obviously you notice the talent in the other room too,” said Valimaki. “The pace, the physical play, everything is always different in playoffs than the regular season. That’s good, I like tough games, I guess we all do, and especially winning them.”
Win or lose, this series will prove to be valuable experience for everybody involved going forward.
“It’s a fast series and it’s a lot of fun to play in, definitely a step up from the regular season,” said Dube, who has been held pointless through the opening two games.
“Maybe we were gripping our sticks a little tight (in Game 1), with all the guys they have and we have, and just the matchup and how intense it is,” he said. “Maybe we were a little nervous and some puck luck didn’t go our way, but we’re right there. I think we outplayed them for a lot of the games and just some bounces didn’t go our way.”
Kelowna is convinced the series is far from over despite losing home-ice advantage. The goal is now to win at least one and ideally both games in Kennewick, hoping to turn it into a best-of-three on Easter weekend as the calendar flips to April.
“They’re a great team over there, but we need to focus on ourselves and the 20 guys in our locker room,” said Foote, who captains the Rockets. “If we focus on our game, I think that win will come.”
Dube vs. Bean
This series also has its share of games within the games, including an ongoing battle between Dube and Bean.
Both from the Calgary area and buddies off the ice, they have put their friendship aside and have been clashing on the ice thus far.
Dube was ejected from Game 1 for a controversial charging major that Bean had a hand in. Dube drove wide around Bean on the rush and cut hard towards the crease, crashing into Americans goaltender Patrick Dea while simultaneously absorbing a cross-check in the lower back from Bean.
Dube collides hard with Dea. They were both slow to get up and Dube was given 5 min for charging and a game misconduct. pic.twitter.com/Zj4GZYKXDt
— Brandon Rivers (@BriversWHL) March 23, 2018
That was the turning point in the series opener, with Tri-City pulling away by scoring twice on the ensuing five-minute power play to start the third period.
“As you could see, me and Beaner went at it,” said Dube. “You’ve got to do that. For myself, when you have guys like that, guys you know really well, you go at it a little more because you want to have bragging rights in the summer.”
Asked about that incident and whether he’s ramping it up against Dube, Bean said: “Maybe a little bit . . . he’s a fierce competitor and it’s a lot of fun to be out there against him. I’m definitely not going to give him any extra space.”
They have moved past that ahead of Game 3, but they won’t be able to laugh it off until a later date.
“After the series, we’ll talk about it and kind of joke around about it, but right now it’s whoever’s going to play harder and rise above the other guy is going to win the series,” said Dube. “You’ve got to go really hard because they’re the top guys, and there’s no friends out there.”
Playoffs are all about rivalries, even amongst friends. Looking back to last year’s postseason, Dube rose to the occasion in a first-round triumph over world-junior goalie Connor Ingram and the Kamloops Blazers.
Dube was the best player on the ice for either team in that series, and he’ll try to raise his game again with this series now shifting to Kennewick.
Regardless of how it plays out from here, Dube and Bean will maintain a mutual respect.
“I really like Dubes, he’s a great guy and he’s obviously a good player too,” said Bean.
Dube elaborated a bit more on his admiration for Bean’s ability, saying “he’s pretty special to watch out there when he’s on. He’s come a long way, his first year he broke that record for scoring goals, but he’s developed his 200-foot game a lot more and he’s becoming a lot more of a pro. He’s going to have a great career.”
Dube vs. Valimaki
Dube also spoke glowingly of Valimaki, having both earned an extended look by the Flames at training camp this past fall, getting into a couple NHL preseason games. They are two of the top prospects in Calgary’s organization and could be teammates there for years to come.
“In camp, you’re focused more on yourself, but I noticed him out there,” said Dube. “He plays like a pro, plays the right game. He’s a very hard worker off the ice, I noticed that a lot about him. He’s already acting like a professional, so you have to give him a lot of credit for that.”
Valimaki was quick to return the praise and express his appreciation for Dube’s skill-set in trying to contain him during this series.
“He’s a great player, it’s tough to play against him,” Valimaki said of Dube. “He’s got a lot of speed and a lot of skill, so you always have to be aware when he’s on the ice and make sure you don’t give him any easy offence. He’s a player that can score and finish and get some goals for his team.
“I like a challenge, I like playing against good players, and he’s definitely a good player, so it is pretty cool.”
Foote vs. Bean
Foote and Bean got to know each other well at the World Juniors, spending much of the tournament as defence partners. Their skill-sets complemented each other and made for a successful pairing on the gold medal-winning Canadian team.
“He’s always great at making those short plays and breaking the puck out well,” Foote said of Bean. “He sees the ice very well, he can move the puck and he can skate, so he has the full package.”
A different type of defender, reminiscent of a young Brent Seabrook, Foote gained a fan in Bean.
“Footer’s an exceptional player,” said Bean. “He sees the ice well, he’s big, he defends well, and there’s not much he doesn’t do well. He’s an awesome guy off the ice, I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with him, and he’s one of those guys that you’ve got to take extra notice for when he’s on the ice.”
To that end, Bean has been making his Tri-City teammates aware of Foote’s impact in logging a ton of ice-time in all situations for Kelowna.
“He can make a difference in the game at both ends,” Bean said of Foote, who had a four-point, first-star performance in a losing effort in Game 2. “It’s just about understanding when he’s on the ice, especially for the forwards. He’s always kind of coming into the play late, so it’s important to have forwards tracking back and paying attention to him.”
Foote vs. Valimaki
Drafted just a couple picks apart in 2017 — Foote at 14th and Valimaki at 16th — there are constant comparisons between those two.
“He’s very offensive. When he has the puck, he’s very elusive and he skates very well and he produces offensively,” Foote said of Valimaki. “Maybe we are a little bit similar that way, but he’s very good with the puck.”
Foote’s improved in that department, taking the next step in his offensive development this season by increasing his goal total from six to 19 and his point total from 57 to 70. That fell just short of Tyson Barrie’s franchise record of 72 points, having also topped out at 19 goals back in 2009-10.
“It’s been a focus for me, something I’ve been trying to get better at,” Foote said of becoming more offensive-minded.
Bean vs. Twarynski
Twarynski also came up in conversation, having already had a few run-ins with Bean — his former teammate with their hometown Calgary Hitmen. Twarynski was traded to Kelowna just ahead of last year’s Jan. 10 deadline.
“Carsen’s a playoff player. He’s big, strong, fast, and he can get under guys’ skin,” said Bean. “He’s one of those guys you want on your team more than playing against him.”
— TheHockeyWriter (@TheHockeyWriter) March 20, 2018
Bean and Valimaki
Bean was later moved to Tri-City in a blockbuster, immediately following this year’s World Juniors on Jan. 6.
“Jake’s a great guy, he’s been great in the room and he’s obviously a great player on the ice,” said Valimaki. “He’s really good on the power play and with the puck. He’s brought a lot to the table . . . it doesn’t hurt to get a talent like that.”
It’s been a pretty seamless transition for Bean, fitting in with his new team and also getting to know Valimaki’s tendencies for their time together on Tri-City’s top power-play unit.
“There was definitely an adjustment period, probably five to 10 games, but once I figured it out, I felt right at home,” said Bean, who combined with Valimaki on a tic-tac-toe passing sequence to set up Morgan Geekie’s 3-0 goal in Game 1.
“Juuso’s a very smart player, he sees the ice well and he can sense the opportunities when he needs to jump up in the play,” said Bean. “He’s got a lot of skill and it’s a lot of fun being out there with him.”
They have been feeding off each other and picking up some pointers in the process.
“Sometimes when you’re not out there together and in practices, you kind of want to look at what the other guy is doing. It’s the same thing with Coghlan, we always look at each other and see if maybe you can steal some little things and learn from each other,” said Valimaki. “And when we’re out there together, all of us like to think about offence, but especially in playoffs, it’s a defence-first mentality.”
It’s expected that most, if not all of those six stars from this series will make the jump to the professional ranks next season.
Foote, Dube and Lind will be old enough to play in the AHL if they aren’t successful in cracking their NHL lineups, so it’s unlikely any of them will be back in Kelowna.
“We’re playing for our 20 year olds and for the guys that this is our last chance at it,” said Foote. “There’s some motivation there and, yeah, maybe this is my last year and you definitely want to win.
“Playoff time is everyone’s favourite time of the year,” he added. “It’s always fun to play in and the games get harder. Dillon and Kole, we’re going to continue to lean on them, and us three need to step up in a big way.”
Dube’s offensive struggles through two games have been uncharacteristic, so look for him to break out soon.
“I’m just trying to lead by example on the ice,” said Dube, who was a rookie on Kelowna’s championship team in 2015. “I looked up to a lot of guys when I was here for the playoff run. Probably one of the best playoff players in Rockets’ history was (Tyson) Baillie and I got to be on his line, so it was pretty cool to see him elevate his game every single time. I want to be that guy who steps up when we need it . . . but it’s nice that it’s not all on me because we have a lot of supporting cast on this team.”
Valimaki has a late birthday and will also be AHL eligible next season, or he could head back to Finland and play pro there — following the path of Vancouver’s top defence prospect Olli Juolevi.
Rasmussen will probably get a nine-game audition with rebuilding Detroit, then the NHL or WHL decision will have to be made, so he may return to Tri-City for his 19-year-old campaign.
Bean nearly stuck with Carolina out of camp this season, so he’ll get another long look there in the fall. The Americans knew Bean would be one-and-done when they acquired him.
“That will be my goal, to play in Carolina, but right now all the guys are just focused on the series at hand,” said Bean, who is grateful to Tri-City general manager Bob Tory for prolonging his junior career since the Hitmen missed the postseason in the Eastern Conference. “It’s nice to be getting the opportunity to play in the playoffs again. Obviously they don’t have that chance in Calgary, and I feel very fortunate just to get the chance to do that in my last year. Hopefully we can make the most of it.”