Kyle Topping and his Kelowna Rockets’ teammates will open up the WHL club’s training camp Saturday at Prospera Place. -Image: Marissa Baecker

Rockets open camp with bar set high

Kelowna kicks training camp looking to make amends for early WHL playoff exit

A swift and unexpected four-game exit from last spring’s Western Hockey League playoffs made for a long offseason for the Kelowna Rockets.

On the eve of the club’s training camp at Prospera Place, GM Bruce Hamilton expects Rockets’ coaches and players alike to get to work on making amends for an unsatisfying conclusion to the 2017-18 campaign.

“Going out four straight last year was a real disappointment after winning our division,” said Hamilton. “For the players, there’s certainly some pressure on them to be better but there’s pressure on the coaches to be better, too. They’ll need to get this team prepared, ready to go and get out of the gate fast.”

Between 55 and 60 players are expected to be on the ice for the start of main training camp this weekend.

With head coach Jason Smith at the helm for his third season, the Rockets will be looking to overcome the departures of a handful of key players, including forwards Dillon Dube and Kole Lind and defencemen Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsedager.

Up front, Hamilton said the Rockets will be relying on a strong group of 19-year-old forwards, including Kyle Topping, Erik Gardiner, Leif Mattson, Conner Bruggen-Cate and Jack Cowell.

“We have five real good 19-year-olds, they’re going to have sort it out, who’s going to be on the first line and where they fit in,” Hamilton. “I think we’re going to have some interesting battles with guys trying to position themselves on the second, third and fourth lines.”

Hamilton said the club’s strength this season could well be in goal as James Porter looks to build on a solid rookie campaign. Roman Basran, whose 2017-18 season was cut short by a knee injury, is expected to challenge for his share of playing time between the pipes.

“Porter’s had a real good summer and once we get Basran back healthy, we”ll have a real solid pair back there,” he said. “That’s one of the most important things you need going into a season.”

If there’s any area of concern, Hamilton points to the defensive corps—without Foote, Hilsendager and Ballhorn—but even then, there’s reason for optimism.

“(Kaedan) Korczak who was at the under-18s, he’s made tremendous strides, (Libor) Zabransky will have to step up for us, and our Finnish player (Lassi Thomson) is an exceptional, so we’ve got some guys there that’ll step in and play,” he said. “

“The guys who were six, seven, eight on defense last year are going to have to work real hard to get a spot here, which is always real positive.”

The Rockets kick off their exhibition season Friday, Aug. 31 at home to the Victoria Royals.

Kelowna’s 2018-19 WHL regular season opens with a home-and-home set against the rival Kamloops Blazers—Friday in Sept. 21 in Kamloops, then again Saturday, Sept. 22 at Prospera Place.

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