Its March and in the WHL, that means its playoff time! Small town western Canada amps up from Vancouver Island to the prairies for the road to one of the hardest trophies to win in sports: The Memorial Cup. The Kelowna Rockets have been there before, they’ve tasted glory and now they want another drink from the epic chalice.
What has really been 2 years in the making for Bruce Hamilton’s Rockets is finally coming to fruition. A team known for savvy drafting, developing talent and embracing success, the Kelowna Rockets have been a machine in the WHL for years. Just take a look around today’s NHL and you will instantly notice world class talent: Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Josh Gorges, Jamie Benn, Alex Edler, Tyler Myers, Vern Fiddler, Chuck Kobasew, Luke Schenn, Scott Hannan and Mikael Backlund, all these players have made their mark in the show.
Take a look at that list, its beyond impressive that ONE major junior team has produced that talent so far. Stanley Cup Champions, Olympic Gold Medalists and numerous NHL awards drape over this group of players and that list will only grow as the years go by. It might not take long either; this year’s Rockets are primed to do something special.
However this season finishes for Kelowna, the Rockets have set team records for most franchise wins (55 and counting) and most points (114 and counting). How fitting it is that these records were just broken last season as well? Sounds like a recipe for success already. Coach Ryan Huska has led this group of young men to territory that is not easily reached. The WHL is a tough league to win and Huska’s boys are looking to make some history this spring.
Led by Captain and 2013 Washington Capitals 2nd round draft pick, Madison Bowey, the Rockets have put together a season that has made Canada take notice. The BMO Mastercard CHL Rankings have named Kelowna #1 in the country for almost 3 months, as well as being ranked in the top 10 this season for 20 weeks and one week to go. Is it something in the water? Is it the instant buy in?
They aren’t a group with a superstar player that leads the charge, they run 4 lines deep and when goaltending is brought up, they have two more than capable tenders to block the mesh. Myles Bell, 2013 6th rounder of the New Jersey Devils, is the leading scorer with 41 goals and 74 points. He is flanked in points by forward Ryan Olsen and dman Damon Severson, both with 60 points. Nothing overly mind blowing but this roster boasts 8 players over 45 points. Starting to think to yourself, wow, that’s impressive. These guys must have quite a veteran group of players, this will probably be restocked next year when all the old guys move on after their WHL career; you would be wrong.
Most of this team will stay intact next season with a handful of players moving on, Bell included. One player the Rockets are more than happy to have for the next 4 years or so is true rookie sensation, Nick Merkley. This kid JUST turned 16 earlier this season. He played for Kelowna in 7 playoff games last year and managed 3 points in that time. He instantly showed he was destined for greatness when he played his first game. Merks just has that gift. He sees the game the way the greats do. His hockey IQ just exudes brilliance. Nick makes plays that NHL veterans would be proud of.
The puck just seems to find Nick Merkley and when it hits his stick, he knows EXACTLY what to do with it. He didn’t score in the playoffs last year but he didn’t miss a beat when he debuted as a rookie this year; 64 GP 24 G 55 PTS +/- 24 and 42 PIM. This kid is unreal! CHL Rookie of the week in October 2013, Merkley is no joke; he just plays to win.
Between the pipes, Jordan Cooke and Jackson Whistle backstop this sensational Rockets team night in and night out. Cooke boasts a 2.27 GAA .922 SA % 38 Wins and 4 SO through 50 GP. Whistle is no slouch either, 21 GP 2.54 GAA .920 SA % 17 Wins and 1 SO, he doesn’t like giving up the net. Jackson will inherit the net next season when Cooke moves on from the WHL being too old to play. It’s not just the stats that are in lights, its the timely saves and game breaking stops that makes Kelowna lethal to play. From top to bottom this team is built to win and should make a healthy run to the May showcase that is the Mem Cup.
Sure, the scoring and stingy defense keep this team on the board and their opponents off of it, but are they tough enough? I would ask Tyrell Goulbourne but I probably would regret the physical answer I would get. Goulby leads the charge on the aggressive meter. His hands are hard when they are knocking out unfortunate contenders and soft as pillows…or kittens, they’re soft too, when he’s potting pucks in the twine. Tyrell has 109 PIM this season to go with his 36 points. A 3rd round choice in 2013 by the Philadelphia Flyers, Tyrell will be a fan favorite the day he suits up in the city of Brotherly Love.
With Bell being able to play both defense on the PP and forward at 5 on 5, Merkley contributing more than any 16 year old should in his first season, saves for days in Cooke and Whistle and a defense led by Bowey and Severson, the Kelowna Rockets can beat you any way you want. Just don’t expect them to say sorry.
Kelowna plays the Tri-City Americans in the first round and I would expect them to make quick work of them, worst case scenario 5 games. The Rockets are poised to win it all this year, so get on board while you can. The next wave of NHL superstars are playing in your backyard.
Follow me on twitter @hankthetank10
All stats courtesy of whl.ca and kelownarockets.com