The Kelowna Rockets can advance to the Mastercard Memorial Cup with a win against the Brandon Wheat Kings on Wednesday night. The two top teams in the Dub found each other at the end of a pretty straightforward playoff run.
Kelowna gambled big after coming up short last year and essentially bet the farm to make the Memorial Cup this year. Bruce Hamilton, Rockets Owner/GM, made some shrewd moves and those moves are about to pay out large dividends for the franchise.
With surging forwards Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley and Tyson Baillie already in the fold, the Rockets still needed that final piece up front that would take them over the top. When the Edmonton Oilers sent Leon Draisaitl back to junior, there was some talk it was on the basis he would go to a contender so he could mature his game a bit more.
The Rockets were the lucky recipients of his talents, but not before making an equally important trade with the same Prince Albert Raiders that Draisaitl played for prior to his NHL debut; local boy Josh Morrissey was dealt to Kelowna from PA to give the Rockets another star on the blue line.
After the World Junior Championships, which Madison Bowey and Morrissey both came home with gold, they began their assault on the WHL. It took some time to mesh and along with the eventual Leon Draisaitl came Gage Quinney, which many thought was a throw in. Quinney has been as important as Draisaitl and Morrissey and has given the Rockets yet another talent to flaunt game after game.
When Draisaitl came back to the WHL, Kelowna did what they haven’t done in 24 years: they dealt their 2015 1st round pick and two other picks in the 4th round to Prince Albert along with Kris Schmidli and Dalton Yorke.
If you lived in Kelowna when that happened it was a head turner. Bruce Hamilton is all about building from within but with a realistic chance to go all the way, he put his money where his mouth is. What resulted was next to perfection really.
In addition to their team success, the new look Rockets have pretty much run the table in the playoffs and racked up the personal stats for its stars both regular season and playoffs. 2014 WHL Rookie of the Year Nick Merkley has adjusted his game this year and has become more of a playmaker.
20 goals and a whopping 70 assists, not to mention a +29 has made Merkley a dual threat when he’s on the ice. His 4 goals and 22 assists in this year’s playoffs are further proof of this. Sadly, my dream of Merks getting drafted in this year’s NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks fades every game he plays; he won’t be there when they pick.
Merkley’s linemate and centre, Rourke Chartier is no slouch either. Even with an injury in both the regular season and playoffs, Chartier has blasted the stat sheet. 48 goals, 34 assists in the regular season and 12 goals, plus a huge 6 assists in the playoffs only authenticize why Kelowna has been dangerous all year.
Now, I could stop there and that would be enough.
The final nail in the coffin for the rest of the WHL was future NHL superstar Leon Draisaitl. It didn’t take more than a period for Leon to show off his stuff when he arrived in the Okanagan. That was all we needed to see.
Draisaitl found early success with clutch perfromer Tyson Baillie and only recently was added to the line of Chartier and Merkley. Before Game 4 of the WHL Championship, Leon had 9 goals and 17 helpers in 18 games. His presence is scary good and he takes over every shift.
Even though coach Dan Lambert loaded up his top line with those three, he has solid depth up and down the roster to get results early and often, Gage Quinney and Dillon Dube to name a few. A sound defense with Bowey, Morrissey, Cole Martin and Joe Gatenby keeps the puck away from the Rockets net and closer to their opponents.
The Kelowna Rockets haven’t played very many games to get to this possible Mem Cup berth and no one is really surprised. A first round sweep of the Tri City Americans, 5 games to beat the Victoria Royals, 6 to FINALLY beat the Portland Winterhawks and the 3 games they have owned Brandon.
Its tough to say if the Rockets have truly been tested thus far but they haven’t shown any signs of slowing down.
Bruce Hamilton has been the architect of many great teams over the years with many NHL stars now in its alumnus; but this year’s team might be his best yet. Never looked like a gambler to me, just a smart man with a great scout.
One win left til poutine, Quebec City here we come! Also, did you NOTICE the beef jerky ad at the top? Man I love beef jerky.
#thismomentweownit GO ROCKETS GO!
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Main photo credit – infotel.ca