Although the golf season is in full swing throughout the Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia, the Kelowna Rockets have no immediate plans to start booking tee times. And by mid-May, the group hopes to have punched its ticket to the Memorial Cup tournament in Rimouski, Quebec.
The Rockets, who have been the hottest team in the league since the WHL trade deadline, bounced the powerhouse Vancouver Giants from post-season play with an overtime victory in the sixth game of the Western Conference final series.
Waiting in the wings for the Rockets were the Calgary Hitmen, the WHL’s hottest team in the current playoffs. The Hitmen have yet to taste defeat in these playoffs, winning 12 straight games while dispatching the Edmonton Oil Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes and Brandon Wheat Kings.
Both rosters are stacked with prospects, many of whom have signed with NHL teams. And although the veterans supple the lion’s share of the leadership, a host of 2009 eligibles will benefit from the deep playoff run.
Under first-year head coach Dave Lowry, the Hitmen have been a virtual juggernaut since opening day. The team won the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as regular season champions, compiling a 59-9-3-1 record for 122 points, three more than Vancouver.
The talent pool is very deep in front of outstanding goaltender Martin Jones (LA), who managed a 2.08 goals against average and .915 save percentage during the regular season. The North Vancouver native’s 45-5-3-1 record is outstanding, yet it pales in comparison to his 12-0 mark in the post season.
On the backend, Paul Postma (ATL) is in his second season with the Hitmen since arriving via trade from the Swift Current Broncos. Known early in his career as an exceptional skater, the Red Deer, Alberta native led all WHL defensemen in scoring this year with 23 goals and 61 assists, along with a plus-67 rating. A seventh-round pick by the Thrashers at the 2007 Entry Draft, Postma’s development has made Atlanta’s scouting department look good. While Postma will benefit by adding some weight, he possesses the mobility and puck savvy that will earn him a serious look from Atlanta when his junior career ends.
Alex Plante (EDM) provides a huge physical presence and has rebounded from an indifferent 2007-08 season. The Brandon, Manitoba product checks in at 6’4, 220 pounds and has more than justified the Oilers’ confidence in his abilities this season. Plante was selected in the first round, 15th overall by Edmonton at the 2007 Entry Draft. Veterans Keith Seabrook (WAS) and Michael Stone (PHX) will see plenty of ice time against Kelowna. The pair collected 55 and 61 points respectively this season. Rookie Eric Bonsor (2009), who checks in at 6’1, 202 pounds and plays a regular shift with the Hitmen.
Up front, the Hitmen are high-octane personified. Brett Sonne (STL) has been named the WHL’s Most Valuable Player. The veteran forward posted a career-high 100 points this season and helped 5’8, 165-pound linemate Brandon Kozun (FA) to a 108-point campaign. Joel Broda (WAS), acquired from the Moose Jaw Warriors at the trade deadline, led the WHL in goal scoring this season with 53 tallies.
The scoring depth continues with Kyle Bortis (FA), who has averaged 78 points during the past two seasons since coming over from the Swift Current Broncos with Postma. And Carson McMillan (MIN) chipped in with 72 points this season. Kris Foucault (FA), a trade deadline acquisition from the Kootenay Ice, leads the Hitmen with 10 goals in the post-season. Chase Schaber (2009) and Cody Sylvester (2010) are important future components in Calgary and are certain to improve their offensive contributions. Ian Schultz (STL), a second-year forward who picked up 41 points this season, also brings proven pugilistic skills to the mix.
Import forwards Tomas Karpov from the Czech Republic and Bostjan Golicic from Slovenia have been key contributors as well. Golicic collected 56 points this season and has 12 points in the playoffs. Karpov has 10 points in the playoffs after a 21-point regular season split between Moose Jaw and Calgary.
The Rockets were active at the WHL trade deadline and the moves have paid off in a huge way. The arrival of American-born goaltender Mark Guggenberger from Swift Current, and 20-year-old forwards Ian Duval and Ryley Grantham (CGY) from the Moose Jaw Warriors added stability and maturity to a group that struggled against upper-echelon teams during the first half of the season. In his first season as head coach, Ryan Huska has managed the assets to perfection in recent weeks.
But the key acquisition has been Swedish forward Mikael Backlund (CGY), the Flames’ first selection at the 2008 Entry Draft. After the WJC in Ottawa in January, Backlund remained in Canada and played one game with the Flames before moving to Kelowna. The Rockets were in possession of his WHL rights through a shrewd investment made at the 2007 CHL Import Draft where they made Backlund the 43rd pick overall. His return to Calgary to face the Hitmen in the WHL Final will allow a glimpse at a definite future pro.
His arrival in Kelowna added instant offensive depth and effectively resulted in additional space for Jamie Benn (DAL) to display already well-established offensive skills. Benn currently leads the WHL playoff scoring derby with 28 points in 16 games and has been a physically dominant power forward for most of the second half of the current campaign. Destined for pro hockey next season, he possesses all the attributes of an instinctive goal scorer and frequently logs 25 minutes of ice time per game.
Shifty forward Colin Long (PHX) brings leadership and offensive skills to the mix, along with tenacious forechecking. For a diminutive player, he is not hesitant to patrol high traffic areas. Cody Almond (MIN) has also emerged this season as a consistent scoring threat. His play has improved this season as he has become a much more belligerent forechecker. Almond is focused on fitness, has developed a quick release and accurate shot to go along with a nose for open ice.
Grantham checks in at 6’3 and 210 pounds, providing the Rockets with muscle and experience. The Flames’ sixth-round pick in 2007, Grantham has better hands than many give him credit for. His presence has enabled a number of young Rockets to play bigger, especially the likes of 2009 eligibles Curt Gogol and Mitch Callahan. Both are gritty, high-energy types who never hesitate to engage opponents. For the pair, Grantham’s tutelage has been a godsend.
Defensively, the Rockets are making it a habit to limit teams to fewer than 20 shots per game. Tyler Myers (BUF) is simply the best defenseman in the WHL right now and has surpassed performance expectations since his return with a gold medal from the WJC. He has tremendous reach and skates as well as any 6’8 player on the planet. He is paired with Tyson Barrie (2009) on a regular basis, including the power play. Offensively gifted, Barrie has effectively quarterbacked the Rockets power play in both his 16- and 17-year-old seasons. Brandon McMillan (ANA) has added stability to the backend with his speed and steady play. Drafted by Anaheim as a forward, McMillan made the switch to defense in December when Myers was at the WJC and Barrie was injured. He is adept at carrying the puck out of his own end, is comfortable playing physical hockey, and is perhaps the fastest skating player on the team.
Tysen Dowzak is an undrafted, 6’5 defenseman from Minnesota who earned a contract with the New York Rangers last fall. After a stint in the AHL, he returned to Kelowna and has played the best hockey of his junior career this season. Dowzak is solid defensively, has improved his puck skills, and provides an important physical presence.
Collin Bowman (2009), whose brother Drayson Bowman (CAR) starred with the Spokane Chiefs this season, is becoming a confident, dependable rearguard. Collin, who is 6’2 and 192 pounds, has shown some offensive flair this season, an aspect he will have more latitude to develop next season.
2009 Eligibles for Kelowna: Curt Gogol (F), Mitch Callahan (F), Collin Bowman (D), Tyson Barrie (D). Calgary: Chase Schaber (F), Eric Bonsor (D), Matt McKenzie (D)
2010 Eligibles for Kelowna: Shane McColgan (F), Spencer Main (F). Calgary: Cody Sylvester (F), Austin Madaisky (D).
Sonne, Benn and Myers were teammates with the gold-medal winning Team Canada at the WJC…Rockets forward Stepan Novotny played at the WJC for the Czech Republic…The Hitmen lost only four games on home ice this season, including a 2-1 defeat to the Rockets at the Saddledome in February…The Rockets finished third in the Western Conference standings and have eliminated the Kamloops Blazers, Tri City Americans and Vancouver Giants in the playoffs. The Giants and Americans finished ahead of Kelowna in the regular season standings….The SHAW Television ratings during the post-season have been off the charts for the WHL, producing American Idol-type numbers across British Columbia. The final series should produce more of the same.