While many people, myself included, wrote off the youthful Kelowna Rockets for the 2002/03, coach Habscheid and the rookie laden roster of the Rockets
are proving everyone wrong. And while it is too early in the season to think there won’t be some ups and downs with this young team, whether they finish first, second, third really doesn’t matter because Habscheid will have this team ready to play come March, when it really matters. I was one who felt the Rockets would struggle early, but in typical Habscheid fashion, he has the players buying into his program and playing their roles.
More than any trade the Rockets arch-rival Kamloops Blazers have made, not figuring out a way to co-exist with Habscheid as coach appears to be one of the worst moves they’ve made and Kelowna is benefitting. For over a decade in the WHL Western Conference, blue collar, lunch bucket hockey was synonymous with the Kamloops Blazers, however after a two year reign in Kamloops, Habscheid moved on and now he has the Rockets playing that “take no prisoners” style of game that was so prevalent in Kamloops for years.
First and foremost in the Rockets success thus far though, hasn’t been what many critics will say is playing sub-five hundred teams, but the play of the Rockets rookies. While on paper the Rockets look thin on defence, youngsters Mike Card, Shea Weber and little used Ryan Mayko and Brett Palin have joined veterans Tomas Slovak and the very underrated Josh Gorges to form a solid defensive unit that protect essentially two rookie goaltenders. Josh Lepp (’84 born) was seldom seen in his rookie year and Kelly Guard, a nineteen year old rookie from Tier II has been the “Kenric Exner” story thus far for WHL goaltenders.
While Tomas Slovak, a talented powerplay and puck moving defenceman has been far more consistent in his second season since arriving from Europe, Josh Gorges has picked up where he left off last season and has been a rock both defensively and on offence, giving the Rockets two anchors on the back end. Ryan Mayko was challenged by coach Habscheid earlier in the season to step up and take on more responsibility, which he has done, while seldom used third year defender Brett Palin has assumed the role of physical stay-at-home defenceman with quiet efficiency. Card, who has some offensive potential, and Weber, both rookies play with a physical edge to their games and the early season ice time they are earning is not only merited, it will surely benefit the Rockets as the season wears on. With the potential for injuries always lurking around the corner and the need for six capable guys to play enough minutes to prevent the usual wear and tear on the body during a seventy-two game season, Card and Weber have acquitted themselves very well as core members of the Rockets defence.
Kelly Guard was going to come in and support Josh Lepp who was to take the mantle this season for the Rockets after apprenticing for the Rockets behind stand-out Shane Bendera last season, however Guard has played to his name and been a rock with a 1.88 GAA and .917 save%. Like Kenric Exner did, when he stole the starting netminders job in 98/99 for the Blazers and led them to the WHL final against the Calgary Hitmen, Guard has come in and given Lepp a stiff challenge early on that has seen coach Hascheid alternate goaltenders during this current seven game winning streak, with a good chance to become the go to guy when crunch time comes.
Up front the Rocket rookies have added spunk and scoring to the line up, with all youngsters outside of the injured Joel Henitiuk, having scored at least one goal and added a few assists. Leading the way for the rookies with nine points is Joni Lindlof, a Finnish import and Blake Comeau, a 2001, 2nd round bantam pick has seven points. While 2001 1st round Bantam draft pick Tyler Spurgeon leads rookie goal scorers with three goals. Eight players on the current Rockets roster are either 2000 or 2001 Bantam draft picks. Rookie forwards Mark Olafson, David Jacobsen and Troy Brodie have all contributed mulitple points to the offence as well.
The rookies have formed a solid mix with the established veterans to give Kelowna an offence that is well spread out. While Jesse Schultz has been on a tear and leading the team in points, putting up 16g-8a-24pts, defencemen Josh Gorges and Tomas Slovak are two-three in scoring. The only forward without a point thus far is enforcer Stephen Sunderman, however he isn’t counted on to add offence and performs his role well without taking penalties that hurt the team. Other veterans leading by example are small but fiesty Tyler Mosienko with 5g-9a-14pts, Cam Paddock 7g-4a-11pts and while overage center Kiel McLeod has yet to catch fire offensively, his 4g-5a-9pts aren’t terrible, his bonecrushing hits have helped to create turnovers and room in the opponents defensive zone leading to scoring chances.
With the Rockets as a whole buying into Habscheid’s defence first philosophy and the rookies stepping up and contributing meaningful minutes, the Rockets have managed to allow a league low 38 goals against in seventeen games, while getting scoring from up and down the roster. With this kind of early season committment from the team, regardless of whether teams the Rockets beat are sub-fivehundered or not, it bodes well for them to avoid any prolonged slumps, with the rookies gaining much needed experience early that will most certainly benefit the Rockets later in the season when teams start to turn it up for the stretch drive.