Defenceman Jake Lee admits he was a little nervous coming to the Kelowna Rockets knowing Adam Foote would be there to greet him as head coach.
Few NHL defencemen inspired as much respect and — let’s be honest — fear during their careers as Foote did.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” said Lee, traded from Seattle to Kelowna this summer. “But as the season goes on, it just gets more awesome every day. We learn so much every day from him.”
You can understand why with a quick glance of Foote’s resume.
He helped the Colorado Avalanche win the 1996 and 2001 Stanley Cups, and was part of Canada’s legendary 2002 Olympic gold medal team.
In 1,154 NHL games, he amassed 1,534 … penalty minutes.
It might lead most fans to believe Foote’s defensive corps would be a group of brutes threatening anyone who comes within 30 feet of the goal.
Well, not exactly.
Foote has left the day-to-day defensive work for assistant coach Kris Mallette.
The coaches work in tandem, but it’s Mallette’s job to ensure the seven defencemen on the roster are all pulling in the same direction.
“I’m challenging them to get up the ice; to try and be part of the offence,” Mallette said Tuesday after practice. “Not necessarily to lead it, but definitely be that next wave in there, and I want them to play tight. I want them to play aggressive. It’s definitely not going to happen overnight, but it’s something that I’m diligently working with them day in and day out to try and have them firing on all cylinders sooner rather than later.”
After just four games, it’s tough to predict just how this group will develop, but it won’t suffer from a lack of direction or leadership.
Kaedan Korczak, a second-round pick of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights this spring, is the face of the group.
He has a goal and two assists already this season. Eclipsing his totals from a year ago — four goals and 29 assists — would seem like a sure thing.
Devin Steffler added muscle in the off-season, but is also considered a “steady” and “calming” presence by the coaches.
Lee and Carson Sass have a combined 345 WHL games, invaluable experience for what is a young group.
Sean Comrie transferred from University of Denver this off-season and should provide offensive upside.
Cayde Augustine, 17, and Elias Carmichael, 16, are the youngsters taking it all in.
“We’ve got some good core pieces, for sure,” Mallette said.
“Obviously it’s only four games in, but we really, really like what we’ve seen.”
Going forward, the coaches need them to trust in each other and read off each other more.
They need to establish their “gaps” early, Mallette added, meaning they don’t get pulled apart or caught on opposite sides of the ice.
They need to be a goal-scoring option, but once the puck leaves the offensive zone, they have to be in position defensively.
“I don’t think we’re the biggest guys on the back end, but I think we move the puck really well,” said Comrie. “We can all skate really well and join the play and create offence that way.”
The Rockets certainly need that creativity to continue. Among this group, nobody has scored more than five goals (Sass) or 33 points (Korczak) in a WHL season.
Is that because they haven’t been given the green light, or because they’re more defensive minded?
“Little bit of both,” said Lee, who scored 24 points last year in Seattle. “Throughout the years, yeah, I’ve been more defensive minded, but I still try to be a two-way defenceman as much as possible.”
“Each one of us brings many different things to the D-core,” he added.
They’ll also be given every opportunity to keep growing, too.
Comrie said he’s soaking up everything coaches have offered the defence so far this season.
The 19-year-old Edmonton native said it’s simple things — stick positioning in front of the net or how to box out a forward in the corner — that are making a big impact.
“He knows everything,” Comrie said of his head coach. “He’s fantastic defensively, especially. That was his role. He knows it.”
But how does a young hockey player not worry about upsetting his Stanley Cup winning coach? It’s easy, Mallette said, because Foote has shown everyone he’s there to help.
“He just wants to teach the guys,” Mallette said. “He’s a passionate coach.”
The Rockets (2-1-1) will take their next step tonight when the Tri-City Americans (3-1-0) arrive. Game time is 7 p.m.
AFTERBURNERS — Tri-City G Beck Warm was WHL goalie of the week. He won both road games for the Americans over the weekend, stopping 69 of 70 shots for a .986 save percentage, and recording one shutout. Colorado Avalanche draft pick Sasha Mutala is tied for second in the WHL scoring and leads the Ams with eight points (3G, 5A) in four games played. … The Rockets won three of four games against the Americans last season.