Kyle Topping has a simple solution to success this season.
The Kelowna Rockets' ace setup man said his club has no intention of coasting through this campaign knowing they're guaranteed a place in the Memorial Cup tournament as hosts.
"We want to win our way into the Memorial Cup and not just be in it because we're hosting," he said after practice Tuesday. "Our goal is to have a great year and a long playoff run and be in there as the WHL champion."
Step 1 of that long journey begins Saturday night when the Rockets host the Spokane Chiefs at Prospera Place.
The Rockets won the right to host the Canadian junior hockey championship tournament in March, just two weeks after they were eliminated from playoff contention.
Since then, the club has undergone something of a makeover.
GM Bruce Hamilton pulled off a draft-day deal that brought in three new faces from the Seattle Thunderbirds - defenceman Jake Lee, Kelowna-born goalie Cole Schwebius and forward Dillon Hamaliuk. They lured defenceman Sean Comrie from the University of Denver through a trade with the Brandon Wheat Kings, and just this week flipped a draft pick to the Tri-City Americans for 20-year-old defenceman Carson Sass.
The Rockets' GM sacrificed a small handful of draft picks and Conner Bruggen-Cate for some much-needed insurance at important positions.
It's all in hopes a team that finished last season 28-32-8 and lost a playoff tiebreaker to the Kamloops Blazers develops into a championship contender.
"We have more depth to start the season, and I think we've worked hard on, even last year, changing the culture, changing how we carry ourselves," Rockets coach Adam Foote said. "We still have work to do."
Part of that work will be keeping their heads in the right place, Foote said. The season is long enough as it is - 68 games - and adding the looming presence of the Memorial Cup could make it seem even longer.
That's why the coaching staff is doing its best to remove that shadow on the season.
"At this level and at this age, the players know," Foote said. "It's going to be a long year. ... We had a discussion early that will develop. Everything is toward the Memorial Cup, but I also don't want to be talking about it every week or every day, putting added pressure on the guys."
The players are doing their best to keep it in perspective, but understand there's an opportunity here that doesn't come along very often. Leif Mattson, who is coming off back-to-back 60-point seasons, said the club has high ambitions regardless of the pressure.
"I'd be disappointed if we didn't have a really good run and make it all the way," the 20-year-old forward said. "We don't want to take the easy way in; we want to actually earn it. We'll be expecting nothing less than winning the whole thing."
Of course, there are 21 other WHL teams hoping to visit Kelowna as league champions next May and spoiling the Rockets' party.
Heck, getting out of the B.C. Division alone will be challenging. The Vancouver Giants pushed the Prince Albert Raiders to overtime of Game 7 in the WHL final, and are likely returning the bulk of that roster.
That could include all-star defenceman Bowen Byram, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick. If he doesn't play in the NHL and returns to Vancouver, the Giants will have five of six starting defenceman back who allowed a division-low 162 goals last season.
The Giants' biggest problem might be numbers. They have too many over-age players, and will have to make tough decisions on their roster on who to keep. Could choosing the "wrong" veterans and leaving the team in the hands of youngsters hurt?
Probably not, but it's possible.
Connor Zary, Zane Franklin and Orrin Centazzo are three names Rockets' fans will likely hear a lot this season. The Kamloops Blazers trio is capable of crowding the WHL scoring race and represent why Kamloops appears on the verge of a bright future.
Zary, 18 in a few days, scored 15 goals and 25 assists from January to March last season, 15th best in the WHL.
It's really an ideal situation for the other B.C. teams.
They have all of that potential and they're enjoying a season with the Memorial Cup in their backyards.
That's fine, Topping said, because the Rockets are taking the same approach.
"It's definitely in the back of everyone's mind," Topping said of the tournament. "You've got to not focus on it too much and come to the rink every day and try to get better."
Foote shapes it as "business to do" on and off the ice. Everyone is well aware of what's coming next spring, but it can't become a distraction.
The group must have a good mindset or it will wear on you and "grind you out."
The Rockets must learn how to problem solve, how to work and focus on their roles.
Foote sees too many kids worrying about "numbers." But a team is designed to have unique roles that don't always lend themselves to gaudy stats.
"That will take care of itself," Foote said.
The most important goal now is assessing what will happen in the first 20 games.
That will tell the Rockets what areas they may need to address. They can't jump the gun and must let it develop.
As for Foote himself - he took over early last season - he's a year wiser, too.
He spent the summer trying to grow as coach, learning how to teach and how to interact with a team of kids who all learn in their own ways.
He's happy with what he sees on the verge of opening night.
"We're just more calm and understand it's a long process," he said, "and if we do the right things and chip away at this, they're going to develop.
"A lot of these kids are going to make huge jumps here."