Dylan Cozens, Bowen Byram returned to Western Hockey League teams

Buffalo Sabres centre Dylan Cozens (42) controls the puck during an NHL pre-season hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Monday, Sept.16, 2019, in State College, Pa. Two of the three Canadian Hockey League players picked in the top-10 selections in this year's NHL draft are going back to their junior teams. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/John Beale

Never did Bruce Hamilton expect Bowen Byram to stay in the NHL his first crack at the big league.

Two high-profile Kelowna Rockets defencemen were in similar situations a little more than a decade ago, and it should prove to everyone the value of junior hockey, he suggested.

Luke Schenn and Tyler Myers were first-round draft picks in 2008. Schenn, on a bad Toronto Maple Leafs team that chose him fifth overall, struggled after making the jump into the pros his first opportunity. Myers may have benefited from one more year with the Rockets. He went on to win the Calder Cup as rookie of the year one season after Buffalo chose him 12th overall.

“These guys, they’re better off down here, playing,” Hamilton said Thursday.

His spoke shortly after the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche announced they had returned Byram to the Vancouver Giants. The Buffalo Sabres also sent Dylan Cozens back to the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Thursday.

While it was expected they would play another season in junior, it’s also a reminder of the high-powered offences around the league this season.

They were two of the three Western Hockey League players picked in the top-10 selections in this year’s NHL draft.

Buffalo took the Whitehorse-born Cozens seventh overall, while Cranbrook’s Byram went fourth overall to the Avs.

The other top-10 WHL pick, Chicago Blackhawks centre Kirby Dach of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., remains with his NHL club in concussion protocol.

Dach’s WHL rights are owned by the Saskatoon Blades.

Byram gives a big boost to a Giants team ranked sixth in Canada. Vancouver lost in overtime in Game 7 of the WHL final against Prince Albert last season.

Their return hasn’t changed Hamilton’s approach or outlook, he said.

His focus remains on assembling a contending roster between now and the trade deadline in early January.

“I never worry about what other teams are doing,” Hamilton said. “I’m more concerned with putting together our best team.”

Having Cozens and Byram in the WHL is good news, at least, for the Canadian junior team. They are virtual locks to play for Canada at the world junior championship starting on Boxing Day in the Czech Republic.

Besides that, Hamilton said, Byram has a long career ahead of him. There’s no need to rush him into the NHL.

“He’s going to be a wonderful NHL player for a long time,” Hamilton said.

The Avs are also deep behind the blue line, with Cale Makar, 20, and Samuel Girard, 21, in the fold.

Working over the Weekend

The Rockets get their first look at Byram and the Giants on Sunday afternoon. It will be the final game of a three-game, three-day weekend.

Kelowna (1-0-0) travels to Kamloops on Friday to face the Blazers (0-3-0) before returning home to host the Everett Silvertips (1-1-0) on Saturday night. Sunday’s game against the 2-0 Giants is at 4 p.m.

Part of the reason the WHL reduced its schedule from 72 to 68 games was to reduce travel and disruptions for young players still in school.

On the flip side of that, it means more weekend games. The Rockets will play three-games in three nights three more times this season.

Numbers, Games

The Rockets also welcomed their own NHL draftee home this week. The Tampa Bay Lightning sent Nolan Foote to Kelowna after an extended audition.

It leaves the Rockets with 25 players on the roster, two more than Hamilton feels comfortable keeping.

“Twenty-three is the right number to work with,” he said.

There are no limits or deadlines to pressure him, but Hamilton would rather have younger Rockets in leagues where they are playing, not sitting in the press box keeping stats.

Within the next week or two, the Rockets will have made their decisions on a final roster.

Hamilton said he will likely keep two goalies, meaning James Porter and Cole Schwebius are competing for the backup role behind Roman Basran.

With three games ahead of them, one goalie will likely get time between the pipes, and that may go a long way toward a final decision.

Hamilton is leaning toward keeping 14 forwards, seven defenceman and two goalies.

In case of emergency, the Rockets have three young players on the Okanagan Rockets triple-A team—defenceman Jackson DeSouza and forwards Steel Quiring and Dylan Wightman.

With Files from The Canadian Press