The next Shea Weber or Josh Gorges could be on their way to Kelowna next week.
As many as 160 players are expected Monday when the Rockets open the Prospera Place ice to their youngest recruits for four days of tryouts. If it’s not the largest ever rookie camp, it’s the largest in years, the Rockets front office says.
“Normally, we only have 90 to 100 kids at this camp, but we’re very excited to have a lot of good young players coming,” said Lorne Frey, the Rockets’ director of player personnel.
Rockets president Bruce Hamilton said he believes a combination of factors worked to generate the bump in numbers. Everything from Kelowna hosting the Memorial Cup this year to a deep talent pool to a smoke-free Okanagan summer contributed to more players accepting invitations, he said.
As for the talent pool, scouts had long lists from recent bantam drafts, but limited picks and limited rounds to choose them.
Instead, the Rockets invited all those who dropped just below the draft cutoff to rookie camp. All of them accepted, Hamilton said.
Frey and his scouting staff are willing to bring in such a large number of kids because it could lead to uncovering a hidden gem.
Weber — a two-time Olympic champion — and Gorges, a veteran of 783 NHL games, both began their careers through a similar tryout process.
“We feel there is probably going to be a number of these guys who will challenge even some of the drafted kids for spots on our 50-player list,” Hamilton said.
“We always come up with three or four guys out of this that end up being players for us.”
These players — born in 2003 or 2004 — won’t get full-time jobs this season. They can, however, impress the front office enough to get invited to main camp.
For the rest of the players, they use Kelowna’s invitation to prepare for tryouts for their minor hockey teams back home.
“It’s just great to watch them and then see where they’re at next year,” Hamilton said. “That’s the big thing for me.”
Among the prospects headed to Kelowna for the first time, Nolan Flamand of Saskatoon could make an impact.
He played up an age level last season with the Saskatoon Blazers of the Saskatchewawn Midget AAA Hockey League.
In 59 games, Flamand scored six goals and 28 assists while racking up a paltry four penalty minutes in the regular season.
The Rockets had him as a first-round prospect, but he fell to them with the 27th overall pick in the second round.
“Nobody could figure that out,” Hamilton said. “It’s pretty exciting for the scouting staff, anyway.”
Kelowna also hopes goalie Jari Kykkanen, a sixth-round pick, could develop into a WHL player. His family has moved from Finland to Lloydminster, Alta.
Kelowna’s Rilen Kovacevic was the Rockets’ 10th-round (and final) pick this spring, but has developed dramatically since the draft, Hamilton said.
“He’s had a special summer,” the Rockets’ GM said.
All of Kelowna’s draft picks will be invited to the first day and a half of main camp, which begins immediately after rookie camp. Hamilton and Frey expect as many as 10 rookies could move into main camp, a “big number,” Hamilton said
“We’re looking forward to getting started,” he said. “We know we’re going to be busy until the end of May.”
2019 Kelowna Rockets bantam draft picks:
Name Round (#) Hometown
F Nolan Flamand 2 (27th) Saskatoon
F Jayden Joly 4 (71) Fort Sask
D John Babcock 5 (110) Vancouver
G Jari Kykkanen 6 (115) Lloydminster
F Maxwell Sanford 6 (118) Williams Lake
D Jackson Smith 7 (140) Calgary
F Daimon Gardner 8 (162) Winnipeg
F Rilen Kovacevic 10 (204) Kelowna