Lassi Thomson wasn’t the only one breathing a sigh of relief when the Ottawa Senators selected him No. 19 on Friday night during the NHL draft.
It was more than welcome news for Kelowna Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton, too.
Thomson was the Rockets’ rookie of the year this past season, scoring 17 goals and 24 assists before being slowed by injury late.
Because Ottawa made him a first-round pick, it gives the Rockets options heading into Thursday’s Canadian Hockey League’s Import draft.
“Because he’s a first-round pick, he’ll move to a special list,” Hamilton said. “Then we can actually pick two (Import players), and then we can keep two and send one home. Going in the first (round) really gives a good insurance policy.”
It was also welcome news that Thomson is headed to Ottawa. The Senators’ new head coach, DJ Smith, is friends with Rockets’ bench boss Adam Foote.
They played one season together with the Colorado Avalanche in 2002-03.
The Rockets need allies when it comes to Thomson’s future. The 18-year-old defenceman was reportedly homesick in his first season away from Tempere, Finland.
He was under contract with his hometown squad — who released him to play in the WHL — in the Finnish league, and reports surfaced this spring he was returning home.
The Rockets consider him a vital piece to the puzzle. He’s a coveted right-handed shot, skates like a pro and has booming shot.
He will report to Ottawa’s development camp this week, and if the Senators are able to sign him this off-season, it bolsters Kelowna’s chances of Thomson returning as the Rockets host the 2020 Memorial Cup.
He could play in the NHL this fall, but that seems highly unlikely. He likely needs to mature physically and mentally. There are still many questions, but a few more answers at the same time.
“We’re a lot more comfortable today than we were last Friday,” Hamilton said, “but it’s still going to be a decision between Lassi and the Senators, probably.”
Kelowna picks 13th in Thursday’s Import draft, rare air for the Rockets, who are more accustomed to choosing between 50 and 60.
It’s some consolation to missing the playoffs. Hamilton said the talent pool this year is “average at best, but it’s a good year to be picking where we are.”
Kelowna should land a player with legitimate NHL aspirations. The CHL draft includes clubs from the Western, Ontario and Quebec hockey leagues; Kelowna also has pick No. 72.
Given Thomson’s potential return, the Rockets may choose a younger player late and allow him another season at home before bringing him to Kelowna.
Canadian CHL teams are allowed two import players on their rosters.
Four Kelowna Rockets were chosen in the NHL draft on Friday and Saturday. After Thomson, the Tampa Bay Lightning took Nolan Foote (27th), the Vegas Golden Knights picked Kaedan Korczak (41st) and the San Jose Sharks selected Dillon Hamaliuk (55th).
Seven Rockets were eligible for the draft, but forward Alex Swetlikoff and goalie Roman Basran did not hear their names called.
Defenceman Jake Lee was also passed over, but immediately received an invitation from the San Jose Sharks to their development camp starting today.
Kelowna acquired Lee and Hamaliuk from the Seattle Thunderbirds in a trade during the WHL bantam draft.
“I was really happy for all of them,” Hamilton said.
The GM added that the draft seemed to take a toll from Korczak and his family, but the wait was worth it.
Golden Knights scout Bruno Campese is based in Kelowna, and Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon is a Saskatchewan boy who was familiar with Korczak’s game from his days in Yorkton. “Boy, what a great organization to be picked by,” Hamilton said.
Hamaliuk is coming off a lower-body injury that limited him to 31 games this season. He was on a tear, too, scoring 11 goals and 15 assists before getting hurt.
“Had he not missed half the year, he probably would’ve been a darn near first-round pick,” Hamilton said.
The Rockets begin their Memorial Cup season on Sept. 21 against the Spokane Chiefs, the WHL announced on Tuesday. Head office will announced the league's full schedule on Wednesday.
The Rockets will play a six-game preseason schedule before that.
The Rockets will open their 2019 preseason schedule with a home game against the Victoria Royals at Prospera Place on Friday, Aug. 30. They’ll face the Kamloops Blazers on the road Sunday, Sept. 1.
Kelowna will again hit the road Saturday, Sept. 7, to take on the Everett Silvertips at the Langley Events Centre in Vancouver’s mini-tournament. They’ll then return home to host the Prince George Cougars the next evening at Prospera Place.
The Rockets will wrap up their preseason schedule with a home-and-home series of games against the Kamloops Blazers.