The Kelowna Rockets have had no shortage of ups and downs thus far in the 2023-24 season. The team has experienced change, specifically in the top six forward group. Players like Carson Golder, who had 55 points last season, and Adam Kydd who had 53, aged out in the WHL. This left a large void for Kelowna, in which they had to look to fill. Tij Iginla, acquired from Seattle for forward Grady Lenton and 2 draft picks, has been sensational for the Rockets through the first 16 games. With 13 goals and 8 assists, good for 21 points, Iginla is the Rockets second leading point getter, behind Capitals prospect Andrew Cristall.
The Rockets started off the season very hot. In their first 13 games, Kelowna averaged 4.6 goals per game, and offense seemed to be no worry. The last 3, however, it has been rough. Not enough scoring doesn’t begin to explain the struggles up front for Kelowna. Averaging just 0.5 goals per game, there is a lot to gather as a team. The powerplay, has also been reason for concern for the Rockets. They have shown flashes in the first chunk of the season that it can be a threat, with numbers nearing 40%. In the last 4 games? 1 for 20. With offensive catalysts such as Tij Iginla, Andrew Cristall, Gabriel Szturc, and Caden Price, the Rockets know they have the talent in house to bring the powerplay back to life.
What’s next for Kelowna? 2 games against formidable opponents south of the 49th parallel. The Tri City Americans on Tuesday night at Toyota Center, and the Everett Silvertips Friday night at Angel of The Winds Arena. Tri City has proven to be a typical Americans team, which is no easy opponent. Physical, gritty and tough define a group that has seen an 8-5-1-1 record 15 games into their season. Lead by forward Jordan Gavin, who is entering his first NHL draft eligible season, the Americans have a deep forward group, while also proving to have a quality defensive unit. Seattle Kraken prospect Lukas Dragicevic mans the American blue line, along with Captain Alex Serraglio, a player proven to fight for his team and play quality defense. The Americans likely will be without star forward Parker Bell, who exited Saturday’s contest against Spokane after a dangerous open ice collision.
For the Rockets, this is their second meeting with Tri City, the first meeting coming in a 4-3 shootout win at a nearly sold out Toyota Center back on October 20th. Tij Iginla lead the way on that night, with a goal and an assist, also notching an important goal in the shootout that would end up winning the game for Kelowna.
Lukas Dragicevic also notched a goal and an assist for the Americans, and helped draw them back into the game from a 3-1 hole in the third. Both teams are very much alive in a wide open Western Conference, Tri City sits in 5th with 18 points, while Kelowna sits at 8th with 15 points. Every matchup will matter this season, so look for a battle in the Tri Cities.
Kelowna Road Trips
When the WHL schedule came out, I couldn’t help but notice this trip was weirdly spread apart for Kelowna. 2 full days off between games would require a lengthy hotel stay somewhere in Washington State, right? After speaking with Rockets players and staff this past weekend, it appears the team will break the trip into two, traveling to Kennewick Monday, and returning postgame Tuesday, then following that up with a day trip to Everett, to face the Silvertips. A 5 hour drive one way will provide this Rocket club with a bit of exhaustion, heading into an always hostile environment Friday night.
Everett is an interesting story. The Silvertips 2 seasons ago were an extremely dangerous team, and a top team in the CHL. They eventually fell at the hands of the Vancouver Giants in the first round of the 2021-22 playoffs, something not many would have seen coming. Losing key players that season, such as Alex Swetlikoff, Niko Huuhtanen, and Hunter Campbell hurt the Silvertips. Last season, they looked to retool when they dealt Olen Zellweger and Ryan Hofer to Kamloops for a large surplus of draft compensation, and 4 players. This has helped Everett regain a plethora of assets to set them up for a bright future. Standing at 9-7-1-0, this Silvertip team holds 4th place in the Western Conference. Dominik Rymon leads the way up front for Everett, with 19 points so far in the campaign. Veterans Ben Hemmerling (VGK R6 2022), Austin Roest (NSH R6 2023), and Tyler Palmer have all helped keep this team competitive while “retooling”. While these two teams are yet to meet this season, Kelowna defeated Everett in three of last seasons four meetings, which is something this group can use as momentum heading into Friday’s matchup.
Wins in the Western Hockey League mean more this season than they have in a long time. Competition is tight, and so many teams are just one piece away from being a championship contender. For Kelowna, it’s all about getting on track, and staying on track.