There were plenty of questions regarding the future when the Kelowna Rockets failed to make the WHL playoffs this season.
On Thursday, Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton started answering them.
Next May, Kelowna will host the 2020 Memorial Cup. That a host team failed to make the playoffs the season prior is worrisome. For example, how does a team with limited or no playoff experience suddenly adjust to the heavy pressure of playing for a national championship?
As a host team, the Rockets have automatically qualified for the four-team tournament. However, an unwritten major junior rule is that host teams shall not be embarrassments, overmatched doormats that are stomped on by the other three teams.
So, with that in mind, the Rockets acquired much-needed depth on Thursday at the WHL’s 2019 bantam draft.
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First, Kelowna acquired the rights to defenceman Sean Comrie from the Brandon Wheat Kings. Comrie, 19, played last season in the NCAA with the University of Denver, registering just one assist in 18 games.
Prior to that, the six-foot rearguard played two seasons with Spruce Grove in the AJHL. In his last season, he had 7 goals and 27 assists for 34 points in 54-regular season games as the Saints won the 2018 AJHL championship.
In making the trade, the Rockets swapped their fifth overall pick in the 2019 bantam draft for Brandon’s 10th pick and Comrie’s rights.
“Sean wasn’t happy with his situation this past season,” said Hamilton. “He wasn’t happy with his minutes and role on the team.
“When we heard that he was available, it made sense for us to go after him. He’s a strong player and will give us more depth on the blue-line.”
Comrie, from Edmonton, was drafted 44th overall, in the second round, of the 2015 bantam draft by Brandon. This past season, Denver advanced to the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament.
The NHL’s Central Scouting Service has listed Comrie 108th amongst North American skaters for the upcoming NHL Draft this June in Vancouver.
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Hamilton then swung another deal, this time with Seattle, as he acquired defenceman Jake Lee, forward Dillon Hamaliuk and goaltender Cole Schwebius.
In return, the Thunderbirds received the Rockets’ 10th overall pick in 2019, which they had just acquired from Brandon; the Rockets’ second-round pick in 2021; the Rockets’ first-round pick in 2022; and left winger Conner Bruggen-Cate.
Bruggen-Cate, 19, had played three seasons with Kelowna. Last season, the 6-foot-1 winger had 5 goals and 14 points in 65 regular-season games.
“This trade will have a big impact on our team,” said Hamilton, noting that Lee and Hamaliuk were both members of Seattle’s league championship team in 2017.
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Lee, who turns 18 on July 13, had 3 goals and 24 points in 67 regular-season games last season with Seattle, his second campaign with the Thunderbirds. From Sherwood Park, Alta., the 6-foot-2 defenceman was selected 18th overall in the 2016 bantam draft.
Lee also played with Kelowna blue-liners Kaedan Korczak and Lassi Thompson for Team Orr at the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Games this past January. Lee is ranked 146th among North American skaters for the upcoming NHL draft.
“Lee is a strong defenceman. He always has an influence when he’s on the ice,” said Hamilton, predicting Lee will hear his name called at the NHL draft.
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Hamaliuk, from Leduc, Alta., is a 6-foot-3 and 193-pound winger who had 11 goals and 26 points in 31 regular-season games last year. The 18-year-old was in his third season with Seattle. Selected late in the bantam draft, at 111th overall in the sixth round, Hamaliuk has tallied 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) in 120 regular-season games with Seattle.
“Hamaliuk is another top player,” said Hamilton. “He was having a great start to the season before an injury ended it.”
Hamaliuk played for Team WHL at the CIBC Canada Russia Series this past November. He was invited to play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game, but missed the game because of an injury.
Lastly, Schwebius, 18, is a Kelowna product. Last season was his first WHL campaign. In 17 games with Seattle, the 5-foot-11 ’keeper had a goals-against average of 3.89 and a save percentage of .886.
Schwebius was another late pick in the bantam draft, selected 216th overall in the 10th round in 2016.
The Rockets say Schwebius suffered his season-ending injury and was listed as a limited viewing prospect on the midterm rankings.
With Schwebius now on the roster, the Rockets have three goalies, including James Porter and Roman Basran.
“Schwebius is a Kelowna product,” said Hamilton. “He will give us the insurance that we need in net moving forward.”
For more on the WHL bantam draft, click here.