Kelowna Rockets enter a new season with growing expectations

Rockets high expectations

The Kelowna Rockets won't be sneaking up on anyone this coming Western Hockey League season.

The Rockets, with a young nucleus of talent, surpassed expectations a season ago, finishing with 42 wins and 90 points while giving the Kamloops Blazers a run for the BC Division title before fading down the stretch.

With a large contingent of players returning from that team, a lot is expected.

And, with the home opener just 48 hours away, excitement within the room, and the fan base, is growing.

"It's been a long off season. A lot of guys are returning from last year's team, so we're just looking at getting off to the right start," said head coach Kris Mallette.

"Obviously this year with 12 returning forwards, five returning defencemen and potentially two returning goalies, you want to build on that.

"Whether or not that happens, there are some guys that have to take some serious steps."

The player expected to lead that charge is 17-year-old forward Andrew Cristall.

Cristall was third in rookie scoring in the WHL a year ago with 28 goals and 69 points in 61 games. He was also third on the team across all three categories behind linemate Colton Dach and Pavel Novak.

"He's an elite talent. Expectations for him are high, but he puts a lot of pressure on himself as well," said Mallette.

"For us, with the group we've got, we have a lot of guys who work extremely hard. The skill set is there, but he has an elite skill set.

"He's an offensive threat every time he's on the ice."

Cristall acknowledges there's pressure on him to contribute, but adds there are a lot of guys who can put the puck into the net as well.

"I'm just trying to do my job, and everything will work out," said Cristall.

Cristall says he spent the summer working on his speed and strength. He's put on a few pounds and says he may have grown an inch.

"I really worked on my power skating and I think it's helped a lot. I think I've gained an extra step."

While Cristall shoulders some of the team expectations, this season is also pivotal personally. He's eligible for the NHL draft in June, and early pre season ranking have him as a mid first round selection.

"Obviously, it's hard not to think about the draft.

"But, I just to come here, work every day and keep that in the back of my mind. If I do the little things right, the good things like that will come in the future. I'm just trying to take it day by day."

The Rockets will open up the regular season Saturday when they entertain the Portland Winterhawks.

Kelowna will be without Dach and goaltender Talyn Boyko, who remain at NHL training camps.

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