As Lorne Frey and every other player personnel director is likely to tell you, evaluating bantam-aged hockey players is an inexact science. A Western Hockey League team’s top draft picks don’t always turn into franchise players. Conversely, prospects chosen in the later rounds can, with a little good fortune, develop into top-end talent. The Kelowna Rockets have seen the latter happen in recent years, with players like Brett Bulmer (11th round, 2007), Damon Severson (9th round, 2009), Lucas Johansen (6th round, 2012) and Kyle Topping (11th round, 2014) all exceeding expectations.
As is the case at every year at Kelowna Rockets’ rookie camp, Frey and his scouting staff are once again seeing some surprises this week, both from drafted and non-drafted players.
Among the more intriguing late-round prospects at camp is forward Stephen Kesselring, a ninth-round choice from Viceroy, Sask., who played bantam AA last season in Weyburn.
“He’s probably been a bit of a surprise here, he didn’t play on a good team last year but he was their leading point-getter and he just keeps getting better, every time he’s on the ice,” Frey said of Kesselring, who will play this season with the Moose Jaw Warriors midget AAA program. “It looks like he’s grown a couple of inches since the spring and he’s been really good here.
“We think his upside is huge, we might have got a little lucky there. In another year or two, we’ll know.”
Kesselring, 15, who wasn’t certain he’d be chosen in this spring’s bantam draft, was thrilled when the Rockets called his name in the ninth round. Still, the young forward knows being drafted is simply a small, first step in what he hopes will one day lead to a long and productive career with the Rockets.
“I think they’re a good organization and I’d definitely like to play one day here if I could,” Kesselring said after a practise session on Wednesday at Prospera Place. “I don’t think it really matters where I was drafted, I just think it’s important to make a good first impression, work hard and see what happens.”
As for the club’s first three picks in the 2017 draft, centres Ethan Bowen (Chilliwack), Ethan Ernst (Weyburn, SK) and Cole Carrier (Edmonton), Frey said all have come to camp as advertised.
“They’ve all been good,” Frey said. “Bowen’s been really good, Ernst has been outstanding and so has Cole Carrier. They’re all highly-skilled, good skaters and competitive, so we’re very confident in the abilities of all three and where they’ll all progress to in a year or two.”
Bowen, Kelowna’s first choice in the draft (39th overall), made a verbal commitment this spring to the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs and the NCAA’s University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, but accepted an invitation to attend this week’s rookie camp.
“We’re happy that he’s here,” Frey said of Bowen, who played at Yale Academy last season. “We know he has options out there and we’re going to try and sell him on our program.”
Bowen and the rest of the 2017 draft class will be invited to stay on for the team’s main training camp which begins Saturday at Prospera Place.