The Kelowna Rockets received a jolt of good news on Monday. Unexpected news, to be sure, but certainly welcomed.
The Minnesota Wild announced Monday morning that they were sending forward Brett Bulmer back to the WHL for what should be his final season of junior eligibility. The Prince George product played nine games in the NHL this fall before Minnesota returned the 19-year-old and 6-foot-3 power forward to Kelowna.
“When you have a guy of his calibre coming back, this is a shot in the arm for the team,” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. “We’re excited about the news and we’re looking forward to having Brett back on the ice sometime this week.”
Bulmer was expected to return to Kelowna late Monday night, with his first practice this week likely being Wednesday. Regardless when he practices, that he’s back in Kelowna colours certainly surprised the franchise.
Had Bulmer played a 10th game, Minnesota would have been on the hook for the first year of his three-year NHL salary. According to capgeek.com, Bulmer’s three-year contract will pay him $900,000 per season. However, last week, the Wild said they weren’t worried about eating his salary, and that they were going to keep him for the short term, then re-evaluate around the 40-game mark.
It looks like the Wild changed their mind about Bulmer on the weekend, as he could have played his 10th game on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, but instead was a healthy scratch.
“This fully surprised us,” said Huska. “We were told last week by Minnesota that Brett had been playing very well, that they weren’t too worried about (his contract) and they were going to give him more games to see if he would fit in. But I guess they came to the realization that if they want him to develop into a top-six forward, he needs to play in a lot of games and in a lot of roles, and the best place for that to happen would be here in Kelowna.
“As I said, we’re excited to have him back. I know he’ll be a little disappointed to start with, because everybody’s dream is to play in the NHL, but I think he’ll be focused on playing with urgency and intensity so he can give himself a World Junior Hockey Championship opportunity, as well as showing Minnesota that they made the right decision by putting him back and letting him play in all these offensive situations.”
In nine games with Minnesota, Bulmer had no goals, three assists and six penalty minutes. Last season with Kelowna, his second WHL campaign, Bulmer had 18 goals and 49 points plus 109 penalty minutes in 57 games.
“They did exactly what they said they would do,” said Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton. “If he’s not going to play regularly, there’s no reason to have him there.”
Monday’s news couldn’t have come at a better time for Kelowna, which is off to a poor start, with just five wins in 15 games, thanks mostly to an injury-ravaged roster. No less than six players missed the Rockets’ home-and-home weekend set with Kamloops, which the Blazers swept, 5-2 and 4-3.
Strangely, heading into 2011-12, Kelowna (5-9-1-0) said it wanted to avoid repeating its slow start from last season, where the Rockets went 5-10 in their first 15 games. Today, the Rockets are again at 5-10 after 15 games. However, there is a glimmer of offensive light — This season’s group has scored six more goals in the same time span despite injury woes that last season’s group didn’t have to battle (2011 — 47 goals for, 59 against; 2010 — 41 goals for, 58 against).
“There are a lot of positives beside that,” said Huska. “As coaches, we have to get our players to understand that they’re doing a lot of things well. And they are doing a lot of things well, but there’s also things they can build off of. As long as they continue to work hard, the success is going to come. With our group, we’ve been in a lot of one-goal games where we’ve had chances to win, where we’ve been one play short or couldn’t find a goal to even a game up. But being close isn’t good enough, no matter what your roster is — we have to work to get over that (losing) hump.”
The Rockets don’t play again until Friday, when they host the Portland Winterhawks in back-to-back games at Prospera Place. Leading up to that game, Huska said this week’s practice sessions will start slowly, beginning with fundamentals, then ramp up.
“We’re going to do a fair amount of teaching this week,” said Huska. “There are some areas we have to focus on with our team, and we have to continually work on those in practice. Part of this week is going to be used to get guys healthy, but, at the same time, we have to go to school a little bit and make sure we’re focused on getting better every day.”