By Larry Fisher
The Daily Courier
The Kelowna Rockets are in desperate need of reinforcements right about now.
That help, though, won’t come in the form of another import player, according to the team’s general manager, Bruce Hamilton.
With no fewer than eight players missing due to injury or other commitments, the Rockets are short-staffed and icing a lineup that features four affiliated players from midget or lesser junior ranks. Fortunately for Kelowna, Brett Bulmer and lone import Filip Vasko failed in their bids to represent Canada and Slovakia, respectively, at the ongoing IIHF World Junior Championship in Alberta, where Rockets head coach Ryan Huska is an assistant for Canada.
That 10-team, under-20 tournament is, however, showcasing a couple Europeans with Kelowna connections.
Finnish sniper Teemu Pulkkinen, a Detroit Red Wings draft pick in 2010, and Latvian sensation Zemgus Girgensons, a projected first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, were both selected by the Rockets in the CHL Import Draft.
Hamilton is in Calgary watching the action and keeping tabs on those potential recruits, but isn’t expecting either to report to Kelowna this season.
“Pulkkinen won’t be coming for sure because he’s playing for Jokerit (of the Finnish Elite League),” Hamilton said of Kelowna’s first-round pick (50th overall) in the 2009 import draft. The 19-year-old left-winger is currently playing on Finland’s top line with the Granlund brothers, Mikael and Markus, and also plays a prominent role on his club team back home with nine goals and 22 points through 32 games this season.
“I can’t see the other guy (Girgensons) coming out now, but certainly I’m going to watch the Latvians play,” continued Hamilton in highlighting Kelowna’s first-round selection (45th overall) in the 2011 CHL import draft, who’s been holding his own despite playing for overmatched Latvia (0-3), scoring a power-play goal in a 9-4 tournament-opening loss to Sweden on Boxing Day for his only point, but also recording eight shots on goal and four penalty minutes through three games.
“It’s not the stage to make contact with these guys. When we got (Mikael) Backlund (from Sweden), we had been in contact long before the world juniors as to what was going to unfold with him. In this case, (Girgensons) has a team that he’s on still and I’m not going to interfere with his world juniors, I can tell you that. Our recruiting of him will take place when the world juniors are over.”
Nor does Hamilton expect to swing a deal for another import ahead of the Jan. 10 trade deadline. Kelowna will stick with Vasko this season, then explore its off-season options.
“I can’t see us trading because I’m not going to drop Girgensons to make room for another player because I believe we’ll have a real good opportunity to get him next season,” Hamilton said of the forward, who is committed to the University of Vermont for 2012-13 while also captaining the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL this season. “This is a process that we’re not going to back up on. We’re going to push ahead and try to get him. Our goal is to have him playing for us next year more than anything.”
Girgensons, who turns 18 on Jan. 5, was leading Dubuque in scoring with 12 goals and 26 points in 22 games prior to leaving for the world juniors. He was the USHL’s rookie of the year last season, scoring 21 goals and 49 points in 51 games for the Fighting Saints.
In the meantime, Hamilton is content with the contributions Kelowna has been getting from Vasko, despite the fact he was the only Rocket regular to not score a goal prior to the Christmas break, and has been blanked in two games since returning from a tryout for Slovakia.
“Him not getting a chance to go home for Christmas is going to be tough,” Hamilton said. “But I want Filip to come back and continue to develop like he has. He’s come a long ways and I think we’re going to see some real good hockey out of him before it’s over.”
Vasko, who only turned 18 on Dec. 10 and is also eligible for the 2012 NHL draft in June, has tallied 11 assists, 30 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating through 34 games with the Rockets. He has also proven to be a versatile player with a good work ethic.
“He plays hard; he’s just too generous,” Hamilton said. “He has to start shooting and that’s what we’re on him about . . . you don’t have to pass all the time.”
This goal drought is surprising given Vasko’s reputation as a scorer, even moreso than a playmaker. He had 15 goals and 37 points in 41 games in the Slovakian Under-20 league last season, plus a team-high five points, including two goals, in six games while representing his country at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship.
“That’s been his thing (scoring goals), but even on that (pre-Christmas road) trip, two or three times he had chances to put it away and he dishes it off,” said Hamilton, adding all things considered Vasko’s been a much more effective player than last season’s imports — Andreas Stene (Norway) and Gal Koren (Slovenia). “Filip’s a way better skater and as you can see now, he’s playing lots. He’s killing penalties and he’s been busy.”