Every year at the NHL Draft teams look for “raw talent” that can develop within their system and become impact players at the next level. This year one of the best examples of raw talent that can develop into truly great and unique player is Kelowna Rockets forward Justin Kirkland, a projected second-round pick. Kirkland recorded 48 points in 68 games as the Rockets were one of the best teams in the Western Hockey League this season, but it really appears the best is yet to come for the 6-foot-3 190-pound winger.
Before joining the Rockets, Kirkland skated for the elite Notre Dame Midget Program in Saskatchewan, joining the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards who have played for the elite program. This year Kirkland played in a number of roles for Kelowna as the team’s depth at forward had him playing bottom six minutes to start the year. Rather than hang his head and sulk, Kirkland used this opportunity to improve his all-around game and eventually earn his way into a scoring role and onto the team’s power play.
I met up with Kirkland on the night before the NHL Draft and asked him questions about his development to date as well as his team’s goals for next season. With an expanded role Kirkland will surely hover right around a point per game. His power forward style makes him an intriguing prospect who will almost certainly pay dividends down the road for the lucky that drafts him.
He said himself that the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues have expressed the most interest in him, and in many ways that figures. Montreal has done very well with a power forward from the WHL that other teams overlooked in Brandon Gallagher, and the Blues pride themselves on size coupled with gritty, effective play.
Wherever he lands Kirkland will bring his unique mix of size, grit and skill as well his A+ work ethic. While he may be a few years away from holding down a full-time NHL job, he could be well worth the wait. I view him as a combination of Erik Cole (in his prime) and former Kelowna Rocket /current Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn.
My interview with Kirkland in Philadelphia on June 26, 2014: