Rilen Kovacevic: Carving Out A Role
Kelowna Rockets forward Rilen Kovacevic has come a long way from being a tenth-round draft selection back in 2019, the Kelowna product has carved himself out a full-time role within the lineup that has seen him find a scoring touch this season.
Last season Kovacevic played a limited role, posting a then career-high seven points (3G, 4A) over 49 games. Now a year older, it’s only taken the 5’11, 180-pound winger 12 games to match those seven points (4G, 3A) this season.
It’s quite a jump for a kid who admitted that didn’t think he was going to be drafted by a WHL team back in 2019.
During his draft season, he played for the Pursuit of Excellence U15 Prep team here in Kelowna, where he posted 34 points (12G, 22A) and 40 penalty minutes. It was enough to impress his hometown Kelowna Rockets scouts, who took a flyer on the then 5’7, 147-pound forward in the tenth round (204th overall) of the 2019 WHL Prospects Draft.
He arrived at his first Rockets rookie camp that August as a 15-year-old armed with a laser beam for a shot. By the end of the main camp, he signed a Standard Player Agreement and made his preseason debut with the Rockets, appearing in one game.
Instead of returning to Program of Excellence, he opted to play for the Okanagan Rockets U18 AAA alongside fellow Kelowna prospects Jackson Desouza, Steel Quiring and Dylan Wightman. There he posted 31 points (12G, 19A) and 58 penalty minutes over 33 games before the season came to an end in March 2020 due to Covid-19.
He also appeared in the maximum five games as a 15-year-old with the WHL Rockets during the 2019-20 campaign, making his debut in that infamous 7-2 loss to the Kamloops Blazers on January 11, 2020, that resulted in 234 penalty minutes between the two teams.
With the world on pause due to Covid-19, Kovacevic’s seventeen-year-old campaign started with the Okanagan Rockets U18 AAA. He got into five games registering a goal and an assist before their season came to an early end by November.
In February 2021 it was announced that the WHL would be permitted to play a hub season starting in March 2021, with the emphasis being that it was more of a development opportunity for younger players, especially those who didn’t have the chance to play for the U18 programs that season. With no fans in the stands, teams only played within their divisions and were permitted to carry more players on their roster than usual.
Kovacevic was one of the 26 players who joined the Rockets for that shortened season. As a 16-year-old only appeared in three games and didn’t register a point, but he said that having the chance to practice and train every day helped him continue to grow as a player.
“Being a part of that hub season helped my development tons,” said Kovacevic in an interview following practice earlier this week.
“There were a lot of kids who weren’t fortunate enough to get into that bubble and I was lucky enough to do it. There were a lot of leaders and guys who I look up to that were on that team, it helped me a lot being there around them.”
When asked who specifically helped him, Kovacevic said that Jake Lee, Tyson Feist and Mark Liwiski were a trio that he leaned on.
“I was pretty close with our 20-year-old players last year, they helped me out so much. I got the chance to get close to them when they were 19-year-olds in the bubble year and then being around for their 20 year with them here was a big piece of my development.”
With the departure of Liwiski this season, it’s not hard to draw comparisons to how much Kovacevic’s game has grown to look a lot like Liwiski’s. While he continues to play an abrasive game just like Liwiski, Kovacevic has also found a knack for scoring this season.
Somebody call 911, Rilen Kovacevic committed an absolute robbery. pic.twitter.com/SW1M0wGAQI
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) October 23, 2022
He credits a lot of it due to confidence, but also said that being another year older and finding chemistry always helps.
“I guess you can consider this my third year in the league now, but it’s pretty much my second. Every time you go out on the ice you get more confident in this league as you grow as a person and player. The guys who I’ve been playing with, it’s been three years of playing alongside them, so there’s definitely some chemistry there and we’re starting to click.”
Talking about chemistry on his line, Kovacevic is often centred by Dylan Wightman. The duo have played together dating back to their Okanagan Rockets days.
“It’s pretty awesome playing with Dylan. Not too many guys get to say that they’ve played with someone for four years, especially when you get into your junior years like this. It’s special and I enjoy every moment of it.”
For Kovacevic, right now it’s all about seizing the opportunity. He’s grown from just being a grinder who often wondered if he would be the healthy scratch that night to consistently being in the lineup and chipping in points and wants to keep doing that for the Rockets.
“From a player standpoint, I want to be able to do everything now. I think I’m at a point where I can hold onto the puck, pass it or score goals. I can also do the other things if I need to, being a complete 200-foot player is what I want to accomplish.”
The Rockets will be back in action this weekend when they host the Kamloops Blazers on Saturday, November 5th at 7:05 pm for the first regular-season meeting between the two. Single-game tickets for all Rockets home games are on sale at Select Your Tickets. Tickets can be purchased online through www.selectyourtickets.com, at the Prospera Place box office, or by phone at 250-762-5050.