The Timmins Rock have added an element of size to their blue-line corps, without sacrificing puck-moving skill or offensive upside in advance of the 2018-19 NOJHL season.
Fresh off an impressive playoff run that saw them upset the Hearst Lumberjacks in the East Division quarterfinals and then knock off the No. 5 team in Canada, the Powassan Voodoos, in the semi-finals, before bowing out in five games to the NOJHL-champion Cochrane Crunch, the Rock have added six new defencemen.
Only two of the blue-liners who suited up in the maroon, gold and white during the 2017-18 campaign — Will Caston and James Redmond — are back and the latter is still recovering from off-season surgery that will keep him out of the lineup until sometime in November or December.
Caston (43, 1-9-10, 42) enjoyed a solid campaign as a 16 year old and he has filled out his 6-4, 220-pound frame over the summer with added muscle.
The left-hand shooting blue-liner came to the Rock from the Whitby Wildcats, of the ETAMMHL, prior to the 2017-18 campaign.
“Early on last year, we found out the date on his birth certificate didn’t matter,” said Rock coach Corey Beer.
“He went out there and played effective minutes for us and by the end of the season, he was basically in our top pairing, playing against some of the top 20 year olds in the league.
“Will put in a phenomenal off season. I was able to work with him a bit at a sports performance facility in Whitby and the strides he has made in the gym and on the ice has shown to this point in camp.
“He has come as advertised and he has been great. He has improved his offensive skills and his skating ability. He as also added size.”
Perhaps Caston’s biggest improvement, however, has been in his confidence level.
“The jump from Year 1 to Year 2 in Junior ‘A’ hockey is so important,” Beer said.
“If you can get those quality minutes as a young player in your first year and be confident when you hit the ice, that’s huge. It is one thing to get the minutes, but it is another thing to have that confidence in yourself.
“He is just oozing with confidence right now. He looks like he is ready to take the next step in his career.”
Caston is enthused by the group of new defenders the Rock have been able to assemble in the off season.
“We are definitely looking good on the back end,” he said.
“We have definitely gained size and I think we will be a more physical group, but at the same time, I think we are going to be more mobile, as well.
“Everyone seems to be picking up our D-zone systems that we have been working on in training camp.”
At this stage of training camp, defensive pairings — like forward combinations — seem to change from shift to shift.
“I am looking forward to playing with whoever I get to play with,” Caston said.
“You want to be able to play with anyone. Obviously, having a little stability back there and knowing who you are going to be playing with helps out.
“I think we will have the flexibility, with injuries or suspensions, or anything that is thrown at us. Left and right pairings, we will be able to play with anyone because everyone has a good skill level.”
The experience Caston gained in 2017-18 is helping him get ready for the upcoming campaign.
“I think the big thing is preparation, showing up — whether it is for dryland or practice — getting ready, stretched out and feeling good,” he said.
“It’s things like being ready, listening to the coach and being aware of what’s happening.”
Redmond (25, 2-5-7, 6), whose 2017-18 campaign was interrupted by a series of upper-body injuries, is 6-1 and weighs 189 pounds.
The right-hand shooting Ottawa native is one of three 1998-birth-year defenders currently on the Rock roster.
“In the truest sense of the word, he is a pro,” Beer said.
“He showed up Sunday in a dress shirt and dress shoes on Sunday and he looked the part and he acted it.
“He is good with the guys in the room and he is going to be a mentor to some of our younger defencemen.
“He is everything you want in a teammate and, as a coach, he is everything you want in a player. It is great to see he is on the mend. James is a huge part of this club.”
Another towering blue-liner, Luka Bolduc, was picked up in a trade with the Saint-Lazare Révolution, of the QJAAAHL, in a deal that saw goalie Eric Jackson head to Quebec.
At 6-3 and 190 pounds, Bolduc (29, 0-4-4, 4) not only adds size to the back end, but also an element of grit, as well.
He was an eighth-round selection, 138th overall, of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft.
“Luka Bolduc is a big rangy defender,” Beer said.
“He has got good skating ability and he will be able to jump into the play.”
Owen Shier, an eighth-round selection of the Windsor Spitfires, 159th overall, in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection stands in at 6-1 and weighs 185 pounds.
A native of Sunderland, Ont., the right-hand shooting blue-liner spent time with three teams in 2017-18 — the Central Ontario Wolves (36, 6-15-21, 26), of the ETAMMHL, the Central Ontario Wolves (3, 0-0-0, 0), of the ETAHL, and the Lindsay Muskies (1, 0-0-0, 0), of the OJHL.
“Owen Shier is going to be a very special player,” Beer said.
“You can just see that poise and confidence. He is in that same category that Will was last year. He is 16 years old, but you would never know it watching him out there on the ice.”
Sixteen-year-old Carson Burlington (29, 2-14-16, 59), who was picked up from the York Simcoe Express, of the ETAMMHL, also got in a pair of games with the OJHL’s Stouffville Spirit last season.
The left-hand shooting Barrie native stands 6-1 and weighs in at 190 pounds.
“Carson Burlington has great skating ability,” Beer said.
“He has good size and good natural skill. He is going to have to learn the Junior ‘A’ game and what it takes day-in and day-out.”
Connor Mullins, a Toronto native who stands 6-0 and weighs 190 pounds, is another of the new 1998-birth-year defenders.
The left-hand shooting blue-liner spent the 2017-18 campaign with three different WSHL teams — the El Paso Rhinos (7, 2-2-4, 2), the Long Beach Bombers (16, 1-7-8, 4) and the Valencia Flyers (3, 0-1-1, 0).
“Connor Mullins is very fleet a foot and a slick playmaker on the back end,” Beers said.
“He is going to be great and log a ton of minutes for us.”
Mullins is pleased with how training camp has been going so far this week.
“The boys are looking really good,” he said.
“The skill is there, the speed is there and I think we are going to have a good season.”
Mullins and his new teammates have been doing their best to absorb as much of Beer’s systems as possible in advance of their exhibition season opener against the Cochrane Crunch at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls on Saturday.
“It takes a little bit to get the hang of it,” he said.
“The boys were kind of messing it up a little bit at the beginning, but it is all about repetition. Now that we are getting the hang of it, I think will have it down pat pretty soon.”
While increased size seems to be the motto for this year’s Rock blue-line, Mullins is hoping to be able to provide a boost to the back end’s offensive capabilities, as well.
“I have got a lot of offensive ability and I think I can help contribute to the team’s firepower,” he said.
“I know Corey always wants one D up in the play and I feel I can contribute that way and I can also contribute in the defensive zone, as well, by getting the puck out quickly.”
Like Caston, Mullins doesn’t feel playing with numerous D partners is that much of an issue.
“We are playing at a high level of hockey and at this level you have to kind of be prepared to play with whoever and with the skill level we have, I think the guys will be able to mix and match, no problem.”
Ian Elkins, who stand 6-0 and weighs 180 pounds, comes to the Rock from the Port Perry MoJacks (41, 4-18-22, 16), of the PJCHL.
The 1998-birth-year right-hand shooting blue-liner is a native of Courtice, Ont.
At 5-8 and 175 pounds, Eric Moreau is the only blue-liner on the Rock roster who stands under six-feet (5-8 and 175 pounds).
But statistics would suggest Moreau ( 37, 1-11-12, 91), a right-hand shooting defenceman, plays with a little bit of grit in his game.
The Penetanguishene, Ont., native spent the 2017-18 campaign with the Midland Flyers, of the PJCHL.
“Mr. Elkins and Mr. Moreau are two dependable right-hand shots who can jump into the play,” Beer said.
With eight blue-liners on the roster — including the injured Redmond — playing time is going to be at a premium.
“Every guy is going to take his turn up in the stands,” Beer said.
“It is one of those things where we are going to be very aware of who we are playing, while also ensuring the guys are healthy.
“Some guys are going to get nights off when we are playing three games in three nights on a road trip.
“It is a long season. You certainly don’t win the league in the first month. You have to make sure your guys are healthy for the long run.”