Only the Espanola Express scored fewer goals than the Timmins Rock during the 2017-18 NOJHL season.
That’s one of the reasons the Rock placed significant emphasis on upgrading the skill level of the forwards added to the roster in advance of the upcoming campaign.
“We had another good day, with a little bit more focus on the offensive side of things today,” said Rock coach Corey Beer as training camp continued at the McIntyre Arena.
“We did some work on our forecheck and our offensive zone systems and I thought our guys grasped things really well.
“We threw in a couple of skill drills early on to kind of reinforce some of the stuff we wanted to do in the offensive zone.
“Some of those things filtered into the back half of the practice where we were working on our systems.
“One of the things we really like about this group is they can retain information and then put it to use.”
Beer likes what he has seen from his forwards — new and old — during training camp.
“Overall, we have a lot more talent,” he said.
“It has been pretty evident so far. We have a lot of guys who have some high-end skill throughout the lineup.
“The guys we have playing on our fourth line might not be your typical fourth-line crasher anymore. They are guys who have the capability of sliding up the lineup.”
“In the off season, we made a conscious effort to add more skill and speed.
The Rock have five returning forwards, including Timmins natives Derek Seguin (41, 12-16-28, 53) and Stewart Parnell (27, 9-11-20, 14), both of whom missed significant time with injury during the 2017-18 season.
“Derek Seguin has looked phenomenal coming off a major junior camp (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, of the QMJHL),” Beer said.
“He showed really well there and we are expecting big things from him this year.
“Stewart Parnell is back in full health and has looked good out there. He is feeling better about himself and I think he is poised to have a phenomenal year.
“You pair him up with maybe a Maxime Charbonneau, a 20-year-old guy who is a lethal shooter, and you have a pretty nice combination.
“We don’t put much stock in individual statistics, but from a production standpoint, I think Stewart is ready to make a big jump.
“He shoots the puck well. He is 6-2 and he skates well. He is everything you want in a player. He plays a responsible 200-foot game.
“He will have ample opportunity on the power play this year that should allow him to grow his game.”
Parnell, who will be entering his third season in a Rock jersey, is the elder statesman of the team and he is looking forward to what he hopes will be a healthy 2018-19 campaign.
“I am really feeling great,” he said.
“I have been working hard on my shoulder, lifting lots of weights to keep it strong. It feels 100% now.
Despite the serious upper-body injury Parnell suffered last season, he still managed to average almost a point per game.
“I am hoping to be a little bit more productive this season, but it is more important to get wins for the team than individual points,” he said.
Parnell is impressed with what he has seen from the Rock’s new group of forwards, as well as his returning teammates.
“We have a lot of skill out there on the ice and a lot of speed,” he said.
“They are really smart hockey players and they make really good passes and they can all shoot the puck very well.”
Parnell has started to develop chemistry with Charbonneau.
“He has a really good shot,” he said.
“We have been on the same line for the past couple of days and we have started to develop some chemistry.”
Parnell enjoys working with some of the Rock’s younger players.
“It is good to show them what it takes to play Junior ‘A’ hockey and how their hard work can pay off,” he said.
Fellow Timmins native Riley Robitaille (35, 5-4-9, 32) adds an element of size to the Rock forward group and Beer feels he has significant offensive upside.
“Riley Robitaille has looked really good, as well,” Beer said.
“Any time you have a 6-3 power right-hand shooting forward who can do damage in the offensive zone with his body and his stick, it is pretty nice to have.”
The other two returning forwards — Linden Spencer (55, 4-14-18, 54) and A.J. Campbell (42, 4-2-6, 40) — are better known for the checking effectiveness and their strong work on the penalty kill.
“Linden Spencer and A.J. Campbell do the hard work out there that most guys don’t want to do,” Beer said.
“They are good on the penalty kill and they block shots. They are the kinds of guys who lead by example, show the guys through their day-to-day routines what hard work looks like and what it means to be a Junior ‘A’ player.”
Forwards Austin Holmes (Rock 10, 2-5-7, 2; Majors 33, 14-17-31, 117) and Riley Brousseau (Rock 7, 1-1-2, 2; Majors 34, 13-12-25, 55) both spent significant time with the Rock as affiliate players in 2017-18 and have been signed to Junior ‘A’ contracts for the the upcoming season.
“Both Holmes and Brousseau (the son of Chris Brousseau, captain of the first Timmins Golden Bears team and nephew of former NHL star Steve Sullivan) are gong to be good, responsible players,” Beer said.
“The have the ability to chip in on offence. They have good skills that way.”
Among the key additions up front are 1999-birth-year forward Joshua Kego (20, 11-6-17, 43), who was picked up from Le Sommet Academy, of the PSHF; 2000-birth-year forward Josh Dickson (39, 13-9-22, 46), acquired from the Port Perry MoJacks, of the PJCHL; Charbonneau (17, 5-7-12, 4), obtained from the Granby Inouk, of the QJAAAHL; and 2002-birth-year forward Keegan McMullen (33, 6-14-20, 50), who spent last season with the Cambridge Hawks, of the AHMMPL.
“Two guys we have put together are Josh Dickson and Joshua Kego,” Beer said.
“They form a right-left combo and both of them are pretty lethal shooters.
“Dickson does a lot of work down low and Kego has got a phenomenal release. He kind of plays a subtle game out there. You don’t notice him and all of a sudden the puck is on his stick and then it is in the back of the net.
“We feel really good about those guys and Kego is a tremendous leader in the room.”
A Hawkesbury, Ont., native, Kego is happy with the way things have been coming together during training camp.
“Things are going really well out there,” he said.
“The boys are really working hard and I think we have a lot of skill. I am really excited to get things going with our exhibition game on Saturday (against the Cochrane Crunch at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls, starting at 7:30 p.m.).
As a newcomer, Kego has yet to experience the rivalry between the Rock and the Crunch.
“I am sure I will get filled in on it pretty quickly, though,” he said.
“It is only an exhibition game, but I am sure the guys who were here last year are going to want to make sure we go out there and get the win.”
“It seems like everybody out on the ice has got a lot of talent. I think everybody is going to be able to contribute offensively and put the puck in the net.
“If we follow the systems and listen to the coaches, I think everybody is going to be able to contribute equally offensively.”
Kego’s statistics from 2017-18 would suggest he is more of a goal scorer than a playmaker, but that might not necessarily be the case.
“It all depends on what kind of a system the team is running,” he said.
“I definitely like to shoot the puck, but if there is a play to be made out there, I will definitely look for the pass.”
Kego is impressed by how quickly the Rock have been gelling as a team.
“We have a great bunch of guys,” he said.
“We have guys from all over the province, plus a couple from Quebec, but we are all coming together.
“That is really comforting coming from out of town to have that kind of environment coming to the rink every day.”
Rounding out the new faces up front are 2000-birth-year forwards Cameron Chisholm (35, 10-16-26, 32), acquired from the Timmins Majors, of the GNML; Darcy Haupt (36, 14-13-27, 4), late of the Central Ontario Wolves, of the ETAHL; Mahingan Decontie (21, 4-5-9, 6), picked up from Le Sommet Academy, of the PSHF; and Maxime Piquette (36, 6-10-16, 10), who spent the 2017-18 campaign with the West Nipissing Lynx, of the GMHL.
“It is pretty wild to see Decontie, from where he was at the prospect camp in Oshawa and the work he has put in over the past couple of months to now,” Beer said.
“His skill set is pretty special, but he is a guy who is going to have to get used to Junior ‘A’ hockey.
“He has a small body, but he can absolutely fly out there on the ice. He has got some nifty hands out there and some vision most guys don’t have.
“We are really excited about him, as well as Keegan McMullen, a young 16 year old who has great speed and skill.
“We also have some other guys like Haupt and Chisholm. It’s a really good forward group with a lot of depth. There are going to be a lot of battles for playing time.”
As the Rock progress through their exhibition season — which in addition to Saturday’s game against the Crunch will see them play a pair of games against the Hearst Lumberjacks — the line combinations, like the defence pairings, will likely change numerous times.
“You like to form a little bit of continuity, especially early in camp,” Beer said.
“You like to find guys whose games complement each other, put a good set-up man with a good shooter and hope it works.
“We have looked at a couple of different combos and we are adopting a bit of what my buddy John Dean does with the Soo Greyhounds. They almost run a bit of a two-man system, where they put pairs together on different lines and then have rovers who rotate throughout the lines.”
ROCK NOTES — Three Rock players will be off to OHL camps this weekend — McMullen to Peterborough, defenceman Owen Shier to Windsor and goalie Tyler Masternak to Saginaw … Following Saturday’s exhibition game with the Crunch, the Rock will take on the Lumberjacks at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls on Thursday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m., and then play a rematch at the Claude Larose Arena in Hearst on Friday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m.