By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock blue-line received an injection of experience, size and talent with the addition of three defencemen.
Veteran James Watier has confirmed he will return to the maroon, gold and white for a second NOJHL season, while the Rock have acquired Will Caston from the Whitby Wildcats, of the ETAMMHL, and Connor Palush from the Valley Forge Minutemen, of the NAPHL.
Rock coach Corey Beer is excited to have a fourth veteran blue-liner on the squad in the 1997-birth-year Watier (42, 3-12-15, 29), a native of Ashburn, VA.
“It is so important with not only the experience but also the age factor, because you can lean on them in different situations,” he said.
“The calmness they bring to the ice means it’s a good thing to have guys like James back there. You can lean on them for heavy minutes, especially in the early part of the season. It gives some of the younger guys more time to evolve their games in certain situations.”
Watier joins third-year D-man Jared Hester, Grant McClellan and Lucas Dolanjski — a Timmins native who was acquired earlier this off season from the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners as experienced NOJHL blue-liners.
Beer, who served as an assistant coach with the RBC Cup-champion Cobourg Cougars last season, has not had a chance to see Watier play in person, but he has watched plenty of video of the smooth-skating blue-liner.
“James is certainly a guy you would have to consider as a steady, two-way defenceman,” he said.
“He has good puck-moving ability. He can make a good outlet pass or transport the puck up the ice, but he is also a responsible defender, too. So many times, you look at guys who want to rush the puck, they forget how to play in their own end, but James certainly isn’t like that. He knows how to protect the house and take care of business in his own end.
“He has a bit of a physical bite to his game, too, which is so important when you get into a playoff series against certain teams. You want guys who can do that and I thought James certainly held his own and then some in the two playoff rounds the team was involved in during 2017.”
Having coached the Cougars development team this summer, Beer is quite familiar with Caston, the 2001-birth-year defender who stands 6-4 and weighs in at 200 pounds.
“I got the chance to know him and his game this past summer,” Beer said.
“I got to work with him up close and personal. He is a big body who showed tremendous growth over the summer. He has the ability to play good, sound defence and he is able to block shots very well and kill penalties, but he also has some budding offensive abilities, as well.
“We are going to try and grow that as best as possible in the coming months. We are excited to see what kind of heights his game can hit. We are really excited to have him on board.”
A native of Whitby, Caston (22, 1-2-3, 36) had a bit of an injury-plagued campaign in 2016-17.
“Will sustained a knee injury that kept him out for some time last year,” Beer said.
“He came back and was kind of behind the 8-ball in terms of his skating, but he has put in a ton of effort and time with power skating and being on the ice with the Cougars’ development team.
“His skating has certainly come into form and he does not display any of the awkwardness you might expect from a 16-year-old man of his size. He is a smooth skater.
“One of the reasons we wanted to bring him in is he doesn’t seem to have too many weak spots to his game. It’s just a matter now of getting his skills to push through to the Junior ‘A’ level.”
Given that Caston won’t turn 16 until later this month, it is quite possible he hasn’t finished growing yet, either.
“He obviously still has some filling out to do,” Beer said.
“He hasn’t discovered his man strength yet. His parents are both very big, so he may grow a bit more, but I don’t know that he is going to hit 6-7 or anything like that. I think it will be more a matter of building a solid foundation on his frame.”
Palush, a 1998-birth-year defender from Quakertown, PA, also brings some size — 6-1 and 180 pounds — to the Rock blue-line.
“(Rock general manager) Kevin (Peever) has done a tremendous job in identifying talent that we have been able to go after and Connor is one of those kids,” Beer said.
“I have watched a lot of video on him, as well, and he certainly comes with the background of being a good puck-moving defenceman, but he also has a lot of bite to his game.
“I would describe him as a defence-first player who has the ability to move the puck. He is a guy, as a 19 year old, we are going to rely upon in a lot of penalty-kill situations. You look at some of the heavy minutes that can be sustained on the back end, in terms of defensive-zone starts, possibly playing more of a physical role against other teams’ top lines.
“He has good footwork on the blue-line and the ability to get his shot through to the net, as well. We are not expecting him to come in here and light the lamp offensively, in terms of ridiculous numbers, but we do want him to be a good, two-way defender for us.
“I think he is going to be a good character guy in our room, as well. You can never have too many good people in your dressing room.”
Palush split the 2016-17 campaign between the Valley Forge Minutemen (24, 1-6-7, 101), of the AYHL, and the Valley Forge Minutemen (21, 0-9-9, 38), of the NAPHL.
With the return of Watier and the arrival of Caston and Palush, the Rock now have eight defenceman on their roster — four of whom shoot left (Watier, Hester, Dolanjski and Caston) and four of whom shoot right (Palush, McClellan, James Redmond and Shawn Sloan).
Like Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, Beer feels that balance is an asset.
“I think it makes things a lot easier on the defensive side of the game,” he said.
“Everything is on the player’s strong side and they are not having to transfer things from their backhand to their forehand. That little split second might end up costing you a turnover.
“We want to have a good lefty-righty base moving forward. Obviously, there will be times during games where we will have to switch things up. We might need a lefty and a lefty, for example in an offensive zone situation.
“It makes it so much easier for your defencemen to make outlet plays.”
The eight-man Rock blue-line also has an equal mix of NOJHL veterans and newcomers to the league.
“We will lean heavily on those guys (experienced defencemen),” Beer said.
“Having guys who not only know the ins and outs of the arenas and the players they are playing against but also the mentality that goes into playing at the Junior ‘A’ level is a definite asset.
“That will allows us to let kids like Connor, Will, James and Shawn grow their games. It will be a bit of an adjustment for them early on.”
All eight defenceman are expected to be on hand when the Rock open their main training camp at the McIntyre Arena on Thursday, Aug. 17.
Rock players will actually be reporting to the team on Tuesday, Aug. 15.
“We will have skill sessions, which (assistant coach) James (Daschuk) and (goalie coach) Marc (Bisson) will run for the first two days just to get the guys back on the ice,” Beer said.
“The first two days is mainly for the guys who haven’t been on the ice in a while, as it will let them get a few skates in before we start throwing the boots to them on Aug. 17. I will hit the ice with them on that day when we get things up and rolling for the main camp.”