By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Only two teams — the Cochrane Crunch and the Powassan Voodoos — scored more goals than the Timmins Rock during the 2015-16 NOJHL campaign.
Matching that offensive prowess in 2016-17 might prove to be a daunting task, however, given that the team has lost forwards Zachary Kercz (53, 26-55-81, 90), Tristan Salesse (43, 34-41-75, 18), Ryan Theriault (48, 21-25-46, 38), Aaron Kerr (22, 17-21-38, 6), Devin Panzeca (29, 17-10-27, 6), Landen Matechuk (15, 7-15-22, 14), Michael Norris (34, 7-6-13, 26), Andrew Green (23, 5-8-13, 10), Tyler Planetta (23, 2-6-8, 18) and Jace Soroko (3, 1-0-1, 0).
For those who might not have a calculator handy, those missing forwards represent 137 of the 257 goals scored by the Rock last season — 53.3%.
And that’s not factoring in the 26 goals credited to departed blue-liners Ryan Kerr (46, 6-34-40, 45), Joe Olson (46, 4-27-3, 52), Andrew Castagna, 46, 10-15-25, 29), Brennan McGuire (47, 2-10-12, 24), Kealey Cummings (54, 2-6-8, 56), Michael Rancourt (19, 1-2-3, 4) and Tyler Somers (3, 1-1-2, 8).
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne had been hoping the acquisitions of forward Nick Siracuse (48, 12-23-35, 25) picked up in a June 16 trade with the Powassan Voodoos in exchange for Theriault and forward Joel Grandbois (51, 21-17-38, 26) who came to the Rock in exchange for Salesse in an Aug. 10 swap with the Espanola Express would pick up some of the slack, but both players have no informed the Rock they will not be reporting to the team.
The Rock do have six forwards back from last year’s squad, including the dynamic duo of Jordan Rendle (51, 30-40-70, 67) and Bain Cunningham (53, 25-33-58, 48), but Gagne realizes the team will need to develop some secondary scoring, as well.
“We are going to be counting on Wayne Mathieu (4, 8-8-16, 48) to step up his game,” he said.
“Last year was his first year in the NOJHL and he had a role playing on the third line that required him to shut down the opposition and kill penalties, but we are giving him an opportunity to play on the second line and get more power-play minutes.
“I know he is going to come through for us.”
The game plan heading into the home-and-home exhibition series with the Gold Miners that saw the two sides tangle in Kirkland Lake Friday night and will have them face off at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night was to have Mathieu centring a line that will include newcomer Jacob Shankar (40, 14-16-30, 66), who spent last season with the Brockville Braves, of the HEOMAAA.
“We are going to be patient with him because he is young, but he has got a lot of skills,” Gagne said.
“He is going to be playing with Wayne and he is going to learn lots. Wayne really knows the program and Jacob is really going to benefit playing with him.”
Shankar, whose brother Zach played for the North Bay Trappers back in 2013-14 before graduating to the OHL’s Battalion, likes what he has seen so far in camp.
“I think we are going to be pretty strong up front,” he said.
“We have some quality guys out here.”
Shankar, a 17-year-old Prescott, Ont., native, is confident he can be an asset for the Rock this season.
“I think I can bring some strong energy to the lineup,” he said.
“Hopefully, I can score a few goals, as well.”
Shankar feels hard work is going to be the key to making the jump from Midget ‘AAA’ to Junior ‘A’ hockey this season.
“Obviously, it is a little bit faster game, so I will have to adjust quickly to different situations,” he said.
Gagne will also be counting on solid offensive production from Tyler Romain, who started the 2015-16 season with the Rock (18, 4-6-10, 7) before being traded to the Napanee Raiders (21, 12-4-16, 21), of the EBJCHL.
“He really wants to play and finish off his Junior ‘A’ career on the right note,” Gagne said.
“We are going to give him an opportunity and see if he can put up some numbers of the second line.”
Romain also put up some impressive numbers with the Gold Miners (26, 9-12-21, 21) at the start of the 2014-15 season.
“He has been having a great camp,” Gagne said.
So, the second line combines Mathieu, Shankar and Romain, but who will be playing with Rendle and Cunningham on the Rock’s first line?
“Right now, we have Corey Sprague playing on that line,” Gagne said.
Sprague (50, 2-6-8, 60) comes to the Rock from the Saint-Jérôme Panthères, of the QJAAAHL.
“I like his speed and the awareness he has out there on the ice,” Gagne said.
“He brings a lot of jump, aggressiveness and intensity to our lineup. I am hoping he will fit in really well with Rendle and Cunningham.”
Part of the Rock’s secret to offensive success last year is that they could role out two and sometimes three lines that could put the puck in the net, making it difficult for their opponents to focus on shutting down any single unit.
“Maybe we will wind up not even playing Rendle and Cunningham together,” Gagne said.
“Maybe we will just play them together on the power play or in situations where we really need a goal. There are all kinds of options.”
In the short term, the key might be keeping the puck out of their own net instead of filling up the opposition cage.
“We are going to have to tighten up a little bit more defensively,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to bring in a couple of more players because we have lost Grandbois and Siracuse.”
With his GM hat on, Gagne was “working the phones all day,” in hopes of bringing in a couple of offensively gifted forwards.
In the short term, the play of the third and fourth lines could prove to be even more important for the Rock.
“(Alexandre) Brisson, who played for us last year, is a little bit more mature and he is working extremely hard,” Gagne said.
“We think he can really contribute in that role. He has a lot of skills. He just needs to put everything on the table and develop. He finished off last year really strong.”
Brisson (25, 4-2-6, 8) caught the coaches attention during his rookie campaign in the NOJHL.
Stuart Parnell (34, 19-11-30, 38), who still has midget eligibility, also has a legitimate shot at making the Rock roster if he can follow up an impressive four days at camp with some success in the pair of exhibition contests.
“We are really taking a close look at him,” Gagne said.
“We have him on the third line and I can see him having success in that role. He is a kid who likes to hit and finishes his checks. When he digs in the corner for the puck, nine out of ten times he comes out with it.”
It isn’t just Parnell’s solid defence that has impressed the coach.
“It is overlooked a little bit, but offensively he can put the puck in the net,” Gagne said.
The other member of the Rock’s third line is Brandon Major (32, 3-6-9, 35), who attended training camp with the Rock last year before signing with the Napanee Raiders, of the EBJCHL.
Rendle, who is entering his second season with the Rock, will have the added responsibility of serving as captain this year, but he doesn’t feel it will detract from his play on the ice.
“I don’t think it is really going to affect me on the ice,” he said.
“I am just going to go out there and play my game. We have a great group of veterans and a lot of leaders in the room. That really takes a lot of weight off my shoulders, so I am not worried about that at all.”
Early in camp, Rendle and the other Rock veterans went out of their way to ensure their new teammates felt like they were part of the team.
“I know what kind of position I was in last year, pretty nervous, being on a new team, so I am just hoping to be able to make the new kids feel welcome,” he said.
“You want everyone to feel like they are home when they are in the dressing room.”
Cunningham is hoping to build upon the success he had playing on Rendle’s wing during his rookie season in the NOJHL and he’s looking forward to stepping out on the ice at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
“It’s going to be great,” he said.
“The fan support we receive is always good. The turnout is big all the time and the fans really motivate the team. It’s an awesome environment to be part of every game.”
What does Cunningham have to do to build upon the success he experienced last season?
“I just have to capitalize on all the chances I get,” he said.
“I just need to go out there and play the game I have always played. I go out every game and try to do my best.”
Other forwards currently in camp include veterans Kyle Levis (39, 4-14-18, 37) and Cole Gilligan (44, 6-6-12, 6), as well as Nicholas Hway (32, 2-6-8, 24) from the Timmins Majors, of the GNML, and Marcus Blackned (23, 35- 23-58, 6), from the Bears de la Nation Crie.
ROCK NOTES — Rock season ticket packages will be available for pickup at the McIntyre Arena on Saturday from 1-4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. until the end of the game against the Gold Miners … The Rock are still searching for a few more billet homes for the 2016-17 season. Anyone interested in helping out or seeking more information should email firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure they put billet in the subject line.