By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Grant McClellan will be back patrolling the Timmins Rock blue-line for a second-straight NOJHL season.
The 1998-birth-year defenceman from Trenton, Mich., confirmed on the weekend he will be returning for the 2017-18 campaign.
Rock assistant coach James Daschuk, who coached the team’s blue-liners last season, is happy to have the 6-0, 195-pound veteran back to help anchor a unit that also currently includes fellow veteran Jared Hester, as well as newcomers Lucas Dolanjski, James Redmond and Shawn Sloan.
“He is definitely a guy we are glad to have back,” Daschuk said.
“In my opinion, he was probably our most improved player last year, from the beginning of the season to the playoffs. The skill and the work ethic was always there, but the progress he made throughout the season was amazing.”
Prior to joining the Rock, McClellan had been captain of the Trenton High School team, in the USHS, and put up some impressive numbers — five goals and 17 assists for 22 points in 28 games, with 26 minutes in penalties.
He started the 2016-17 campaign as the No. 5 or No. 6 defender on the Rock blue-line chart, but quickly worked his way up the list.
“We really trusted him a lot and he logged a lot of ice time for us, especially as an 18 year old playing his first year of Junior ‘A’ hockey,” Daschuk said.
“It was all earned. It would be hard to find a guy who worked as hard as he did, or who battled every shift. He is the type of guy who comes off the ice and he is just gassed because he works so hard every time he is out there.
“Not only does he love to win, he hates to lose. They are two different things and he was both of them going for him.”
McClellan brings a lot of strength the to Rock blue-line and rarely loses a battle in front of his team’s net.
“He finishes his checks, whether it is a hip check or a body check,” Daschuk said.
“He plays a rugged style out there. He likes to be in your face and he takes tremendous pride in not losing one-on-one battles.”
Perhaps best described as a two-way defender, McClellan (55, 6-8-14, 56) does like to jump into the play from time to time and four of his six goals came on the power play in 2016-17.
“If there was a turnover, one of the first things he would do is look up ice and join the rush,” Daschuk said.
“He was probably one of our best players at being that third or fourth player into the zone and most of his six goals were a result of getting the puck in the slot and finding that open hole.
“Talking with (new Rock coach) Corey (Beer), that is something we are likely going to preach again this year. Grant has already got the background in being able to do it, so that should be a bonus for us.”
Daschuk describes McClellan as a student of the game.
“He asks questions all the time,” he said.
“Things like, ‘What should I have done in this situation,’ or, ‘What could I do differently next time.’ He is one of those guys who just wants to keep learning.”
With Beer taking over for the retired Paul Gagne as Rock head coach, the team’s “program” will likely change in 2017-28, but having veterans like McClellan and Hester back should help the learning curve.
“With Jared coming back as a 20 year old and Grant coming back as a 19 year old, we have two big pieces to our defensive puzzle,” Daschuk said.
“Grant logged some of the biggest minutes for us last year as an 18-year-old rookie, so he should only get better. For him to be able to log 20 to 25 minutes would be huge and he he got some power-play time last season. He logged a lot of penalty-kill time and a lot of five-on-five time, as well.
“We used him as a shutdown guy and matched him up against the other teams’ top lines.”
McClellan has been busy this off season back home in Trenton working to improve his game.
“I have been on the ice a lot,” he said.
“I have been doing a camp out in Farmington Hills here in Michigan. It is a skills camp and I have been working on positioning, ways to create more time and space on the ice.
“Footwork is another big thing I have been work on. I want to be able to walk the blue-line and get more quality shots on net. I want to make myself more available to offensive opportunities and contribute to the team more.”
Already one of the strongest players on the squad, McClellan has not been trying to add to his frame this off season.
“I think 195 pounds is a good weight for me,” he said.
“I am more worried about increasing my foot speed. Once I increase my foot speed, maybe then I can think about putting on a little bit of weight.”
McClellan clearly enjoyed playing for the Rock in front of the team’s rabid fans last season.
“I couldn’t imagine a better area to play my first year of Junior ‘A’ hockey,” he said.
“It was a great experience and a blessing to be able to play in Timmins last season.”
With a year of experience in the NOJHL under his belt, McClellan is looking forward to the start of training camp next month.
“One of the biggest things I had to adjust to last year was the speed of the league,” he said.
“You really have to be quick with your decision making. Heading into my second year, I am hoping things will slow down for me with the experience I gained last year. I want to focus on making the right decision with the puck and making good passes.”
The 2016-17 campaign was a season of highs and lows for McClellan and his Rock teammates, with few highs being higher than their East Division semifinal victory over the Cochrane Crunch and few lows being any lower than their East Division final loss to the Powassan Voodoos.
“It would be nice to take our game to another level, but I am really proud of what we were able to accomplish last year,” he said.
Even though he will be playing for a new head coach, McClellan feels having both assistant coaches — Daschuk and Marc Bisson — will make for a smooth transition.
“The guys who are coming back are familiar with Dazzer and Beezer, so having them back will definitely help out a lot,” he said.
“It is definitely a bonus that they are both back.”
McClellan enjoyed playing for Gagne, who played almost 400 games in the NHL, last season and he is looking forward to getting a chance to learn under Beer, a former assistant coach with the RBC Cup champion Cobourg Cougars, this year.
“He knows what it takes to win and he understands what we need to do to get to that next level,” he said.
“It is going to be a great opportunity for our players to learn from him, take what he has to teach and apply it to our game. I am really excited to be able to play for him and learn from his experience.”
Beer has stated the Rock will play a defence-first style in 2017-18, with the entire five-man unit on the ice operating under that philosophy.
“Having everybody focused together as a unit like that should create a lot of up-ice transitions, with more opportunities for odd-man rushes,” McClellan said.