Timmins forward Nicolas Pigeon, shown here looking for a deflection in front of Crunch goalie Liam McCarthy during an NOJHL game at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane on March 13, will be returning to the Rock lineup for the 2021-22 NOJHL campaign. Following the departure of a number of key veterans this offseason, the Rock will be looking for Pigeon to provide more offence in the upcoming season. FILE PHOTO/THE DAILY PRESS
Nicolas Pigeon and Gavin McCarthy will be back in the maroon, gold and white of the Timmins Rock when the puck drops on the 2021-22 NOJHL campaign.
And both players will be looking to demonstrate the same growth they displayed between their first and second years of U18 hockey.
Pigeon (22, 3-13-16, 18), a 2002-birth-year forward from Aylmer, Ont., produced similar statistics during his first year of U18 hockey with Canadian International Hockey Academy (CIHA) Green (45, 6-14-20, 24), although in more than twice the games.
His second year with CIHA Green, when he served as the team’s captain, saw a big jump in his offensive numbers (44, 18-30-48, 16).
With the exception of not being able to play a full 56-game season and follow it up with a lengthy playoff run because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Pigeon was pleased with how things went in 2020-21 for himself and the Rock.
“The first year was fun and this coming season we will have a new coach and general manager (Brandon Perry), so it is exciting,” he said.
“With some new players coming in too, I am sure we are going to have a good team. The mantra behind the team, ‘give your best every game,’ will remain the same, but we will for sure win.”
Pigeon admits the loss of key veterans such as Captain Derek Seguin, fellow forwards Josh Dickson, Riley Robitaille, Graeme McCrory and star goalie Tyler Masternak due to age will leave some pretty big skates to fill.
“It is sad those guys are gone now because they were so important to our team,” he said.
“They taught me a lot, not only how to act on the ice but also off the ice. For sure, I am going to bring that to the team this season and try to pass it on to the new guys coming up.”
Pigeon is confident he can offer the Rock more offensively in 2021-22, without sacrificing any of the defensive skills he displayed during his rookie season.
“I am looking to bring a little more offence, but also keep playing a strong defensive game,” he said.
“For sure, confidence, being able to shoot the puck and come back stronger (is going to be important).
“Those guys last year showed me how to shoot, where to shoot, when to shoot.”
Pigeon’s statistics in both of his U18 seasons and his first NOJHL campaign would suggest he is more of a pass-first forward, but that might not be the case in the future.
“I have always been a playmaker, but if there is an opportunity to shoot and score, help the team, I am going to shoot,” he said.
“It is just a matter of having the experience to know where to shoot to surprise the goalies because the goalies at the Junior ‘A’ level are pretty good.
“You won’t beat them with a straight shot. You have to be smart with your shots. It is a matter of finding those kinds of holes and opportunities, but I have always been a playmaker.”
Honing his skills during Rock practices against Masternak, who led the NOJHL in every important goaltending category last season, helped Pigeon develop his shot.
“Sometimes it sucked because it was so hard to score, but when it came to games it helped me feel more confident,” he said.
“Masty was a great goalie and if you could score on Masty, for sure, you could score on any other goalie in the league.”
Pigeon is confident heading into his second season in the NOJHL, but he will gauge any success during the campaign by the number of games the Rock win, not any individual statistics he might rack up.
“If the team does well, everyone is going to have a great year,” he said.
“I am just looking forward to winning some games and hopefully a championship.”
It is no surprise, given former Rock coach Corey Beer’s fondness for line juggling, that Pigeon played with just about every forward on the squad at some point in 2020-21.
“It was kind of a mix, but at the end of the year I kind of had a good thing going with Clarkie (Harry Clark),” he said.
“It is really fun to play with him, Schwinny (Tyler Schwindt) too. He is great in the corners and bringing the puck to the net.
“If I get to play with those guys, I am confident we can have a great year.”
Pigeon also enjoyed getting to play on a line with Robitaille in 2020-21, although the big power forward is too old to return to the Rock lineup.
“He was such a beauty and so important to our team,” he said.
Despite the loss of the overage players, and others who have left the team for one reason or another, Pigeon is confident the Rock can ice a championship-calibre team in 2021-22.
“We are going to have a great core,” he said.
“Last year’s vets taught us so much and we will bring that to the team this year.
“We are going to have a great year, especially with Gavin in net. He will be excellent. He worked with Masty all year. He was already great, but he will be as good as Masty, if not better.”
The Rock coach only had a small sample size of watching Pigeon in person, due to the bubble necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he liked what he saw from Pigeon in 2020-21.
“He is incredible,” Perry said.
“He is very, very good. The thing I like most about him is he competes super hard. His motor is always going.
“He has some offensive ability and you pair that with how hard he competes and the sky is the limit for this kid in terms of offensive production.
“That is kind of what we are expecting from him this year and we are setting the bard very high.”
While Pigeon didn’t put up big numbers in 2020-21, he did show flashes of having the ability to produce offence on a consistent basis.
“That is one of the reasons you bring in players when they are young,” Perry said.
“You trust your ability to develop them so you don’t have to go looking for that every year.
“We are looking guys like Seguin and Dickson up front and those are two really big holes to fill, in terms of offensive production, and we are really confident we are going to be able to do that from within.
“There are spots going to be opening up in our offensive lineup and I think Nic is going to take one of them and run.”
In addition to showing strength in the defensive zone last season, Pigeon was also one of the Rock’s best face-off men — a skill his new coach appreciates.
“That is an incredible skill to have,” Perry said.
“It is an incredibly important skill to develop and I think the guys who take it seriously understand that fact.
“The game is all about puck possession. If you lose draws, you are chasing the puck all game and if you win draws, the other team is chasing the puck all game.
“We expect him to be a key factor down the middle of the ice for us.”
Timmins goalie Gavin McCarthy, shown making a save on a shot off the stick of Rayside-Balfour Canadians forward Nicholas DeGrazia during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena on Nov. 21, 2020, will be back in a Rock uniform for the coming season. McCarthy will be looking to stake his claim on the Rock’s No. 1 job when training camp opens this fall. FILE PHOTO/THE DAILY PRESS
Like Pigeon, McCarthy (411:00, 5-2-0, 1, 2.92, .880), a 2003-birth-year goalie, is coming off a solid rookie campaign.
And like his teammate, the Athens, Ont., native will be looking to demonstrate the growth he showed between his first (1,440:00, 8-13-0, 1, 2.67, .906) and second (1,740:00, 19-7-1, 1, 2.39, .922) years of U18 hockey.
“The biggest thing was experience,” he said.
“We also had a better team in front of me, but on a personal level I kept things more calm and changed my game a bit.
“Hopefully, I can continue to progress as a person.”
Having apprenticed under Masternak in 2020-21, McCarthy is looking to stake his claim as the Rock’s No. 1 goaltender this season.
“Playing behind Tyler as a rookie was a great thing for me,” he said.
“He kind of showed me the ropes and gave a couple of tips, showing me what it takes to be successful in this league.
“He leaves some big skates to fill, but that’s my goal.”
Overall, McCarthy is pretty pleased with how things went during his rookie season in the NOJHL.
“I played alright, but obviously there is room for improvement,” he said.
“I think it was a good way to get my foot in the door in Junior ‘A’ hockey.
“The biggest thing for me was the practices and fielding the harder shots, the faster skating and things.”
It remains to be seen how many games the NOJHL schedule will feature in 2021-22, so it is hard for McCarthy to set any goals in terms of how much time he would like to spend in the Rock crease.
“I want to earn the net,” he said.
“I don’t just want to be put in there because I am the starter. I want to earn it, have the numbers, have the wins and the ability to stay in that position.”
McCarthy is confident the Rock will be able to ice a very competitive squad in 2021-22 even without the veterans who have moved on.
“Those guys left some pretty crazy foot tracks in the league, but I think with the team we have this year we are going to have just as good a chance to be successful as we were last year and the year before,” he said.
“I can’t stress how excited I am for this season. I think there are big things coming for this team.”
With a season of Junior ‘A’ hockey under his belt, McCarthy is feeling pretty comfortable — even though the Rock only faced three of their 11 NOJHL rivals in 2020-21.
“Obviously, with the year we had, we missed out on a lot of teams but playing against a strong team like Rayside-Balfour showed me what the West (Division) is made of and hopefully we will get to play those other teams this year and be just as successful,” he said.
To date, McCarthy is the only goalie the Rock have signed, so he does not know yet who he will be sharing the crease with when training camp opens this fall.
“My biggest focus is my game, but I also want to be able to push my partner, too,” he said.
“It is not all about me, but I would like to focus on my own game, while helping my goalie partner, as well.”
For the second-straight summer, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting McCarthy’s normal off-season workout program.
“I haven’t been able to get on the ice, but I am lucky enough to have a gym at my house, so I have been staying strong, adding a bit of mass,” he said.
“I want to gain some weight but reflexes and speed are more important to my game.
Perry is happy to have a goalie of the quality of McCarthy patrolling the Rock crease during his first season as coach of the NOJHL squad.
“He is going to have some pretty big skates to fill, but Gavin is incredibly capable and we are super confident with him being our guy moving forward,” he said.
“I was only around for one practice last season because of the bubble rules and on one road trip with them, for the two games in Hearst when Beersy (former Rock coach Corey Beer) was suspended, so it was a small sample size, but they say first impressions are everything and Gavin certainly made a great first impression.”
Perry expects to see McCarthy continue to develop during his second season in a Rock uniform.
“I think confidence is going to be the big thing for him,” he said.
“He is going to be a year older and the hope is for him to have that confidence to take another step forward.
“There is no question in my mind. He is going to be able to come in here and do a fantastic job.”
As opposed to bringing in an older goalie, with more experience, Perry envisions pairing McCarthy with somebody of a similar age and skill set.
“We expect another guy to come in here and challenge Gavin and create a competition,” he said.
“Should, God forbid, something happen (injury), we would obviously expect that guy to step in and be just as good and carry the load.
“It is important to have a good backup goaltender. Who knows what the season will look like. If it starts like last year, we might have three in that spot.”
NOJHL NOTES — The East Division rival Powassan Voodoos, who sat out the 2020-21 campaign, have acquired 2001-birth-year goalie Alex Bugeja (9-2-2, 0, 2.37, .936) from the West Division’s Soo Thunderbirds, in exchange for a player development fee. The Voodoos have also shipped 2002-birth-year forward Ethan Mason (did not play) to the SIJHL’s Humboldt Broncos in exchange for a player development fee … The Hearst Lumberjacks also added to their goaltending depth by acquiring 2003-birth-year puck stopper Matteo Gennaro (no stats available) from the PJHL’s Orillia Terriers … The Cochrane Crunch have picked up 2003-birth-year forward Ethan Ingram (did not play) from the PJHL’s from Dundas Blues and 2002-birth-year forward Josiah Kraayenbrink (8, 2-1-3, 21) from the GOJHL’s Listowel Cyclones … The Elliot Lake Red Wings have acquired 2002-birth-year forward Hayden Cattani (3, 0-0-0, 0) from the SIJHL’s Kam River Fighting Walleye.