The Timmins Rock have acquired blue-liner Lucas Branch, seen here in action with the Gold Miners during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena on Jan. 18, from Kirkland Lake in exchange for a player development fee. At 6-2 and 194 pounds, the right-shot D-man will add an element of size to the roster. FILE PHOTO/THE DAILY PRESS
The Timmins Rock have acquired 2002-birth-year blue-liner Lucas Branch from Kirkland Lake in exchange for a player development fee.
Branch (44, 4-6-10, 24), a 6-2 and 194-pound right-shot defender, spent one season in the blue and gold of the Gold Miners.
Prior to making his NOJHL debut with Kirkland Lake during the 2019-20 campaign, the Ancaster, Ont., native spent the bulk of the 2018-19 season with the Burlington Eagles (32, 0-13-13, 40), of the SCTA U18.
He also saw limited action with the Hamilton Kitty B’s (4, 0-0-0, 0), of the GOJHL, that season.
Branch will add some size to a Rock blue-line that also includes returning veterans Eric Moreau, Zach Fortin, Brendan Boyce and Evan Beaudry, as well as Chris Innes, who saw limited action in 2019-20 as an affiliate player, and newcomers Bode Dunford and Félix Cadieux-Fredette.
“Lucas comes in with a year of experience during his belt,” said Rock coach Corey Beer.
“He is kind of a two-way, physical right-handed defenceman who is very much in the same mold as Eric Moreau.
“He is an honest defender, good gaps, physical at the point of attack and he makes a good first pass in terms of keeping things simple.”
Beer noted that is just the kind of D-man the Rock were looking for to fill out their complement of blue-liners heading into the 2020-21 NOJHL campaign.
“Obviously, we want to see our depth is at a good point here,” he said.
“We have a lot of left-hand shooting defenceman (six out of seven prior to the addition of Branch), so for us it was about filling two needs.
“Lucas provides a bit more of a veteran presence, given he is a guy who has played in the league, who is a good penalty killer, a good defender, who can help out on the right side.”
Unlike some coaches, Beer does not feel it is absolutely critical to have a complete balance of left and right defenders.
“It is not a huge deal with the way we play and the way our defencemen jump in, but it helps out a bit more in terms of balance and making sure we have another right-hand shot.”
The coach noted Branch is excited to be joining the Rock blue-liner in time for the start of a new NOJHL campaign.
“We got to face him 10 times, or whatever it was, last year, so he knows about us and we know about him,” Beer said.
Branch dressed for nine of the 10 games the Gold Miners played against the Rock and he was held pointless, but did pick up one minor penalty during those contests.
While most teams might view carrying eight defenders on the roster as a luxury, Beer realizes how important it is to have extra bodies around — even in a normal season.
“We are very aware that at any point here we might lose a player for a couple of days or even a week, who knows, with all the COVID-19 uncertainty,” he said.
“So, making sure we can dress a Junior ‘A’ legit roster every night, and that is not a knock on affiliate players, is important.
“When an opportunity came to solidify your back end and make sure there is no drop off from No. 1 through No. 8, it was something that excited both (General Manager) Kevin (Peever) and I.
“When Peeves pulled the trigger on this it made sense on so many levels.
“Our depth overall is top notch.”
Even though Branch has a full year of Junior ‘A’ experience under his belt, he still has three years of eligibility around — counting this season around — remaining.
“There is a lot more growth in his game,” Beer said.
“It is not like he has played two, three or four years in another program where some non-Timmins Rock habits can creep into his game.
“We feel we can get him on track with the style of game we play, the tendencies we have out there, the terminology, all that stuff.”
Branch arrived in Timmins on Saturday and had his first practice with his new teammates Sunday evening.
Camp, or at least the COVID-19 version of it, got under way on Sept. 8, although a pair of returning veterans have yet to arrive in town — with permission from the Rock.
Blue-liners Eric Moreau and Zach Fortin remain at home.
“They are both working right now, with family set up sorts of things,” Beer said.
“Being veteran guys, we have basically allowed them to keep working. Obviously, with all the uncertainty and stuff it is something … with these guys probably not being able to get jobs up here … it is a little bit more money in their pockets before they come up.
“They are still on the ice every day or every other day and sending me video and stuff. It has been great to keep tabs on them.
“There is no doubt in my mind when those two get here they will adjust as well as anybody.”
The coach has been happy with what he has seen from his team during the first couple of weeks of camp.
“So far, so good,” Beer said.
“The first week involved a lot of shaking off the rust. These guys do their individual skills and training back home. The last month or so, before coming up here they started ramping that up a bit.
“We monitored their workouts all summer, something we really hadn’t done before but we had them send in video of their home workouts, their skill sessions, then on ice.
“That way we could keep tabs on these guys and make adjustments, as needed.
“Now that they are up here, it is a different pace, a different style.
“It’s relaxed, it’s not one-on-one. The first six skates were just that and I think the refreshing thing is talking to returning guys, they are like, ‘Yep, actually love it. It is so good to get back to this kind of practice style and feel good about how fast we play.’
“Then, talking to the new guys, they are like, ‘We have never been through a practice like that, that kind of up-tempo pace and structure.’
“So, it has been good for everyone, either getting back to it or getting acclimated to it.”
During the second week of camp, the coach was able to get an even more clear picture of the type of team has heading into 2020-21.
“You could tell last week how much quicker and more precise everything was and it is encouraging,” Beer said.
“The skill level and the speed are there, already. Maybe now we are going to kick it into more split time in terms of flow at the start and then more specific position-related skill in the back half of practice.”
Not being allowed any kind of body contact out on the ice — due to COVID-19 protocols — has had an impact on how things have gone, to this point, especially from the injury standpoint.
“I don’t see the potential for any of that (injuries) to transpire,” Beer said.
“Maybe when we start crashing and banging. We have not been approved for that (body contact) yet. It is still outside of our return to play protocols.
“Until we get a green light, from the health minister I believe, to engage in physical contact we are not allowed to right now. So, it is all flow and skill work.”
The coach has enlisted the assistance of retired professional hockey player Jeff LoVecchio in setting up training programs for members of the Rock.
“He does a lot of off-ice training and stuff,” Beer said.
“He has set up an app and a work-out program for our guys that includes flexibility training, resistance bands, all stuff these guys can do at home.
“It is something we can monitor through an app, as well.”
Normally, when camp rolls around, teams like the Rock have a firm grasp on how much time they have to get ready for exhibition action and the start of the regular season.
Given the current state of the pandemic, that is not the case as the Rock prepare for the 2020-21 NOJHL campaign.
“We are almost working in reverse,” Beer said.
“By that, I mean if they plop a, whatever, date for our start date in front of us, we are going to hope it will be at least a month of heads up.
“In a normal year, out work in training camp is about three weeks. So, we are basically working backwards off that date.
“The second they (the NOJHL) announce whatever that start date is, we will set in our three-week training-camp schedule every day and double up on video sessions.
“Until then, we are basically in our three skates a week and in the gym another four times, kind of development camp, until that date hits.
“We have about 17 different schedules here that are all synced to whatever start date is going to come our way.
“Like I say, we are kind of working backwards off that, making sure we do have the appropriate amount of time to install our systems and get guys up to speed on stuff that way.”
The coach actually sees a benefit to this rather unusual off season.
“I have never had the opportunity to work with these guys in a more controlled, relaxed environment,” Beer said.
“When our normal training camp hits, it is going 100 miles an hour and we have guys who are brand new to the team and all of a sudden we are going from flow drills to system breakdowns to two-on-two intense battles.
“Some of these new guys have never done that before. So, this is a really good chance for me to get to see them, work with them a little closer and make sure their habits are on track for when training camp does start.”
In a normal camp, there would be at least a handful of fans in the stands and media snapping pics and video, but under COVID-19 NOJHL return to play and City of Timmins protocols that has been missing to this point.
In addition to being non-contact to this point, camp has, of course, been impacted by COVID-19 in other ways, as well.
“Staff and players are tested every two weeks,” Beer said.
“All billet homes were tested before players got in.”
In addition, if staff or players develop any kind of symptoms, they have to go and get tested.
“Kevin and I have set up a scheduling app that sends out a screening survey every morning to these guys,” Beer said.
“They have to fill it out, saying do you have these symptoms, yes or no?
“If they check yes they have to get ahold of us and we proceed from there in terms of whether it is considered serious, or not.”