By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The landscape of the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League changed significantly with the arrival of Dec. 1.
That’s the date all Canadian Junior Hockey League franchises — including the 12 in the NOJHL — have to reduce the number of cards they possess to 25 from the 35 they are provided with at the start of the season.
As in most years, the day was marked as much by the additions teams made as the players they released or traded.
For the Timmins Rock, Tuesday’s roster tinkering saw the team welcome back 19-year-old forward Aaron Kerr (13, 1-1-2, 6) from the Drummondville Voltigeurs, of the QMJHL.
The Timmins native is excited about the opportunity to continue his career with the Rock and play again with his older brother, defenceman Ryan Kerr.
“I have played with him my whole life while we were growing up and we always know where each other is out there on the ice,” he said.
“I also know a lot of the other guys, like Kealey (Cummings) and (Nick) Hautanen, too, so it is going to be good to play with them.”
Kerr last played for the franchise when it was known as the Abitibi Eskimos (2, 1-0-1, 2) and played out of the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls during the 2013-14 season.
After a stellar rookie campaign (46, 22-14-36, 21) as a 16-year-old in 2012-13, Kerr caught the attention of the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan early the following season.
The 5-9, 172-pound Timmins native had a solid first year with the Titan (49, 4-5-9, 14) in 2013-14 and built upon those numbers during his second season with the franchise (53, 13-14-27, 11).
The Titan release Kerr prior to the start of the 2015-16 campaign, however, and he signed with the Voltigeurs.
During his time in the QMJHL, Kerr developed both physically and skill wise.
“When you are 16 years old, you are still developing, right,” he said.
“My skating was not as fast then as it is now. My shot was not as hard as it is now. I have been able to improve on little aspects of my game.”
After scoring 22 goals as a rookie in the NOJHL, Kerr became a more complete player while playing in the QMJHL.
“It’s all about a 200-foot game over there,” he said.
“If you are not playing defence as well as you are playing offence it is not going to be a happy situation for you.”
Kerr will have an opportunity with the Rock to assume a more offensive role than he had with either the Titan or the Voltigeurs.
“Obviously, it is always fun to put up points and score goals, stuff like that, but I will do anything to help the team win,” he said.
Kerr does not anticipate he will have any difficulty adjusting to coach and general manager Paul Gagne’s program.
“When I was 16, I played his system and then when I got to the QMJHL I realized that system was not as complex as some they have, so I don’t think adjusting to the program he is using right now should be an issue,” he said.
“(Ryan) said the system is pretty simple, nothing too complicated, regarding plays off faceoffs and stuff like that. It is just a standard system.”
Kerr will make his debut in a Rock uniform, playing on a line with Tristan Salesse (22, 19-23-42, 12) and Ryan Theriault (20, 13-12-25, 14), Friday night when the team travels to Iroquois Falls to take on the Eskis.
“It should be interesting,” he said.
“I know a few of the guys on the Iroquois Falls team who I played with on the Eskis previously. It will be nice to play against them again.”
Gagne will be happy to see Kerr don the maroon, yellow, black and white of the Rock for the remainder of the season.
“We had him when he was 16 years old and he was incredible,” he said.
“He has had a couple of great years in the Q and coming here, he will add speed to our lineup. Other teams are going to have to key on him. That will provide a little bit more room for our other big player, also.
“Inserting him into the Top 6 should also improve our third and fourth lines. It will really be nice to have him in the lineup.”
You could even argue that the Rock’s Top 6 is now really a Top 9, given the offensive players Gagne has to juggle amongst his first three lines.
“Having (Devin) Panzeca (19, 13-9-22, 2) on the third line and putting (Wayne) Mathieu (26, 6-5-11, 23) back on the third line and having (Cole) Gilligan (17, 3-3-6, 4) or (Kyle) Levis (19, 2-6-8, 22) on the third line gives us choices,” he said.
“If our third line can score one or two goals a game, like last game, without seeing any power-play time, that’s all bonus.”
Prior to the team’s last game, the Rock brought back forward Andrew Green (1, 0-1-1, 0), who like Kerr played for the franchise when it was known as the Abitibi Eskimos.
“It was a lot of fun out there,” he said.
“It is still fast-paced hockey and this team really has a great attitude in the locker room. I like how the squad has begun the season and I hope I can help out as much as I can.
During his first game in a Rock uniform, Green patrolled the right side on a line with Panzeca and Gilligan.
“They are both good players and they keep things simple,” he said.
“They stick to Paul’s program and I like the way they play.”
Green, who last suited up for the Eskimos (49, 12-30-42, 31) during the 2013-14 campaign has logged plenty of travel miles since.
The 2014-15 season saw him make stops with the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees (1, 2-2-4, 4), of the NAHL, the Michigan Warriors (22, 1-5-6, 4) of the NAHL, and the Dauphin Kings (4, 1-2-3, 2) of the MJHL.
Prior to joining the Rock, Green started this season with the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots (21, 0-5-5, 10) of the OJHL.
Like Kerr, Green’s game relies upon his speed and a good shot.
“Skating is one of my biggest attributes and over the years I have tried to work on my strength and puck control, as well,” he said.
“Paul has helped me out working on my strength down low and protecting the puck.”
At 5-8 and 165 pounds, Green is far from the biggest player on the Rock roster but he does not shy away from the rough stuff.
“I like to get in the corners, get gritty and battle a lot,” he said.
In addition to adding Kerr on Tuesday, the Rock released three players.
Forward Tyler Planetta (23, 2-6-8, 18), a 17-year-old Gould, Nfld., native had seen time mainly on a checking line and also played on one of the team’s penalty-killing units.
Mikael Rancourt (19, 1-2-3, 4), a 20-year-old Hearst native, spent most of his time on the blue-line, but also did a solid job filling in up front. Rancourt broke into the NOJHL last season (35, 2-3-5, 12).
Also cut on Tuesday was goalie Mike Gresko (20:00, 0-0-0-0, 0, 3.00, .909), an 18-year-old Timmins native who was signed when both of the Rock netminders — Logan Ferrington (810 :00, 8-5-1-0, 0, 3.41, .916) and Matthew Nixon (680:00, 6-5-0-0, 0, 3.88, .898) — were hobbled by lower-body injuries.
Following Tuesday’s roster moves, the Rock still have three cards open.
“If something in the calibre of a Kerr or a top-notch defenceman becomes available, we will take a look at it,” Gagne said.
There was plenty of action elsewhere in the NOJHL on Tuesday and in the days leading up to the deadline, as well.
In Iroquois Falls, the Eskis — fresh off their four-player deal that saw them acquire forwards David Stickney (7, 0-0-0, 8) and Blake Holowaty (14, 1-2-3, 16), as well as defenceman Kyle Sutherland (14, 1-3-4, 28) from the Dryden Ice Dogs, of the SIJHL, in exchange for captain Nathan Avery (21, 4-10-14, 46) — traded speedy forward Brett Ouderkirk (25, 12-21-33, 6) to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
It didn’t take the 18-year-old Monkland, Ont., native long to make an impact with his new team, as he has a goal and four assists in his first two games as a Gold Miner.
Adding Ouderkirk wasn’t Kirkland Lake’s only move in anticipation of Tuesday’s deadline.
The Gold Miners also acquired forwards Alexander Hester (17, 6-3-9, 26) and Trevor Hester (16, 1-0-1, 2) from the Pelham Panthers Jr. B, of the GOJHL, and shipped forward A.J.Rupert (20, 4-2-6, 10) to the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL.
In Cochrane, the Crunch followed up on a flurry of recent activity by shipping defenceman Austin Pultz (22, 1-1-2, 29) to the Elliot Lake Wildcats.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, shipped forward Jason Wilson (19, 2-9-11, 6) to the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL.
In Powassan, the Voodoos shipped defenceman Noah Bennett (10, 0-0-0, 2) and forward McKenzie Gray (20, 3-5-8, 10) to the Minnesota Iron Rangers, of the SIJHL.
The Soo Eagles traded forward Kendall Huckins (17, 2-4-6, 27) to the Dauphin Kings, of the MJHL, and defenceman Dayton Honkanen (18, 3-6-9, 32) to the Minnesota Iron Rangers, of the SIJHL.
Perhaps the most curious move of the day saw the Soo Thunderbirds trade goalie Nathan Warren (900 :00, 14-1-0-0, 3, 1.67, .931) to the Winkler Flyers, of the MJHL.
Warren, for the record, leads the NOJHL in goals against average, saves percentage, shutouts and wins.
“Today is a tough day for us losing a quality person and player in Nathan,” T-Birds general manager Jamie Henderson said in a press release on the team’s website.
“We felt he deserved the opportunity to be a No. 1 goalie somewhere and Winkler has a strong team this year and will provide Nathan with the opportunity to do so. We wish Nathan well in his new home,”
The team has not announced who will be taking Warren’s place on the roster but the Thunderbirds other netminder, Brendon Gordon (360:14, 5-1-0-0, 1, 1.83, .919), has been solid when called upon this season.