Will Caston, who took a regular shift on the Rock blue-line as a 16 year old, was one of the youngest players in the NOJHL during the 2017-18 campaign. The Rock have announced Caston will be back on the blue-line this season looking to build upon a successful rookie season. Now back home in Whitby, Caston has been working out hard and is looking forward to the start of the 2018-19 campaign. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS
By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The newest member off the Timmins Rock, forward Josh Kego, is looking forward to meeting some of his prospective new teammates during this weekend’s prospect camp at the Campus Ice Centre & Field House in Oshawa.
On Monday, the Rock officially announced the signing of the 1999-birth-year Hawkesbury native, who spent the last three seasons playing for Le Sommet Academy in the PSHF, with his best campaign (20, 11-6-17, 43) being the 2017-18 season.
The team also confirmed that big blue-liner Will Caston (6-4 and 201 pounds) will return to help anchor the team’s defence this season.
Both Kego and Caston will be on the ice for the Rock’s prospect camp, which opens on Saturday and runs through Sunday.
“I am really excited to meet the guys,” the former said.
At 6-0 and 170 pounds, Kego on the other hand is better known for his speed and skill than his size or brute strength.
“I see myself as a defensively responsible, good two-way forward who can contribute to a team offensively,” he said.
Growing up, Kego tried to pattern his game after his step brother, Buffalo Sabres left winger Benoit Pouliot.
“I have followed his career from junior hockey to the Ontario Hockey League and then to the NHL,” he said.
“I have always looked up to him as a player and as a person, too. He has been my role model over the years.
“He is always telling me to keep working hard, never give up. If I get into a slump, he tells me to keep playing my game and continue to work hard. That has helped me a lot.”
Pouliot played three seasons with the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL before being drafted No. 4 overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, so Kego is familiar with Northeastern Ontario — although he has yet to visit Timmins.
“We have some friends in Sudbury and I know that is a little bit south of Timmins, but I have a bit of an idea of what to expect in Timmins,” he said.
“I had a lot of conversations with the general manager of the Rock, Kevin Peever, and it seems like a good organization and hockey town,” he said, explaining why he opted to sign with the Rock.
“I consulted with my family advisor (junior players who want to preserve their NCAA eligibility are not allowed to have agents), Shawn Anderson, and he thought it would be a good decision moving forward to allow me to continue developing as a player.”
Anderson, of course, is also a former NHL player.
“One of the big things I have learned from Shawn is time and space on the ice,” Kego said.
“It has helped my game tremendously. There are times to go real quick and other times where you have to find time and space, control the puck and control the play.”
Kego enjoyed the three years he spent playing hockey at Le Sommet Academy.
“Honestly, it was a really great experience,” he said.
“From Year 1 to Year 3, I think I really developed a lot — on and off the ice. I was able to improve my defensive game as a forward and it was really a great program, with a high level of hockey that at the same time incorporates the academics.
“All around, it is a really great program.”
Kego does not know too much about the NOJHL, but one of his friends — goalie Nicholas Campbell — got into 12 games with the Powassan Voodoos during the 2016-17 season.
“He said he really enjoyed his experience up there,” Kego said.
The left-hand shooting forward, who can play both left wing and centre, knows there will be an adjustment moving from prep-school hockey to Junior ‘A’ this season.
“I think the biggest adjustment is going to be the speed of the game,” Kego said.
“Everything moves a little bit quicker and passes are going to be harder, but I am not expecting it to be too, too much of an issue.”
Kego expects to train hard this summer to ensure he is in tip-top shape when the Rock’s main training camp opens in August.
“Our season at Le Sommet Academy usually came to an end around the end of April and I started training right away,” he said.
“We train four times a week off the ice and three times a week on the ice. Then, on the weekends, I like to go up to the cottage and relax a little bit.
Second-year Rock coach Corey Beer is anxious to see what Kego and the other 35-plus players on the ice for this weekend’s camp have to offer.
“Josh has some of the same offensive tendencies as his step-brother, a slippery player in the offensive zone,” he said.
“He is the kind of player who is going to come in and add instant offence to our lineup. He has a great shot and a good release. He is dangerous with the puck.
“We will have to work with him to clean up his defensive game, but that is to be expected with any young player.
“He is also a guy who can play with pace, too, which is something we are going to put a big premium on.
“He is a guy who is going to keep teams honest with his offensive creativity.
“Josh should fit into our Top 9 real nice and I think he will be a nice addition in the long run.”
The Rock took a bit of a gamble last season with Caston, as not too many 16 year olds make the jump to Junior ‘A’ hockey on the blue-line, but things could not have turned out much better.
“Things couldn’t have worked out better for us in terms of Will’s development,” Beer said.
“With injuries and some personnel moves, he was thrust into more minutes early on in the season — not that he wasn’t ready for it — than a 16 year old would normally get. He was playing against guys three or four years older than him and trying to keep his compete level up.
“Enduring the grind of your first Junior ‘A’ season can be taxing at times, but apart from maybe a one-week or week-and-a-half stretch where he might have shown glimpses of his age, I thought he was sensational the entire year.”
Indeed, by the time the 2018 playoffs rolled around, Caston was playing top-pair minutes night-in and night-out.
“He was playing about 23 minutes a night during the playoffs and in the conference finals,” Beer said.
“I thought his first year was sensational.”
With a full year of Junior ‘A’ hockey under his belt, Caston won’t turn 17 until Aug. 11.
“Obviously, Will’s size stands out and I don’t think he would have been able to develop his defensive game the same way in terms of boxing out and things like that if he had played midget hockey last year,” Beer said.
“He would likely have taken too many big-men penalties and then become tentative coming into camp this year.
“So, I really think it was invaluable for him to come up here with us an play those hard minutes, especially early on in the season.”
Beer sees some potential for Caston’s offensive game to grow a little bit this season, as well.
“Sometimes the numbers might not reflect it, but he was on the power play toward the end of the year and he was also a key penalty killer for us.”
Arguably defence is the toughest position for a player to learn while trying to break into the NOJHL as a 16 year old.
“I think one of the biggest things that stands out with Will is how smart he is,” Beer said.
“His hockey IQ is off the charts. His birth certificate might read 16 years old, but he is the farthest thing from it. He was one of the most mature players on the team last season and he learned our system about as fast as I have seen any player learn it.
“For a young player to understand that, so quickly speaks to how sharp he is and why he maintains a 95 or 96 average in school.”
Beer does not like to compare players, but he did admit there are some similarities — starting with size — between Caston and Cochrane Crunch blue-liner Noah Bennett (6-5, 190 pounds).
“The Bennett kid was tremendous last year as a 20-year-old guy and he played good minutes,” Beer said.
“I think Will’s game has so many variables to it. He is becoming better at transitioning the puck and jumping up into the play. He has tremendous stick-checking ability.
“Not only is he a big guy who can crunch and bang in the corners, but he has a very active stick.
“He is a multi-pronged defender who can jump in offensively when needed.”
Now back home in Whitby, Caston’s focus is entirely on building upon the success he enjoyed during the 2017-18 NOJHL campaign.
“Obviously, the city was great and the league was awesome,” he said.
“I am looking forward to growing my game and hopefully taking a little bit of a leadership role this season.
“I am confident we are going to have a competitive team this year and hopefully we will be able to go even further than we did last season.”
For fans with a short memory, the Rock overcame a so-so regular season and went on an incredible playoff run that saw them knock off the No. 4 team in Canada (Powassan Voodoos) before they ran into the Cochrane Crunch in the NOJHL East Division final and dropped a best-of-seven series 4-1.
“We had a lot of first-year players last year, including myself, and it took a little longer than we had planned to get everyone to buy into the system,” Caston said.
“Come playoff time, everyone knew it was now or never and the results really showed.
We knocked off Powassan and nobody thought we would be able to beat them.
“It shows what you can accomplish when everybody knows their role and the system.”
For the Rock, losing to the Crunch is the equivalent of the Toronto Maple Leafs losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
“It kind of feels like we have some unfinished business and we want to get back out there as soon as we can,” Caston said.
“We definitely have the ability to take down Cochrane and go all the way to the final.”
He feels consistency is going to be the key to a successful season for the Rock in 2018-19.
“We don’t want to have the same up and down type of year we had last year,” Caston said.
“We want to start off on a high note and carry it all the way through the season.”
With Monday’s additions, the Rock now officially have five players signed for the 2018-19 NOJHL campaign — Caston and Carson Burlington on the blue-line and Kego, Riley Brousseau and Austin Holmes up front.