Rock ink forward, D-man

Forward Austin Holmes, shown here in action as an affiliate player during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena against the Powassan Voodoos on Nov. 26, has signed with the Timmins Rock. Holmes, who spent the 2017-18 campaign with the GNML’s Timmins Majors, got into 10 regular season games with the Rock last season and 11 more playoff contests. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

TIMMINS – With June 1 having passed, the Timmins Rock have begun to assemble what they hope will be a championship team for the 2018-19 NOJHL campaign.

The first two pieces of the puzzle are forward Austin Holmes and defenceman Carson Burlington.

Rock fans should be familiar with Holmes (10, 2-5-7, 2) — a Timmins native — who had an immediate impact as an affiliate player during the 2017-18 regular season and also made a contribution to the team’s impressive playoff run (11, 1-0-1, 6).

The 2000-birth-year right winger spent the bulk of the season with the Timmins Majors (33, 14-17-31, 117), of the GNML, and while at 5-11 and 175 pounds, he won’t be the biggest player in the NOJHL his penalty totals indicate he is no stranger to the sin bin.

Holmes found a great deal of success late in the GNML campaign when he was put on a line with Gabby Kioki (36, 12-11-23, 52) and Dryden Rivet (25, 9-11-20, 48).

“Last year, we had a really good team with the Majors and we really came together at the end,” he said.

“Our line really started clicking at the end of the season. We did very well together.”

Holmes was familiar with a number of the Rock players, which helped make him feel more comfortable on the occasions when he was called up in 2017-18.

“I have played with Riley Robitaille my whole life and I had played with Stewart Parnell and Evan Kentish-Stack in the past,” he said.

“There were some other guys from Timmins I knew, as well, even if they had gone out of town to play hockey in the past.”

As one might expect, Holmes is pumped about getting the chance to further his development with the Rock this season, but he knows moving from the GNML to the NOJHL will present challenges.

“Playing for coach (Corey) Beers, you have to really play a structured game,” he said.

“You have a lot less time to make plays and the players in the league are a lot bigger and they are a lot faster.

“There are also a lot more systems. You have got to know where you have got to be out there and the plays happen bang, bang, bang.”

Holmes scored a goal and added a pair of assists in his first game with the Rock as affiliate player and that early success helped boost his confidence.

“It really did,” he said.

“The first few games, I really got lucky and I was able to put the puck in the net a few times.

“That really gave me confidence with the puck and I was able to carry that back down to the GNML, as well.”

Holmes has traded in his skates for baseball cleats this summer, playing with the Timmins Whiskey Jacks, of the Timmins Men’s Baseball League, but hockey is never far from his mind.

“I am on the ice as much as I can, driving to Toronto to go to tournaments,” he said.

“I also hit the gym and I have been biking and running.”

Having coached him in 10 regular season games and 11 more in the playoffs, Beer is quite familiar with Holmes’ game.

“We had a little bit bigger sample size with Austin than most of our APs,” he said.

“He is the kind of guy that made the Majors’ engine go this past season. He was a real offensive spark, catalyst type guy for them.

“When he came up, when we had injuries to certain players, he was kind of thrust into a spot where most APs (affiliate players) don’t get that kind of opportunity. It was almost a Top 6 role sometimes.

“Credit to him because he took full advantage of that and was able to get on the scoreboard quite a few times. He was that kind of opportunistic scorer the entire season for the Majors.

“In the playoffs, you obviously have different matchups and schemes you are playing in and with him coming on a bit late, after the Hearst series, he slotted himself into a good sort of checking role and I thought he did a great job.”

Beer expects Holmes to fill a Top 9 role with the Rock in the coming season.

“We are looking at a guy who now has Junior ‘A’ experience,” he said.

“He is mature. He is going to be 18 years old this season and I think he is going to be able to help us out with a skills infusion. He also has a little bit of grit to his game, which is not too bad.”

The coach sees a lot of same qualities in Holmes that can be found in a very successful NHL player.

“A guy who is almost in the same mold as him right now in the Stanley Cup final is Jonathan Marchessault, of the Las Vegas Knights,” Beer said.

“He is kind of a 5-10 or 5-11 skilled guy who has got some bite to his game and is able to play on any one of the Top 3 lines.

“We feel that same way about Austin.”

Beer is hoping Holmes, like most Rock players, will gain strength over the summer months.

“All guys coming into Junior ‘A’ hockey have to get stronger,” he said.

“It’s not the old-school mentality of throwing on 20 pounds of muscle and hoping for the best, it’s trying to do it the right way and adding to your lower half.”

Rock fans are obviously not quite as familiar with Burlington, who spent most of the season with the York Simcoe Express (regular season 29, 2-14-16, 59, playoffs 6, 0-4-4, 6), of the ETAMMHL, but also saw time with the OJHL’s Stouffville Spirit (2, 0-0-0, 0).

The 16-year-old Barrie native will bring good size, 6-1 and 170 pounds, to the Rock blue-line this season.

“He got into a couple of OJHL games, playing against Newmarket and Wellington,” Beer said.

“He got a sniff against a really good Newmarket team that lost in the conference finals and a Wellington team that went to the RBC Cup.

“He also played on a very good York Simcoe team with the (Quinton) Byfield kid who is going to Sudbury (No. 1 selection in the first round of the 2018 OHL Priority Selection).

“The had a pretty stacked team and he is well acclimated to the southern Ontario grinder. He has had pressure on him for quite some time and we see him as a guy who has some good size, skates really well and handles the puck extremely well.

“He is going to have his lumps as any 16 year old would, understanding defensive coverages and things like that, but we are really high on his transition game.

“He is one of those new-age defencemen who can get up in the play and contribute at both ends of the ice.

“We feel extremely luck to have him locked up.”

If Burlington is half as successful as Will Caston was at making the jump to the NOJHL as a 16 year old, Rock fans should be pretty happy.

“He should be an immediate plug-and-play defenceman as a 16 year old,” Beer said.

The coach was at a loss when asked which of his 2017-18 blue-liners would be most comparable to Burlington.

“To be quite honest, I don’t think we had somebody like him last year,” Beer said.

“If you want to use an NHL example, he is a bit of a Dmitry Orlov, from Washington.

“He is a real crafty left-hand shooting defenceman who is able to transport the puck out of his own zone with a lot of ease and he can jump in the play offensively.

“That is something we lacked a bit last year was a true offensive push from the back end.

“We thought we might have had a bit of it there with (affiliate player) Frederic Leclair-Pouw, but with him going away to school we had to facilitate some moves to add some better puck-moving defencemen and Carson is one of them.”

Clearly the success Caston had with the Rock in 2017-18 contributed to the Rock’s comfort zone in bringing in another 16-year-old blue-liner.

“I think it goes both ways,” Beer said.

“We have confidence that we can grow a young player and improve his game and not have him be a guy you have to hide out there.

“And I think that will open doors for other young players, who are 16 years old and want to come up and play for us.

“So much of Junior ‘A’ hockey is understanding the opportunity your are going to get. If you are a 16 year old and you are stapled to the bench, it is going to hurt your development.

“The Burlington family looked into it. They researched it and they talked to Will and his family. I think that helps sell players and their families about coming up and playing for us.”

Burlington certainly likes everything he has heard about the Rock as an organization and Timmins as a community.

“I finished the season feeling strong, but I did not have the best of luck in the draft,” he said.

“I had heard Timmins was interested in me and it kind of caught my eye being a northern team in a smaller community. It (NOJHL) seems like a better league than the OJHL.

“They had previously seen me in a couple of skates and they told me they were interested.”

Burlington doesn’t really know any of the guys on his new team, but he is looking forward to getting the chance to meet everyone when training camp opens at the McIntyre Arena in August.

“I have always been a defensive player who also brings a lot of upside to my offensive game,” he said.

“I am a big, strong, tough, hard-hitting defenceman with tons of speed. I am hoping to be able to help our team win a championship this year.”

Growing up, Burlington’s favourite player was San Jose Shark Brent Burns — a defenceman whose offensive talent is exceeded only by his trademark beard.

“I love the way he plays,” he said.

“I have to bring more upside to my game though if I want to be like him, but I am trying to pattern my game after him, for sure.”

It may take some time, of course, for Burlington to grow a playoff beard anything close to the NHLer’s facial hair.

“I sure hope I can some day,” he said, with a chuckle.

“Right now, still being young, I can’t but I sure hope in the future I can grow one as big as his.”

While Burlington’s favourite player resides on the West Coast, his favourite team calls Pittsburgh home.

“Growing up, as a kid, I always liked the Penguins,” he said.

“They have always been my favourite team, but I do love watching the Toronto Maple Leafs, as well, off course.”

Beer has a reputation of being a defence-first kind of coach and Burlington is looking forward to playing in that kind of structured system.

“Defence can win you games,” he said.

“Being strong in the defensive zone is kind of mandatory if you want to have a strong team.

“I am looking forward to learning from coach Corey and seeing what he can teach me.”

The conversations Burlington’s family had with Caston’s family helped convince him Timmins would be an excellent place to continue his development as a hockey player.

“Will seems like a really nice guy and so is his family,” he said.

“He told me it was tough coming in as a 16 year old because he was young, it was up north and he wasn’t really used to it, but he talked to me a bit about the team and his family talking to me about the team and I gained a better understanding about what the team is all about.

“They assured me I shouldn’t be worried.”

Burlington is looking forward to the change to play in front of anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 fans on a nightly basis, as well.

“It should make for an amazing atmosphere,” he said.

“I think it will give me a little boost to try and play even better.”

Burlington has never visited Timmins, but he is looking forward to calling the city home — although there is one part of life in the Great White North he is not too crazy about.

“We did touch on the weather a bit and I did my research and it gets cold there,” he said.

“That’s not my favourite kind of weather, but it is something I am going to have to get used to I guess.”

Like Holmes, Burlington has been given some direction in terms of things to work on over the summer months.

“They want me to hit the gym, work on my arms for a good hard shot from the point, and they want me to work on my leg strength to improve my speed and my strength.”

The sport of hockey comes natural to members of the Burlington family.

“We are all hockey oriented,” he said.

“It’s only my sister and my mom who don’t play. My uncle, he played. My grandpa, he played. My great uncle, he played. He was amazing, but he lost an eye and didn’t end up making it to the NHL.

“It’s nice to come from a big family with a lot of hockey knowledge, getting a chance to learn the game from older cousins, stuff like that.”

Burlington is almost as passionate about the game of lacrosse.

“My family loves to play lacrosse, too,” he said.

“I was working on my game on the front lawn, shooting on a hockey net with my lacrosse stick, and then I jumped into house league to get started. Then, I got called up for ‘A’ and I played a year of ‘A’ and I loved it.

“I just got caught up with too much spring hockey and working too much on hockey. I had to quit the game.”

Beer is busy getting ready for the Timmins Rock prospect camp at the Campus Ice Centre in Oshawa, from June 23-24.

“We have coaches and GMs meetings in Sudbury on Thursday and Friday,” he said.

“I am going to drive up there and meet up with (Rock GM) Kevin (Peever), then I will continue up to Timmins and meet with Beezer (assistant coach Marc Bisson), Paqs (assistant general manager Eric Paquette) and Dazzer (assistant coach James Daschuk).

“We are going to go over a couple of things and just try to get the camp ready, see how the summer’s going and see how the city is doing.

“I will be up for about a week, then head back down here to get ready for camp.”

This will mark the Rock’s first prospect camp in southern Ontario.

“Having a camp down here and having southern Ontario guys come to it is different than what has happened in the past, but I am very used to it,” said Beer, a former assistant coach with the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars.

“I think the key ingredient to a good camp is having those good prospects there.

“It lets you showcase their talents and you get a real good, close-up glimpse of what they can do against guys of equal or better calibre.

“I am very encouraged by the guys Kevin and Paqs have put together for the camp.”

The coach was unwilling to get into any names of players who have committed to attending the camp at this point.

“We definitely feel like there are going to be a few guys coming out of that weekend we are going to be signing to cards and making full-time Timmins Rock players.”

In addition to those who are signed out of the prospect camp, the team will likely bring a number of others north to Timmins for the team’s training camp in August.

“It is really hard to say how many at this point,” Beer said.

“It will really depend on who stands out. We are well into the recruiting phase at this point and we have calls into different players.”

Given Beer’s track record coaching in southern Ontario, he has a really good feel for most of the players who will be taking part in the prospect camp.

“I am very familiar with a lot of the players down here in southern Ontario, whether they are from the GTHL or the OMA,” he said.

“There are a lot of guys I have seen in passing the last couple of years from their bantam to minor midget years, or guys who come highly recommended from people I trust, or Kevin trusts.”