By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock have announced the re-signing of three key members of their squad for the 2015-16 NOJHL season.
Forward Bain Cunningham, defenceman Nick Hautanen and goalie Matthew Nixon will be back when the team opens training camp in August.
Playing on a line with Jordan Rendle and Zachary Kercz for most of the season, Cunningham (53, 25-33-58,48) had a solid rookie campaign.
“He played pretty much 99% of the time with Rendle,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Those two were inseparable and they had some great chemistry. They worked great in practices and they worked great in games.
“The only time we separated them was in the playoffs when we needed a little bit of a shake-up.”
Despite that post-season line juggling, Cunningham (6, 1-4-5, 6) continued to excel in the playoffs.
At 6-3 and 206-pounds, the Barrie native, who turns 19 in October, brings a unique combination of size and speed to the Rock lineup.
“He is big, he is strong and he has a great shot,” Gagne said.
“He has incredible speed and he is a stand-up skater. He sees the play really well and he makes some nice passes.”
Cunningham is a sponge in practice who is eager to learn the game.
“He really pays attention to the details,” Gagne said.
“Any time we want to work on something in practice, regarding our tactics for the next game, he is right in there and he understands what we want to do and he does his job.
“He made the jump from playing Midget ‘AAA’ and we are really happy with his progress. I think he is really going to be an elite player in our league this season.”
Cunningham showed a flair for scoring goals when the Rock really needed them last season, as he tied a pair of Soo Thunderbirds — Jaren Bellini and Matthew Caruso — for the NOJHL lead with eight game-winning goals.
“He had a lot of responsibility playing with Rendle and Kercz last year,” Gagne said.
“That was one of our most-productive lines. They got a lot of ice time, a lot of power-play time. He even spent a lot of time as a (birth year) 1997 killing penalties.
“His game really progressed over the course of the season.”
There is no word yet on whether the popular Rendle will be back for the 2016-17 season. The Surrey, B.C. native, who turns 20 in October, has one more year of Junior ‘A’ eligibility. The third member of the line, Kercz, is too old to return and has committed to attend the University of Alberta-Augustana.
Hautanen (54, 4-8-12, 36), a Timmins native who will turn 20 in August, was a rock on the Timmins blue-line in 2015-16, his second with the franchise, and was one of the team’s more dependable defenders during the playoffs (6, 1-0-1, 12).
“I thought Nick was one of our better players in the playoffs this year,” Gagne said.
“We are going to lean on him this year and he is going to get more ice time. Nick is going to be a big part of our team this year.
“He really improved on the back end last year. He understood that to be offensive minded and get power-play time and more ice time in general, it takes accountability.
At 6-2 and 185-pounds, Hautanen has the size to battle opposition forwards in front of the Rock net, without taking costly penalties, and the speed and puck skill to be able to chip in offensively from time to time, as well.
“That (playing physical) is another aspect of his game,” Gagne said.
“He is really conscientious when it comes to taking his man in the defensive zone and playing one on one. He finishes his checks. He is an all-around player.
A graduate of the Timmins Majors program, Hautanen started his NOJHL career with the Gold Miners in 2014-15, but was acquired from Kirkland Lake in a trade part way through that season.
“I think he is going to show a lot of leadership this year,” Gagne said.
“He is a great kid. He knows our program and he knows our philosophy.”
Nixon (920:00, 8-7-0-0, 0, 3.78, .898), who also hails from Barrie, suffered through an injury-plaqued season as Logan Ferrington’s backup during the 2015-16 campaign, but showed promise when he was healthy.
“Whenever he had the opportunity, he tried to get on a roll,” Gagne said.
“He did his job, but he had a lot of injuries. This off season he has been really taking care of his lower body. He has been working out and he is eager to go.”
At 5-10 and 170-pounds, the 19-year-old is on the small side when it comes to goaltenders.
“Quick reflexes are the key to Matt’s game,” Gagne said.
“Also, when he is fairly confident he moves out to cut down his angles. He tends to get hit a lot, which is a good sign for a goalie.
“He still has two more years of Junior ‘A’ hockey eligibility, so he definitely has some upside and we are looking forward to seeing him in camp.
“He is a smart kid who is really well liked among his peers in the dressing room and he has leadership qualities, as well.”
Nixon (168:00, 0-2-0, 0, 5.73, .868) saw action in three of the Rock’s four games against the Crunch in the East Division semifinal series.
“I know (Rock goalie coach) Marc Bisson is really happy with him, too,” Gagne said.