Forward Riley Robitaille, shown here throwing the puck past Crunch defender Nick Belisle towards the front of the Cochrane net during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena on Feb. 4, will be back in a Timmins Rock uniform for the 2020-21 campaign. The Timmins native has played 141 games in the NOJHL, all but the first seven with the Rock. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS/POSTMEDIA NETWORK
While local fans wait to see when the NOJHL season will open, the Timmins Rock continue to fine tune their roster with the announcement two more veteran forwards will be back in the fold for the 2020-21 campaign.
Twenty-year-old Timmins native Riley Robitaille (50, 6-29-35, 48) will be entering his fourth and final season in the maroon, gold and white, while Zach Smith (47, 10-16-26, 15), who will turn 19 in October, will suit up for his second campaign with the squad.
Officially listed at t 6-2 and 205 pounds, Robitaille brings an element of size and grit to the Rock lineup, built mainly around speed and skill up front.
It remains to be seen how many regular-season games the 2020-21 NOJHL campaign will feature, but in a normal 56-game season Robitaille would have a shot at moving into the franchise’s Top 5 in terms of games played.
Robitaille (141, 22-56-78, 139) will enter the year 50 games behind Felix Boutin’s 184 total, given the first seven games of his NOJHL career were played as a 16-year-old affiliate player with the Iroquois Falls Eskimos.
As effective as Robitaille has been, playing up and down the lineup, during the regular season, his true worth has been demonstrated in the playoffs, where he has produced at close to a point-a-game pace (23, 7-10-17, 20).
You need look no further than the lone playoff game the Rock played during the 2020 playoffs — a 5-2 win over the Hearst Lumberjacks in Game 1 of the East Division semi-final series — for proof of that fact.
Playing on a line with Cameron Kosurko and Smith, Robitaille scored one goal and set up another, while spending four minutes in the penalty box.
Coach Corey Beer is excited to have the big power forward back in the Rock lineup for one more season.
“Any time you can get a guy back who has been in the program for so many years, it is a good thing,” he said.
“The continuity in the dressing room and the fact he brings a style of game that is different than a lot of our other guys, with being a bigger body, a physical right-hand shot, is great.
“To get Robie back here is obviously huge for us.”
The coach loves the versatility Robitaille brings to the Rock lineup.
“I think when he first came up, he had that dump-and-chase mentality,” Beer said.
“He has really grown into a more well-rounded player, however. He can play on a wing with two guys who hold the puck very well and make skilled plays.
“He can be the guy who kind of separates the man from the puck, that Zach Hyman role in that kind of setting.
“Then, on the other hand, you put him on that line that was put together for the playoffs, with Kosurko and Smith, and they were a checking line, one of our more responsible lines going into that series, and he was kind of the guy who cleared the way for the other two.
“He brings so many different elements to the game.”
The coach appreciates the fact Robitaille has opted to delay his education for a chance to help his teammates finish what they started last season.
“He is eager to come back and try to cap off his Junior ‘A’ career with a championship and a great season,” Beer said.
“I think we will probably see more of his physical game come to the forefront night-in and night-out.
“Sometimes, as a big guy, you start focusing so much on the skill game you lose the other parts of your game.
“If I am a 17- or 18-year-old defenceman and that guy is putting the puck in behind me, I am checking over my shoulder a few times to see which way the train is coming from.”
As his penalty totals over the past three-plus seasons on the NOJHL clearly indicate, Robitaille knows where to draw the line when it comes to playing a physical game.
“It is something we have really stressed the last couple of years,” Beer said.
“You still want to have that level of engagement and make sure you get under a guy’s skin. We do a lot of moving picks and get in guys’ grills that way, playing hard defensively.
“And to do it without taking penalties is certainly a learned trait and something Robie has done very well.
“A good comparison might be (Chicago Blackhawks forward) Andrew Shaw, obviously with a bit more size. Man, does he ever drive the other team nuts some nights.
“And when the other team’s best players are focused on him, he is doing his job. Whether that means sometimes stepping over the line with heavy hits or maybe taking coincidental penalties, it doesn’t lead to the ones where he is taking three or four per night and putting his team at a deficit.
“It keeps him on the ice and when you are an impact player like that, with a physical presence, the more you are out there, the better it is for our squad.”
Given how the 2020 playoffs ended, with the Rock leading their best-of-seven East Division semi-final series against the Hearst Lumberjacks 1-0, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robitaille can’t wait for the upcoming season to get underway.
“I am fortunate enough to have one more year of eligibility left and to be able to stay with most of the group of guys,” he said.
“That group of guys is one of the reasons I decided to come back. They are something special and it is unfortunate we didn’t get to see the outcome would have been last year.
“But that is just more fuel in the fire now for us to come back stronger and do whatever we can to bring Timmins a championship, hopefully.”
Robitaille knows he can bring more than a net-front presence and crash-and-bang forecheck to the roster.
“With Beersy’s style of play, it allows us to adapt to different scenarios and it gets us out of our comfort zone,” he said.
“If I have to go out there and shoot the puck, he will put me into situations like that, or if it is a situation where I have got to go out there and bang bodies, be a net-front presence or get under people’s skin, I also have that opportunity, which is nice.
“It is not like I have a set role on the team. Nobody really has a set role. Anyone can do anybody else’s job and it’s whoever does it best that day who will have that role for the night.
“It changes day-in and day-out.
“It is nice to have a system like that because it allows you to find things from your game you didn’t really think you had in you.
“In the past four years, I have been able to see I am more than a guy who can just crash and bang. I can make plays and I can stay on the power play, in front of the net, get in the goalie’s face.”
During his time in a Rock uniform, Robitaille has gotten to play with just about everybody in the team’s forward group, at some point.
“I played with Cam Kosurko and Riley Brousseau quite a bit and then, toward the end of the season, Beersy put me and Cam with Smitty and we seemed to click and gel,” he said.
“You never know though who your linemates are going to be. You walk into the dressing room, you look at the board and those are the guys you are going into battle with, but that’s not even set in stone.
“You go have a couple of good shifts and next thing you know you are bumped up to the next line.
“To be honest, I am just waiting for the opportunity to play net. With Beersy, you never know. He might throw somebody in net.”
In addition to helping bring an NOJHL championship to Timmins, Robitaille also has some personal goals.
“Being my last season, I want to come in there with an open mind and soak in every second, every practice, every Plymouth drill we have,” he said.
“Also, the biggest thing for me will be to leave a lasting impact on the community. I want to get more involved. I have a few things planned already.
“My girlfriend and I are open to being more involved in the community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Robitaille’s off season, but maybe not as much as some of his teammates.
“I don’t really go to the gym,” he said.
“I like to do training on my own, whether it is sprints, weights or just stuff with my own body weight.
“That is the stuff I like doing, but for this off season it has really just been taking some time. We have been through a lot, life situations, with a few of the guys on the team.
“So, I have just been taking time to take care of myself and make sure those guys are okay … just really appreciating every around me.
“It was more about my mental game.”
Forward Zach Smith, shown here pulling away from Cochrane Crunch forward Nick Belisle during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena on Feb. 11, has resigned with the Timmins Rock. Like most NOJHL rookies, Smith had a bit of up-and-down season in 2019-20, but finished strong and drew a key assignment during the abbreviated 2020 playoffs. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS/POSTMEDIA NETWORK
Meanwhile, Smith — like many rookies — had a bit of an up and down year in his first season in the NOJHL.
“Smitty had a great start and then had a very tough middle part of the season,” Beer said.
“He really had a hard time figuring out where he fit in and what his game needed to be, game-in and game-out.
“Once he figured out the work hard side of it and that nothing is handed to you, you have to work for everything here, it clicked. It doesn’t matter if you are a guy who scores 100 goals or one goal.
“We saw his best hockey down the stretch, the last five or six games of the regular season and then in Game 1 of the playoffs.”
The Oshawa native — not to be confused with the Zach Smith who plays for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks or the one who toils for the WHL’s Regina Pats — came to the Rock from the Clarington Toros, of the ETAHL U18, prior to the 2019-20 campaign.
Officially listed at 5-9 and 184 pounds, Smith might not be the tallest player in the NOJHL but he does not shy away from the rough going, either.
“He has a stocky build and he can play physical,” Beer said.
“He is one of those guys who has to be able to play on that edge a bit and when he started doing that and keeping his game a little bit more simple, he had enough skill to be able to back it up.
“But when you never get that gritty side of your game going, you never get to see the skill side.
“He really had a great finish and I was really happy for him. He felt good heading into the playoffs and we are expecting the same kind of thing from him this year.
“He is a guy who is going to be 19 years old. He should be able to go into a corner with a young defenceman and come out with that puck every single time.
“He is stronger, he is stockier and he has got better skill.”
With so many of his teammates back, Smith is looking forward to helping the Rock deliver an even more entertaining season for fans in 2020-21.
“Personally, I am fired up,” he said.
“All the boys stayed so close (electronically) throughout the summer and we are all super excited to get back to the Mac, go for a championship and win.”
Smith will be looking to bring a little bit more consistency to his game during the upcoming season.
“At the start (of 2019-20), things were pretty good,” he said.
“I had a bit of a downfall in the middle, but by the end I felt I had brought it back up.
“Hopefully, I will be able to carry that on to this season.”
Smith admits making the jump to Junior ‘A’ last season required some big adjustments.
“I think the toughest thing was being there 100 per cent, every day, having no days off,” he said.
“With some of the guys being so much older, although you can be from 16 to 20, there was a big gap in terms of strength and speed. You just have to keep up as much as you can and do what you can.
“During the middle of the year, I had to work on my defensive game, but near the end I figured out how to put them both together and make some offence happen.”
It is safe to say at some point during the 2019-20 campaign Smith likely played with just about everyone else on the squad, given Beer’s penchant for mixing and matching his lines.
“I played a good chunk of the season with Stewie (Stewart Parnell) and Phil (Caron),” he said.
Like most of his teammates, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Smith’s normal off-season activities.
“The closest (open) rink to me is about an hour and a half away and every week I can’t wait for that (one) day I get to be on the ice,” he said.
“I have been doing that for a couple of weeks now. I am going to start going twice a week, I think.”
Gyms being closed also had an impact on his normal workout routine.
“Luckily, I have a bit of stuff at home so I have been able to keep in mediocre shape,” Smith said.
“My trainer has actually opened up his house as a gym now, so I have been able to go there to work out on his front lawn, which has helped out a lot.”
Smith is committed to the Rock’s goal of winning a championship in 2020-21, but he also has a personal goal, as well.
“I would like to be more of an all-around player,” he said.
“Everybody knows it is a 200-foot game and I am hoping I can have my defensive game, my neutral zone game and my offensive game all come together.”
ROCK 2020-21 ROSTER — Goalies (2): Tyler Masternak, Gavin McCarthy; Defence (5): Eric Moreau, Brendan Boyce, Evan Beaudry, Bode Dunford, Félix Cadieux-Fredette; Forwards (10): Derek Seguin, Josh Dickson, Riley Robitaille, Tyler Gilberds, Cameron Kosurko, Tyler Schwindt, Zach Smith, Henry Brock, Nicholas Pigeon, Kyle Caron.