The Toronto Rock took a big step in the 2016-2017 campaign.
Now the question is: Can the team take an even bigger one this season?
Coming off a disappointing 5-13 record two years ago, the Rock were a team looking for new life coming into last year.
Led by new captain Brodie Merrill, new head coach Matt Sawyer and future Rookie-Of-The-Year forward Tom Schreiber, the Rock roared back to relevance, securing second place in a competitive East Division. Toronto posted a 9-9 regular-season record, followed by a dominant victory in the East Semifinal over the New England BlackWolves.
After two hard-fought games in the East Final, the Rock’s season came to an end against the eventual champions, the Georgia Swarm.
For Sawyer, seeing success in his first season as head coach was nice. But, it wasn’t enough.
“Last year was the easy step,” the Rock head coach told NLL.com. “We took a team that won five games the year before. Here is our real test. We need to improve on a team that went 9-9 and won a playoff game. We won’t catch anyone off guard this year, which we may have last year.”
Rookie of the Year
If one player on the Rock caught anyone by surprise, it was the outstanding play of Schreiber. In his first-ever box lacrosse season, the Rookie Of The Year from East Meadow N.Y. cruised to the rookie scoring title racking up a team-best 94 points – 34 points better than the NLL’s second highest rookie scorer (Rochester’s Kyle Jackson).
“Personally, I’m a little more comfortable this year and more focused for the beginning of the season,” Schreiber said. “Last year, I was just trying to earn a spot. [But] we did some things that people around the league didn’t think we were capable of. At the beginning of the season, every team’s goal is to go and win it all. I think that goal is a bit more attainable, considering the success last year.”
‘One of the best lefties in the game’
Rock owner, president and general manager Jamie Dawick also got Toronto fans thinking championship when he acquired Adam Jones from the Saskatchewan Rush for a pair of first-round picks in the off-season.
“The opportunity to acquire one of the best lefties in the game doesn’t come along too often and it comes at a price,” Dawick said in a release earlier this summer. “Adam is a special player and makes us a better team.”
The former third-overall pick in 2011 is an elite goal scorer, registering 25+ goal seasons in each of his seven NLL campaigns. His best years came in 2015 and 2016 with the Colorado Mammoth where the skilled lefty scored 51 and 42 goals respectively.
The Rock will also get a significant boost offensively as talented forward Rob Hellyer returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury. In 2015-2016, Hellyer led the team with 45 goals and 113 points. The 25-year-old will be already entering his seventh NLL season and has 306 points in just 63 career games.
“I haven’t been around this game too long but I haven’t seen two guys do it much better than Jones and Hellyer,” Schreiber said. “Those two make everyone’s job a little easier. When it is time for those two to let it rip, they are usually cashing in. Their presence will also really open up everyone else.”
Despite the two big additions on offense, the Rock will have to adapt to several departures. In the off-season, long-time defenseman Jeff Gilbert retired after nine NLL seasons along with 12-year veteran defender Rob Marshall. The duo was a sturdy tandem on the back end and both defenders played crucial roles in helping the Rock capture the 2011 Champion’s Cup.
The Rock will also miss the presence of Jesse Gamble for the upcoming year. The six-year veteran from Rockwood, Ont. has decided to step away from the game for a professional opportunity. Although his return this season has not been completely ruled out, Sawyer says the team is preparing to be without Gamble for the season.
Challen Rogers, a standout rookie last season with Toronto, will also miss the first few games while he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. Sawyer expects the hard-working Coquitlam, B.C. native to be ready for mid-December. Rogers had 7 points in 17 games on the back end while tracking down 66 loose balls in his first NLL season.
On offense, the Rock will be without Peterborough, Ont. native Turner Evans, who is still recovering from off-season knee surgery. Evans was fourth on the team in scoring last year with 45 points. He is expected to return in February.
Much of the Rock’s success last year was due to an excellent defensive unit, anchored by goaltender Nick Rose. Rose led the league with a 10.82 goals-against average (GAA) and was brilliant for the Rock, especially early in the season where Toronto won five of its first seven games.
However, the Orangeville, Ont. native played in every game last season and may have shown signs of fatigue late in the year. He failed to earn a win in his last five regular-season games where his save percentage and GAA dropped significantly.
Last year, Rose was the only goaltender in the league to play over 1,000 minutes (1,019) – 110 more than No. 2 ranked Dillon Ward (COL).
Part of Rose’s increased minutes was due to the injury to backup Brandon Miller, who was not healthy until midway through the season. This year with Miller fully ready, Sawyer expects the two to share the cage.
“We have full confidence in both goalies” Sawyer said. “But it’s up to [Rose] to maintain that starting job. We don’t anticipate him starting all 18 games of the season like last year. We feel that may have had an effect on the end of the season for him and his struggles.
Despite Rose’s late season woes, the Rock still surrendered the fewest goals in the East Division (200 – 11.11 per game). Along with Transition Player of the Year and captain Brodie Merrill, who scooped up the third most loose balls in the NLL last season (171), the Rock should be another stingy unit on defense but also dangerous in transition.
The Rock open their season against the rival Buffalo Bandits on Friday, December 8 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo before returning for the home opener on Saturday, December 16 against the defending West Division champions, the Saskatchewan Rush.
On Tuesday, the Rock announced a partnership with the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF) for the team’s home opener. The Rock will donate $1 for every ticket sold to the Downie Wenjack Fund. The mission of Downie Wenjack is to encourage reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
In October, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from brain cancer at 53 years old. The Canadian legend was mourned across the world and certainly by the lacrosse community. The partnership gives the lacrosse world a chance to honor Gord, raise money and create awareness.
For ticket information, go to www.torontorock.com.
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