NLL 2012 Previews: Toronto Rock

Dan Carey is one of the additions the Rock hope will help them ascend the NLL summit again. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Dan Carey is one of the additions the Rock hope will help them ascend the NLL summit again. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

It’s safe to say that after their mid-2000s doldrums, the Toronto Rock have established a long-term lease on the penthouse of the National Lacrosse League standings. They rocketed back to contention in 2010, falling just one step short of the ultimate prize, then took the final leap and claimed the Champions Cup in 2011 in a storybook ending to Bob Watson’s spectacular career. And the scary thing is, they look better in a lot of ways for 2012. It’s hard to imagine a better-balanced mix of vets and young players, offense and defense, grit and skill, than Toronto has assembled. After the jump, see what it all means for the Rock in the coming season.

Toronto Rock

2011: 10-6, won Champions Cup
Top 3 returning scorers: Stephan Leblanc (33-43-76), Garrett Billings (31-44-75), Blaine Manning (23-52-75)
League leaders: None
Key Additions: F Josh Sanderson, F Dan Carey, D Bruce Codd, D Bill Greer, D Ryan Sharp (returning from injury), D Drew Petkoff (returning from injury), G Matt Roik
Key Departures: G Bob Watson, D Jeff Gilbert, D Kevin Ross, D Creighton Reid

Outlook: They have the consensus best offensive left side in the game and their righties are no slouches, either. Their defense is a great mix of veteran savvy and athleticism and is remarkably deep. They don’t have a slew elite transition players but they get it done by committee when they need to break out of their end. And they had a Hall of Fame goalie retire in style after winning the title, to be replaced by a guy who’s been relegated to backup duties and developed more of a reputation for blowing his top than stopping the ball. That doesn’t leave much doubt where all eyes will be looking for a weakness in Hogtown in 2012.

Let’s face it, Matt Roik has had some very visible failings the last couple of years. He played poorly in the 2010 Mann Cup, which is when the New Westminster Salmonbellies goalie rotation started to tilt towards seeing Tyler Richards established as the regular starter. He had a poor start to the 2011 NLL season while Richards was overcoming an injury, then barely played once Richards returned. Then he had an inconsistent WLA playoffs in which the lasting image is of him snapping against Langley in the finals, wandering the floor looking for someone to fight. The fact that he tried so hard to fight the immense Brodie MacDonald, who obliged him with a series of elbow drops that would have done a WWE star proud, certainly made it appear that Roik had finally lost it.

But look back just a bit farther and you see what Rock Head Coach Troy Cordingley and GM Terry Sanderson see: a guy who was an established and solid starter in the NLL and at times was among the best in lacrosse. Cordingley likes the fireryness, too, in fact. Probably not surprising from one of the most animated coaches around whose lacrosse vocabulary would be shocking to the grade schoolers he teaches in his day job.

The depth and talent of the Toronto roster is a double-edged sword for Roik. If they win, it would be easy to dismiss his contribution (the “anyone could win behind that lineup theory”). If they lose, it would be easy to blame it all on him (“how could he lose with that team in front of him?”). But make no mistake, the Rock were an excellent team in 2011 and if it wasn’t for Watson’s performance in the Champions Cup, they would have been bridesmaids for the second straight year. So sure, if they lose this year, Roik will deserve his share of the blame (and the calls to acquire Anthony Cosmo will ring out all the louder). Let’s just make sure if they are successful again that we all tip our hats to him and acknowledge that he can still play the game.

As for the rest of the team, Toronto took the top-scoring club in the east and added arguably as good a passer as has ever played in Josh Sanderson. They also brought in Dan Carey, who looks to be returning to his old self, which was an all-star forward. Future Hall-of-Famer Colin Doyle is still a formidable presence. And their fourth lefty, Stephan Leblanc, may be better than any of those three at this point and is still improving. He’s a big, skilled workhorse who can beat you in a myriad of ways. The right side, of course, is still strong with Blaine Manning, Kasey Biernes and Garrett Billings returning. They also have emerging young guns like Aaron Pascas (currently on the holdout list) and Rob Hellyer. Who among those players would you be comfortable leaving open to face your goalie?

At the back end, the Rock are a team that ruthlessly applies Cordingley’s pressure defense approach. “Team” is the key word. They have lots of good players out the back door, but it’s their ability to work as a unit that really sets this club apart. Bruce Codd is yet another solid veteran who is familiar with the system. They’ve got stalwarts like Sandy Chapman, Phil Sanderson and Patrick Merrill. They have athletic younger players like Mike Hobbins and Glen Bryan. They also get back Ryan Sharp, who came over last year in a trade with Minnesota but barely had a chance to get his uniform sweaty before he injured his knee. Sharp brings an imposing transition threat that adds yet another element to the Rock attack.

It’s a popular axiom that it’s harder to repeat than to win a title the first time and championship seasons demand that a lot of stars align properly, especially in a league like the NLL in 2012 where so much talent is spread amongst just nine teams. All you can do as defending champs is prepare yourselves and put your club in a position to have a shot at winning again. The Toronto Rock have done so in spades.

Previous previews

Rochester Knighthawks
Buffalo Bandits
Calgary Roughnecks
Colorado Mammoth
Edmonton Rush
Minnesota Swarm
Philadelphia Wings

Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at stamplax@hotmail.com.

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