The Rock came into 2012 as the defending National Lacrosse League champions but with a huge question mark in goal. It didn’t matter who stepped into the crease to replace retired legend Bob Watson, that question mark would hover over his shoulder when the new season began. As it turned out, Matt Roik wasn’t the answer for Toronto and they never really settled into a groove until Nick Rose took over between the pipes. And so the central irony of the Rock in 2012: they were a veteran team that didn’t play like it until they were led by a first-time starter.
Like most teams in the season of parity that 2012 was in the NLL, the Toronto Rock hovered around .500 for most of the season. Unlike many teams, though, they did manage to string together a pair of three-game winning streaks. The Rock went 2-2 in each of the first three quarters of the season and after splitting the first two games of the final quarter, they sat at 7-7 with the possibility of finishing in virtually any position in the East. They took care of business and clinched first place in the division by downing a pair of West teams in their final two games: 16-13 over Washington and 12-11 over Edmonton. Of course, the playoffs were a tale of two vastly different games in Toronto. They trailed the Bandits 6-2 at the half but came back to win a defensive battle 7-6 with five unanswered goals after the intermission. Then they got into a shootout with Rochester and came out on the short end of a 17-13 score.
Toronto scored 198 goals, tied for first in the east and fourth overall. And they did it with only one player having a standout season. But, oh, what a season it was for Garrett Billings. He shattered the league record for assists by totalling 82 on the way to what would have been the highest-scoring season in league history if John Grant, Jr. hadn’t edged him for the latter mark. Billings left no doubt that he has established himself as one of the premier set-up men in the NLL. Don’t think of him as just a passer, though. Billings scored 32 goals and was actually fifth in the league in shots taken. He was down the list of shots on goal a ways because he missed the net a lot, the fourth most times in the league. His company at the top in that category are some pretty elite shooters: Grant, Kevin Crowley and Cody Jamieson.
Beyond the man who became their clear offensive leader, Toronto had a bunch of very good players who had rather off years. Stephan Leblanc, touted by some to be the NLL’s offensive player of the year (okay, touted by me in a cloudy piece of prognostication), struggled mightily early in the season but bounced back to finish second on the team in goals and total points (28 and 65). Colin Doyle didn’t really get going until he returned from an injury that broke his consecutive games streak just as he was chasing the all-time record (which now belongs to Shawn Williams).
Defence and Goaltending
The Rock seemed more confident in front of Rose and he managed to post significantly better numbers than his predecessor: a .751 save percentage to Roik’s .725 and a goals against average of 10.69 versus Roik’s 12.52. It’s a chicken-and-egg question whether Rose’s play gave the team more confidence and allowed the defence to play better or the goalie switch shook them out of the doldrums and their improved play led to his solid statistics. Either way, Toronto managed to give up the fewest goals in the East (196, one fewer than Rochester).
Speaking of the Knighthawks, seeing Rochester pick apart holes in the Rock D for 17 goals in the East final suggests Toronto is still searching for the right mix in the back end. Of course, it can happen to anyone on any night. Rochester played a brilliant offensive game and it wasn’t Toronto’s night in their own zone; it could be as simple as that. The fact that Toronto picked Bradley Kri and Mike Lum-Walker with their first two picks in the entry draft suggest the Rock brain trust want to add some size and snarl to their defence corps.
The Rock were the definition of average on the power play: a 50% success rate and tied for fourth in the nine-team league. Kasey Beirnes scored 12 of his 28 goals with the man advantage. Doyle, Billings, Leblanc and Josh Sanderson all had 7 or more power play markers. It’s no shock that Beirnes was the top gun on the man up. He was the Rock most likely to cut sharply to the net. Having a slew of terrific passers to hit him in stride for his lethal running quick-stick worked well, but they’ll be better off if Leblanc can rediscover his knack for driving to the goal effectively.
The penalty kill was a strength. It clocked in at 56.1%, third in the league and well ahead of all three other East Division teams. The combination of discipline (102 power plays for, only 82 against) and a stingy PK meant Toronto enjoyed a decided edge in power play goals: they scored 51 and gave up just 36. They’ll need to find a way to soften the blow of one Achilles heel, though. The Rock gave up 17 shorthanded markers in 2012, the most of any team and one of only three clubs in double digits.
Besides the goaltending situation, the big story personnel-wise for Toronto was injuries. Owner Jamie Dawick has been outspoken about the head-injury issue and for good reason—the Rock were among the hardest-hit teams with concussions. Phil Sanderson missed 6 games and it’s unclear whether he’ll come back at all. Dan Carey was felled yet again and had to take off the entire summer season (not that the Rock would have been thrilled with him playing in Peterborough anyway, given his record of fragility). Mike Hobbins was not himself while trying to play with a rehabbed shoulder for which he eventually went under the knife once the season ended. And Ryan Sharp had to call it a career after an MRI revealed that he had no ACL left in a knee that had already been surgically repaired. The remarkable thing about Sharp’s situation is that the big lefty managed to play his usual rambunctious transition style for 9 games without an ACL.
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