In the hyper-competitive National Lacrosse League of 2013, a 10-6 record was good for first place overall and the chance to play host to the Champions Cup if they could win a pair of playoff games to capture the East Division. So clearly, a lot of things went right for the Toronto Rock last year. But their fans, players and management will be forgiven if the lasting memory of the season is the 20-11 spanking the Minnesota Swarm laid on them in the first round of the postseason. A loss like that, in which a younger, faster team appeared to take advantage of an older, slower one, can make a franchise question whether it needs to embrace wholesale change. The Rock certainly embraced some change, relieving Head Coach Troy Cordingley of his duties and replacing him with assistant John Lovell. And they certainly embraced the concept of getting younger and faster at the draft, where they spent their first three picks on transition players Ethan O’Connor, Mike Woods and Keegan Bal, all of whom pack their fair share of get up and go. We’ll have to wait for a while to see how different the lineup looks when the 2014 season opens, but for now we can take our annual look at what went right and what went wrong last year.
All was wonderful in Rockland through early February, as Toronto roared out to a 5-1 start. Then they basically alternated wins and losses for the rest of the year to finish at 10-6. Interestingly, they never lost two games in a row until the final game of the regular season and the playoff loss to Minnesota. Given their propensity to follow a loss with a win, you’d have to suspect the Rock would be big fans of the new playoff format that gives teams a second chance in the post season, although it wouldn’t have helped them last year since the series don’t start till the conference finals.
The transferring of the Rock’s offensive leadership to Garrett Billings is complete. He led the team last year in goals, assists, points, power play goals and shots. The O definitely runs through him now, and it’s working out pretty well, as the Rock finished fourth in the league with 194 goals scored. Just because Billings is the main man, now, though doesn’t mean the old guard aren’t still contributing. Colin Doyle, Josh Sanderson and Kasey Beirnes were three of the other four Rock players who had at least 22 goals and 54 points each and all are still playing key roles in the team’s success. With sixth-leading scorer Blaine Manning retiring over the off-season, a big question becomes whether the team leans more heavily on Scott Evans, who scored a neat-looking 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points in 11 games, or look to someone else to help give the offence a bit of a boost.
Defence and Goaltending
Nick Rose took hold of the reins when they were handed to him and didn’t show many signs of letting them go. He finished third in the league in both goals against average (10.61) and save percentage (.791). He looked a little shaky on shots coming from behind the net at times, but the team worked on some ways to address that issue and it became less of a problem as the season went along. It’s just hard to forget the three dives from behind the net that Philly scored in an early-season 8-7 win, especially Drew Westervelt’s game-winner in the dying seconds. But if you watch the replay of that goal, the Rock had it defended well and Rose was in good position. Westervelt just made a perfect shot. The Rock appear to be set in goal for the foreseeable future, although they may want to audition some backups just in case Rose does falter at some point.
The defence overall had a solid season; the Rock finished third in the league in goals allowed (176). As a unit, though, it can’t be denied that the group is getting older. That could become even more of an issue this year with the shortened benches under the new CBA; hence the picks on the defensive side of the floor at the draft. There’s likely to be some change, but it certainly doesn’t need to be wholesale. Veterans like Sandy Chapman, Patrick Merrill and Stephen Hoar continue to show that they can still play. It will be critical for Toronto defenders to come to camp ready to go, ready to defend their spots on the roster.
The Rock were successful both ways in special teams. They had the league’s top-rated penalty kill at 62.5%, making them one of only two teams that killed more than half the penalties they took. On the power play, only Calgary’s astonishing 65.9% success rate topped Toronto’s 56.4%. Billings led the way with 15 power play goals and Sanderson kicked in 11. Doyle with 8 and Beirnes with 6 showed the older guys can still bring it with the man advantage.
The Rock didn’t make a lot of changes to their roster for 2013. Evans and Roger Vyse were brought in to help out on offence. Neither made a major impact with each averaging two points per game (Evans had 22 points in 11 games, Vyse had six in three). Mike Hobbins was almost like a new player after shoulder surgery brought him back much stronger and sturdier than he’d been the year before. But the real breath of fresh air in the organization was Kyle Belton. The Langley Thunder forward was cast in a transition role by the Rock coaching staff and he thrived. Belton scored all three of his goals in one game—on his birthday—but he brought added speed and tenacity to the defence.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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