Published On: Thu, Dec 7th, 2017

Offence-laden Rock make case for defence as season opens Friday

The Toronto Rock will be able to boast an offence deep in scorers when it opens the National Lacrosse League season Friday night in Buffalo.

But coach Matt Sawyer isn’t boasting about anything at the moment. That’s because Sawyer, a seven-year member of the Rock’s coaching staff, knows defence and goaltending will be pivotal for a Rock team that advanced to the East Division final last year.

“That’s been our message to our group . . . a lot has been made of our potential on offence, but our backbone starts from our goalies and our defence,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer and his coaching staff finished the pre-season with a 2-0-1 record and are now preparing for an NLL season that opens three weeks earlier than in 2016-17 and features a new, less-complicated playoff format.

What the club saw, in a limited exhibition schedule, was the return of Rob Hellyer, who led the team with 113 points two seasons ago but missed last season with torn knee ligaments.

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Hellyer rejoins an offence that already has stalwarts Brett Hickey (fourth in the NLL last season with 45 goals) and Tom Schrieber (eighth in points with 94) and scored 219 goals, the fifth most in the league. Stephan Leblanc, Reid Reinholdt and Turner Evans (currently on IR after knee surgery) are also expected to contribute up front.

Still, Rock general manager and owner Jamie Dawick wanted more for his club and found it in Saskatchewan, sending a pair of first-round picks to the Rush for Adam Jones, a 28-year-old forward who racked up 51 goals and 93 points three seasons ago with the Colorado Mammoth.

“We paid a price for Adam, but a lot of people feel he is one of the better players in the league,” Sawyer said. “The group of eight forwards have played together for eight quarters (in the pre-season), so there’s a work in progress there to build chemistry between them.”

That bolstered offence will certainly be handy in a game where momentum swings are routine, but defence is still crucial to maintaining a winning record.

Toronto, which transitioned last season to a younger roster and wound up second in the East Divison with a 9-9 regular-season record, certainly has experience on defence — Brodie Merrill, team captain and a lacrosse coach at the Hill Academy in Vaughn, is back, along with Sandy Chapman, an Acton, Ont., native who is in his 16th NLL season and has won five NLL Cups (four with the Rock, one with Rochester).

But the Rock lost Jeff Gilbert, Rob Marshall and Patrick Merrill to retirement and Jessie Gamble, a hedge fund manager, has taken this season off to attend to his business. That’s two players who played in all 18 games last season and two others who were solid veterans.

Sawyer has moved forward Phil Caputo to defence and feels his club “has good depth” when it comes to defending its zone. Challen Rogers, the second-overall pick in 2016 who is close to being fully recovered from shoulder surgery, and Latrell Harris, selected 12th overall in that same draft, should be ready for a bigger role in their sophomore seasons.

Sawyer’s youth movement also sees 23-year-old rookie Brandon Slade on defence heading into Friday’s game against the Bandits, with rookie Drew Belgrave, 21, and Adam Jay, 22, on the practice roster.

“We have very high expectations for our defence . . . if we can put it all together, we will be okay.”

Backing up that group is a pair of goalies in Orangeville natives Brandon Miller and Nick Rose, with Rose posting an NLL-best 10.82 GAA last season.

Sawyer and the Rock are looking at a much more favourable schedule this season with no back-to-back games and plenty of time between home dates to allow the marketing and ticket sales department more opportunities to promote the home dates. Toronto’s home opener is Dec. 16 against Saskatchewan.

Gone is the complicated structure for the East final, which the Rock lost to eventual league champions Georgia. That final saw a two-game series with a 10-minute overtime at the end of the second game — a challenging format that proved somewhat tough for fans to decipher.

The NLL opted for one-game formats for semifinal and divisional finals, with a best-of-three for the league championship.

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Offence-laden Rock make case for defence as season opens Friday