Toronto, ON – While Toronto Rock training camp will open Saturday without Colin Doyle as previously mentioned, also missing will be leading scorer Garrett Billings. The only player in league history to record 3 consecutive 100-point seasons is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the final month of the 2014 regular season.
So much like the focus on the lefties and the challenges on that side of the offence, the righties will also have a void to fill, albeit a much smaller void in terms of time.
Last season when Billings went down to injury in a game against Vancouver in early April, Rob Hellyer was in the midst of a career night in which he scored 12 points. Hellyer went on to win the NLL’s Player of the Month Award for April scoring 31 points over the final four games of the season. The 4-year NLL veteran proved he was ready for a primetime role, finishing the season with a career-high 79 points.
“I hope his game continues to grow,” remarked Rock Head Coach John Lovell. “Maybe we saw closer to what he’s all about in April. What we did find, was that Robbie can really see the floor. Maybe it was a knock against him previously, but we certainly saw his ability to find open guys. Robbie is a good player, he can go to the net, he’s not afraid to attack guys in a 1-on-1 situation and he can shoot the ball. He showed he can play a good pick-and-roll game, which he did a lot with Kasey (Beirnes). He stepped up his game given the opportunity.”
So who will fill the vacant third right handed offensive forward spot? There’s a lot of options with 2013 draft pick Keegan Bal, free agent signee Brett Hickey, as well as 2014 draft picks Brandon Benn and Brady Heseltine. Lovell says that the coaching staff needs to identify who will fit the role best and mesh with Hellyer and Beirnes.
“All of those guys vying for a spot in camp bring a lot of the same types of things,” said Lovell. “We need guys that compliment the pieces that are already there, guys who will set picks and cut off ball. We already have a lot of guys that like the ball in their stick.”
Keegan Bal comes to camp after finishing his graduate studies abroad during the 2014 season and was selected by the Rock in the 2013 NLL Draft in the 3rd round, 25th overall.
“I saw him play last summer and he’s a big part of New Westminster’s offence,” recalled Lovell about Bal’s contributions in the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) at the Senior A level. “He has the ability to set up a powerplay and also shoot the ball. I don’t know if his WLA numbers reflect everything he can do. He’s a quick guy and can handle the ball well.”
Brandon Benn (4th round, 33rd overall) and Brady Heseltine (6th round, 51st overall) were both selected in the 2014 NLL Draft back in September. “Benn comes from a solid organization and was a key player on an Orangeville Northmen team that won the Minto Cup in 2012. He has good size and is a solid kid. Heseltine can shoot the ball and has a great offensive touch. He, like Benn, has some experience playing summer ball. We’re not going to know how it plays it out until we see everyone in camp,” Lovell said.
Hickey was drafted in 2011 by the Vancouver Stealth and played in 3 games in 2014 scoring 4 goals and adding 2 assists. He was signed as a free agent this summer after finishing last season on the practice roster with Vancouver.
Oh, and don’t forget about the always versatile Nick Diachenko that filled in more than admirably after the Billings injury. Lovell, however, sees the speedy transition player filling more of a defensive role this season.
“It was a calculated gamble on our part,” Lovell said of the move to convert Diachenko into an offensive player in his rookie season in the NLL. “Nick had been with us all season and fought through a hamstring issue. From watching him in practice, it got to the point where we thought he could give us a few shifts offensively and provide some energy. It worked out very well for Nick and very well for us. Going into this season our hope is that Nick can become a better a defender and transition the ball up the floor. His ability to stay and play offence is a real plus for him, but our focus is to get him to be a real good defender.”
While Diachenko creates some flexibility, it doesn’t help solve the puzzle that is the right side of the offence.
“We don’t know if we are going to keep one or two of the four guys in camp,” explained Lovell. “Diachenko has that ability to fit in offensively if need be, so we have to see who else can step in there and play.”
Billings could be back in the lineup in early February if his rehab stays on track and there’s no setbacks.
“We know down the road Garrett is coming back,” said Lovell. “He’s a 100-point scorer in this league, he creates for others and can find people. You see the passes on film and he gets assists for a reason, not because he’s setting up a powerplay. He earns the bulk of his assists in 5-on-5 situations, he draws people to him and finds the open guy. Hellyer needs to continue to get better and we know what we get from Kasey. Those two guys were great when Garrett went down.”
Forwards (Right shots – 7): Keegan Bal, Kasey Beirnes, Brandon Benn, Garrett Billings, Rob Hellyer, Brady Heseltine, Brett Hickey.
Our training camp preview continues tomorrow with part 3 and a look at the revamped Toronto Rock defence.
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