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Season Preview: Toronto Rock

The Rock struggled to find their way under new coach John Lovell in 2014, coming out of the gates 4-7, but a strong 5-2 finish to the season vaulted them all the way up to second place in the East Division. That meant they got to play host to the Buffalo Bandits in the first round of the playoffs. Home floor didn’t do them any favours, though, as the Rock fell 15-13 to end their season. The big story of the last half of the year was Garrett Billings going down with a knee injury and how Rob Hellyer stepped up to fill Billings’ role. With Hellyer having had a breakout season, it bodes well for the offence once Billings returns, which should be sometime this season. For the first half of the year, though, they’ll have to figure out how to score without Billings and Colin Doyle, who is gone for 2015 after shoulder surgery.

2014 record/playoffs: 9-9 in regular season, 0-1 in playoffs

Top 3 returning scorers: Stephan Leblanc (45 goals, 43 assists for 88 points), Rob Hellyer (29/50/79), Josh Sanderson (22/48/70) [Note: Garrett Billings (32/69/101 is anticipated to return from injury some time during the season]

Key additions: Brodie Merrill (D), Jeff Gilbert (D), Brock Sorensen (D), Brett Hickey (F), Brandon Benn (F)

Key losses: Colin Doyle (F, injured), Ethan O’Connor (T, traded), Chris White (D, retired)

Outlook: The big questions, of course, are on offence. Can they produce enough scoring to keep pace with other teams while Doyle and Billings are out? Can Hellyer maintain the kind of production he showed during Billings’ absence last year? Can Stephan Leblanc have another outstanding season like he did last year without Doyle on the left side to help draw defenders? Can young righties Brett Hickey and Brandon Benn help?

Hellyer’s performance during the summer with the Oakville Rock and in this year’s preseason games suggest he has arrived after three of a limited role for Toronto. He is showing a new confidence and should be able to put up good numbers. Leblanc is one of the finest power forwards in the game and has shown an increasing ability to create his own shot, which bodes well for his continued success as well.

The jury is still out on Hickey and Benn, although Hickey had a sensational game in Toronto’s final preseason tilt and looked very comfortable with his new teammates.

The big name not even mentioned so far is Josh Sanderson, who still has his high lacrosse IQ, deft passing ability and underrated shooting skill to contribute in the offensive zone.

At the other end of the floor, the Rock are feeling much better about their defensive group heading into this season thanks to the addition of three big lefties who are all excellent in their own end and can get the ball up the floor in transition as well. Brodie Merrill has been in the league for a decade now but he’s still as effective as ever. Jeff Gilbert is one of the steadiest defenders in the league and Brock Sorensen is an emerging star. Add in the likes of Jesse Gamble, Rob Marshall and Sandy Chapman and you have the makings of a solid defensive corps that is starting to gel and should get better as the season goes on.

Behind all of them is a goalie competition in which both guys have been legitimate numbers ones during their careers. Brandon Miller is playing the best lacrosse of his life at age 35 and looks to have the inside track on the lead role this season. Nick Rose is just 26 and still finding his niche in the NLL but the team is confident when he steps between the pipes, as well.

The long and the short of it for Toronto in 2015 is that their defence should be improved, so if the offence can find a way to manage successfully without Doyle and Billings, the team should be in good shape. That’s a tall order but one which will be critical to the success of the team this season.

Story courtesy of Stephen Stamp from ILIndoor.com.