NLL: Rock hope drastic off-season moves will bring championship to Hamilton

HAMILTON, ONTARIO – 2022 National Lacrosse League East Finals game between Toronto Rock and Buffalo Bandits at First Ontario Centre on May 21st, 2022 in Hamilton, Ontario. (Photo by Ryan McCullough/Toronto Rock)

The Toronto Rock’s annual goal is simple – win the NLL Championship.

After a thrilling 14-13 overtime win, the shorthanded Rock were swept in the Eastern Finals by perennial rivals, the Buffalo Bandits – both in one goal games.

It’s very rare that the Rock make drastic moves in the offseason, even after a loss. But that’s just what General Manager Jamie Dawick did this offseason.

Backup netminder Riley Hutchcraft was lost to Las Vegas in the expansion draft. Aaron Forster was traded to Albany. Reid Reinholdt was traded to Vegas. And, perhaps most surprising, Rob Hellyer was also traded to the Desert Dogs.

When healthy, Reinholdt played a crease role on the Rock’s left side. The left side of the offense was definitely weaker than the right side, which featured Hellyer along with veterans Dan Dawson and Tom Schreiber.

Hellyer’s trade (for a pair of first round picks, another asset the Rock haven’t traditionally held) was countered by the free-agent signing of Stephen Keogh. To shore up the left side, they also signed Corey Small. Zack Manns also re-signed with the Rock to complete the left side.

Which begs the question, where does 2022 draft pick Josh Dawick fit in?

The former Oakville Buzz forward is also a lefty. In previous seasons, Toronto has been patient with draft picks – a successful veteran lineup will allow for that. However, Dawick scored four goals in his first preseason game; Toronto’s 16-12 win over the defending champion Colorado Mammoth.

Dawick only scored once in the second game, a 16-14 loss to Saskatchewan. Fellow lefty Dan Craig also scored once, but added four assists. Craig will be entering his fifth season with the Rock and experienced a breakout performance last season with 34 goals and 79 points in 18 games. Expect him to thrive again with Dawick perhaps starting the season on the practice roster, although not for long.

There’s a similar situation between the pipes. With Hutchcraft in Rochester, either Troy Holowchuk or another Oakville Buzz graduate, Sam Haines, will be the backup to Nick Rose, who signed a one-year free agent contract to return for his 10th year in Toronto.

Much like the left side of the offense, expect Holowchuk to come off the practice roster as the backup with Haines taking his spot. Haines was recently drafted to the Arena Lacrosse League’s Toronto Monarchs in the fifth round.

A normal preseason brings roster news and preseason games. This year also brought the announcement the Rock’s new home, FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, will undergo renovations starting next season, and the team will, once again, be relocating.

The initial move to Hamilton was met with pushback, especially from fans East of Toronto. However, as the season rolled on, the team gained momentum from their new home fans, culminating with a raucous crowd of over 10,000 for the final home game. The team did not initially announce where they’ll play in 2023/24.

The Toronto Rock fell two goals shy of competing for an NLL Championship last season. They’ll boast a veteran lineup once again (including free agent defender Chris Corbeil, if he’s able to return from a pec injury), leaving little room for young newcomers. They’re hoping to run it back and find those extra goals to compete for their seventh NLL Championship, and first since 2011.