Heading into the 2015 NLL season the Toronto Rock were faced with two key injuries at the offensive end of the floor. 2014 leading scorer, Garrett Billings had suffered a torn ACL towards the end of last season, and would be lost to the club for at least the first half of the 2015 season. If that wasn’t bad enough, captain Colin Doyle, who racked up 72 points last season suffered a shoulder injury during the Major Series Lacrosse season that required surgery; he would be lost for the entirety of the 2015 NLL season.
The Rock did their best to offset the losses of Billings and Doyle through a series of offseason signings. The Rock signed the little known righty Brett Hickey, along with Mike Burke, Mark White, Dylan Webster and veteran Shawn Williams. The Rock then addressed the offensive side of the ball through the 2014 NLL draft, adding Brandon Benn, Brady Heseltine and Jordan Robertson. While Brett Hickey was the only signee to make the Rock’s active roster, Brandon Benn and Jordan Robertson have seen time on the active roster.
But all the signings meant little, with the exception of Brett Hickey. The emergence of the 24 year old from Windsor, Ontario has been a huge reason why the Rock have not skipped a beat offensively without Doyle and Billings in the lineup. Prior to joining the Rock as a Free Agent this offseason, Hickey had bounced on and off the Washington/Vancouver Stealth’s active roster and practice roster. In nine career NLL games Hickey had recorded five goals and five assists for 10 points. But this past summer, Hickey broke out with the Coquitlam Adanacs of the WLA, recording 26 goals and 36 assists for 62 points in 18 games, putting him on the radar of many NLL clubs. Hickey decided to join his home province club, and neither player nor organization is regretting the signing, as Hickey leads the Rock in goals with 17 through seven games, and sits fourth on team scoring with 26 points. Hickey’s 6’2″, 225 pound frame as also created space on the right side of the offense for the likes of Rob Hellyer and Kasey Beirnes to thrive.
In addition to Hickey, a very under the radar re-signing of the underrated Kevin Ross has really helped stabilized what was thought to be a thin left side of the Rock offense. Ross is a player who has reached or surpassed the 20 goal plateau three times in his seven year NLL career, and has recorded at least 35 points or more in five of those seven seasons. While he may not be the potent offensive threat of Doyle, Ross is an extremely valuable “role player” on the Toronto Rock offense. Ross thinks the game very well, shows excellent intelligence on the floor and knows how to not only get open, but get his fellow teammates open as well. He is able to play with the ball in his stick or without it, and can finish when the opportunity presents itself. Through seven games this season, Ross has recorded eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points, which places him sixth on team scoring. Ross is on pace to tie his career high of 59 points this season, which he set in 2012 with the Minnesota Swarm. When your sixth leading scorer is racking up nearly 60 points, your team is likely to be near the top of the standings, which of course the Rock are.
Now the emergence of Hickey and Ross have been delights for the Rock, but veteran Kasey Beirnes has also stepped up this season. Beirnes has always been a strong secondary contributor for the Rock and the Minnesota Swarm, early on in his career. But this season he has become one of the go to options for the Rock on the right side of their offense. One of the best off ball players in the game, Kasey Beirnes is easily one of the most undervalued players in the NLL. Beirnes is on pace for 64 points this season, which would top his career high of 54 points which was set during the 2013 season.
Josh Sanderson has always been an potent offensive threat, known for his excellent vision and playmaking ability, but between 2011 and 2014 Sanderson reached the 70 point plateau on just one occasion. You’re probably thinking, wow 70 points is a lot of points, but Sanderson has been a 100 point player on three occasions during his career and has topped the 85 point plateau on five occasions throughout his career. This season with Doyle and Billings out, Sanderson is getting more touches, and that makes him that much more potent. Sanderson is a player who doesn’t necessarily need the ball in his stick to thrive, but is much more effective when he is essentially the quarterback of the offense, which he has been this season. With “Shooter” running things offensively, many players are having career years offensively for the Rock, and that shouldn’t be shocking to many familiar with Sanderson’s game. He has always been a player who makes the players around him better. Through seven games this season, Sanderson has recorded seven goals and 38 assists for 45 points, which leads the Rock in scoring and places him in a three way tie for the NLL scoring lead with Buffalo’s Dhane Smith and Calgary’s Shawn Evans.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the diminutive Rob Hellyer’s emergence as one of the NLL’s young stars. However after a 79 point campaign last season, his production at the offensive end of the floor this season was expected. Nonetheless Hellyer has continued to produce at a rapid clip offensively, and he’s another member of the Rock offense who is benefiting from the added touches. Hellyer has also become a trigger man of sorts on the right side of the Rock’s power play, a position that was usually reserved for Garrett Billings. With 42 points through the Rock’s first seven games this season, Hellyer sits in a tie with Ryan Benesch for fourth in league scoring, just three points behind teammate Josh Sanderson and the likes of Dhane Smith and Shawn Evans for the NLL scoring lead.
With all this being said, the main reason the Rock are succeeding offensively may have the simplest explanation of all: Chemistry. The Rock have really gelled as an offensive unit, with many guys now in their fifth, sixth, seventh season together. Chemistry is something you can’t teach, it’s not something that happens over night, and many teams with more individual talent are struggling offensively right now because they don’t have the chemistry the Rock do. It’s not always how much individual talent you have, but finding the players that fit in your offensive system. Finding the guys that no their roles and play them to the best of their ability, and that’s what the Rock have found in 2014-2015.