TORONTO - The Toronto Rock are determined to win back the Champion’s Cup after letting the ultimate prize of indoor pro lacrosse slip through their fingers last season.
Head coach Troy Cordingley is still miffed about being blown away 17-13 at home by Rochester in the NLL East Division final.
"The way we exited from the playoffs last year, I can't see how any of the veterans can't come in with a little chip on their shoulders and be hungry," Cordingley said.
The 16-game 2013 Rock campaign begins with games Saturday in Calgary and Sunday in Edmonton. The Air Canada Centre opener against Philadelphia is Jan. 19.
The most significant addition is Chris White, the former captain of the Buffalo Bandits who jumped to the Rock as an unrestricted free agent. The defence was already one of the best in the nine-team league and now it's even tougher to penetrate.
"Chris White fits in very well with us because he is a veteran guy who played our style of (high-pressure) defence for the seven years he was in Buffalo," Cordingley said. "He's an unbelievable character guy who adds a lot of grit to our lineup. He's one of those stay-at-home defenders who doesn't get a lot of ink but people who know the game and watch the game know what kind of a player he is. He's a real good pickup for us."
White and Kyle Belton, a third-round draft pick from British Columbia who is the only rookie to make the team, are the newcomers on the back end. Sandy Chapman, Stephen Hoar, Mike Hobbins, Cam Woods, Pat Merrill, Rob Marshall, Bill Greer, Damon Edwards and Jesse Gamble all return. Scott Johnston moves up to the 23-man roster after being on the practice squad most of 2012. Phil Sanderson and Drew Petkoff were on injured reserve as the new season neared, Bruce Codd retired and Glen Bryan went to Buffalo in a trade for a draft pick.
Up front, Garrett Billings, who was runner-up in the NLL scoring race with 114 points including a record 82 assists last winter, headlines the offence. ILindoor.com ranks Billings as the No. 1 indoor player in the world. Also returning are captain Colin Doyle, Josh Sanderson, Kasey Beirnes, Stephan Leblanc and Blaine Manning, who aims to get in a full slate of games after a broken collarbone restricted him to six last season.
"There was lots of cohesion in the pre-season," Doyle said. "It's a group I think that can score some goals. All the elements are there: unselfish play, quickness, and the lacrosse IQ is through the roof. We feel comfortable with what we have up front. It's pretty exciting to go into another year with mostly the same group."
More power-play goals would help.
"With so many penalties being called, goaltending and special teams win games so getting better on the power play has been a topic of ours," Doyle said. "We've got to shoot the ball a little bit more and be aggressive while making sure we don't get scored on."
Scott Evans and Brandon Ivey were unrestricted free agent signings after being released by Edmonton and Calgary, respectively, and Rob Hellyer, who did not reappear after suffering a concussion in the 2012 opener, resumes his career. Gone are Dan Carey, who retired after concussion problems, and Jamie Rooney, who was included with Bryan in the trade with Buffalo.
Evans had 45- and 44-goal seasons in Rochester in his prime and is eager to prove he's got a lot left despite two sub-par years in Edmonton.
"He's another character guy, a guy who will fight and battle for his teammates," Cordingley said. "We're looking for him to create space for guys like Billings. He's a 40-goal scorer and those guys are hard to come by."
Nick Rose continues as the No. 1 goalie and is likely to get both starts this weekend. For Toronto to reclaim the title it last won in 2011, Rose will have to play as well as he did in winning six of his seven starts after being handed the job two-thirds of the way through last season and not the guy who couldn't cope with the Knighthawks in that East final.
Zak Boychuk takes over as backup goalie from Pat Campbell, who retired to become Rock goalies coach.
With NLL talent parity so obvious, the team staying the healthiest has the best shot at winning it all.
"We know there are injuries we'll have to cope with but I can't see it being as bad as it was last year," Cordingley said.
GM Terry Sanderson has pieced this roster together and likes what he sees.
"We're faster than last year," Sanderson said. "I would expect to see us push the ball up the floor way more than last year. I'm pleased with what we have right now. We're optimistic. People have us pegged anywhere from third to middle of the pack in the league. We think we're better than that but we have to prove it."
Owner Jamie Dawick provided a new practice facility in Oakville.
"Our guys feel as if they truly are professional lacrosse players and they are being treated that way," Cordingley said. "We'll have no excuses."
Opening with two games in two days in Alberta is a big challenge.
"It'll be tough," Doyle said. "There's no doubt about that, but why not? Calgary might be the best team in the West and I think Edmonton will be close behind them. It'll be a tall order but, that being said, it'll be nice to get away with the guys and spend some time together. I think it'll be a good test to see where we're at."
Toronto was 9-7 in nailing down first place in the East Division last year. A 7-6 East semis win over Buffalo preceded the disappointing loss that closed things out.
"I think Rochester got a whole lot better and they were the champs last year," Doyle said in sizing up the East in 2013. "They've got great goaltending and they've added Casey Powell and Dan Dawson to an already-potent offence.
"Buffalo got more athletic and they're always tough. The direction they're going will make it a tough matchup. Philly, nobody knows quite what to expect but we know they'll be physical and fast. What we know for sure is that home floor is so important come April or May. We'd rather be home for the playoffs than travelling to any of those places because they're all tough places to play in."