If the CFL season started today, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats could field a formidable roster featuring a moderately-experienced quarterback, a veteran offensive line and several all-stars on defence.
There would, however, be one glaring hole: kicker.
With the departure of free agent Justin Medlock to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Ticats are — at least for the moment — without an individual to handle kickoffs, punts or field goals. Given that Medlock led the CFL in scoring in 2015 — and hit a playoff game-winner — the team has some big shoes (or shoe) to fill.
That the team plays its home games at Tim Hortons Field is also an important factor to consider. The stadium’s north-south orientation has created something of a wind-tunnel effect. It was a factor in several games the last two seasons, and THF has developed a reputation among CFL kickers as being one of the tougher places in the league to perform.
The Ticats must also factor the ratio into their decision-making. Using an American kicker takes up one of four valuable designated import spots on the roster, which is why they are often asked to do all three jobs. Utilizing Canadians — either one or two — has fewer roster implications, but finding quality nationals can sometimes be an issue.
Here’s a look at the options available as to the Ticats as they look to fill the role.
1. Sign an American. The team recently had international Michael Palardy on their negotiation list, a former Tennessee Volunteer who appeared in one game with the Argonauts last season as a punter. Palardy — not to be confused with Canadian and former Ticat Justin Palardy — is a better punter than field goal kicker (he hit on 74 per cent during his four years in college) but has done all three jobs in the past.
The Ticats made an offer to free agent American Swayze Waters in February but he signed with the Carolina Panthers as a punter. That said, if Waters hits the open market again — and on the constantly-revolving carousel that is professional kicking, that’s not unlikely — the Ticats may take another run at him.
Former Saskatchewan punter Ray Early, another international who had a 45-yard punting average in 18 games last season, did all three jobs while in college, while former Ottawa kicker Brett Maher (68 per cent on 37 field goal tries) could be other options.
The Ticats could also try any one of the dozens of former NCAA and NFL kickers out there, although finding someone who can do all three jobs in an era of increased specialization can be difficult.
2. Trade for an experienced CFL kicker. The most likely candidate in this scenario would be Edmonton’s Grant Shaw, who lost his kicking job to Sean Whyte after getting injured midway through 2015 (he returned to handle the punting duties late in the season.)
Shaw has a strong leg but has hit on just 77.8 per cent of his field goals over his six-year CFL career and missed four extra points in 23 tries last season. The Esks may elect to keep both Whyte and Shaw as a Canadian kicking duo — as many teams do — and as insurance against injury.
Other options include the two Winnipeg kickers made expendable by Medlock’s signing: American Sergio Castillo (a former Ticat neg list player who was signed briefly last season) and Canadian Billy Pavlopoulos, a 2013 seventh-round draft pick who has yet to appear in a CFL game. Both are untested, to say the least.
3. Sign a free agent Canadian(s). If the Ticats decide they want to use nationals in the kicking game, there are a few options available. Free agent Hugh O’Neill, who was signed by Hamilton in June and appeared in eight games as a punter before getting hurt, is a former second-round draft pick who has handled place-kicking duties in his career (with mixed results). The aforementioned Palardy — who started his CFL with the Ticats in 2010 — is available, as is Anthony Alix who, at 29, has nine career games of experience with Ottawa and Toronto.
Former Ticat draft pick Brett Lauther — who had four field goals in a Touchdown Atlantic win over the Alouettes in 2013 — spent some time on the Argonauts practice roster last season, and the all-time leading scorer in the CIS, Calgary Dino Johnny Mark, is a free agent after being released by the Redblacks during training camp last season and returning to school.
4. Draft a Canadian. UBC kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk is ranked No. 20 by the CFL scouting bureau for the upcoming Canadian draft and has a big leg to go with his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame. Van Gylswyk connected on 20 of 24 field goals last season with a long of 47, to go along with a 43.6 punting average. He still has CIS eligibility remaining but may be ready for the CFL.
Unlike the last two seasons when they essentially handed the job to Medlock, look for the Ticats to bring multiple kickers to training camp this season — potentially from both sides of the border — in order to conduct a legitimate competition. Given the importance of the position — and having already let an all-star walk away — Hamilton can hardly afford to take anymore chances.