NLL OUTLOOK: League / Northern Division / Central Division / Eastern Division / Mid-Season
By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
Last year the National Lacrosse League went West, with the expansion to Calgary and Vancouver, an event heralded by the return "home" of a number of Western Canadian stars, one spectacular comeback for Dwight Maetche of the Ravens, several bright rookie debuts, and gainful employment for a number of Canadian left coast players whose day jobs had precluded commuting three time zones to the East. This summer, Kroenke Sports Enterprises, owners of the Pepsi Center, the NHL Avalanche, the NBA Nuggets, and the AFL Crush, became the newest proprietors of the Washington Power franchise, adding a third Rocky Mountain presence in professional box lacrosse (Calgary qualifies for Rocky status because it is in the southern Alberta foothills).
President and General Manager Steve Govett, and Director of Communications and Lacrosse Operations Alexandra Santiago made the move west with the club, as did franchise player Gary Gait. Paul Gait retired (although he remains with the club as Director of Player Development), and several members from last year's Division winners and NLL semi-finalists declined to leave the East, notably Paul Cantabene (18 goals, 191 face-offs won), traded to Philadelphia for Rory Graham. Head Coach Darris Kilgour returned to the Bandits as their new skipper, and is succeeded by Rod Jensen of Vancouver, an assistant with Paul Dal Monte and the Ravens last year.
Much is riding on the success of this club in the Mile-High City - this much-travelled and fan-challenged franchise is running out of lives; it anchors NLL plans for Western U.S. growth; it will also be a litmus test for NLL aspirations toward partnerships with established pro sports ownerships, the trials and tribulations of the Rigas's / Adelphia / Sabres / HSBC Arena / Bandits notwithstanding.
Over 16,000 at the Mammoth opener in Denver!
All of that said, this franchise remains the favourite to repeat as Eastern (yes, Eastern, at least until a fourth Western club can be established) Division leaders in 2003.
The first major acquisition by the newly-minted Mammoth (just a stray thought, but what if the remains of a giant sloth had recently been exhumed nearby, instead of those of the stately, hairy ancestor of the elephant) was free agent Ted Dowling, Montreal's leading goal-getter (46) last season. Dowling's signing disqualified Colorado from participation in the dispersal draft, but so what? The most coveted player from the Express roster, other than Tracy Kelusky, Dowling is a pure scorer and deadly finisher, just the kind of guy to get on the end of a Gary Gait set-up, other than brother Paul. Del Halladay had a fine first season in Washington with 31 goals and 76 points, making the Power the only team to place three players in the League's Top 20 point-getters.
Govett signed his top draft pick (taken in the second round), forward Brian Solliday from Syracuse, the second of four Orangemen selected, as well as seventh-rounder, defender Tom Ethington from the University of Denver.
With the most productive offence and the most efficient power play in the NLL last season, Colorado moved to beef up their defence, signing free agent Tom Phair, trading for Jamie Hanford from New Jersey and Graham (both face-off specialists), and Matt Ogelsby from Calgary. Veterans John Rosa, Brian Reese, John Gallant and Hugh "Huge" Donovan return. In goal, veteran and E-Lax Summer Team keeper Erik Miller, the only U.S.-born keeper in the NLL, became the starter after the somewhat surprising late release of Devin Dalep, with Tom Still signed as the back-up.
Immediately following an Avalanche game the evening of December 7, an estimated 12,500 fans stuck around to watch the first-ever Mammoth exhibition game, and the "Tuskers" rewarded their fans with a 15 - 14 win over the visiting Philadelphia Wings. Needless to say, both team and League management were pleased with the response. The Mammoth will be piling up the frequent flyer points along with the Ravens and Roughnecks, and their schedule has them playing in every Northern Division city, with home-and-homes with Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, and a visit to Ottawa (more bang for their travel-and-expense buck in Canada, eh).
Provided that Miller can give them some quality starts in nets, the Mammoth offence should score more than enough goals for them to dominate the Eastern Division. Interestingly enough, their play against the Canadian clubs will, to a large extent, determine their post-season chances.
New Jersey Storm
Jayson Williams, former NBA All-Star with the New Jersey Nets and esrtwhile newcomer to the National Lacrosse League owners' club, started quickly out of the gate with the expansion New Jersey Storm. He hyped the NLL and his new team during appearances on U.S. talk shows, and made some noises about circumventing the entry draft by putting Gavin Prout on a personal services contract for two sit-out years, so that he could sign him for the Storm. He also signed two of the OLA's more colorful characters to his front office, Director of Player Personnel Jim Brady and Head Coach and General Manager Jim Hinkson.
Prout signed with the Saints, Hinkson was fired and replaced by Brady before the half-way point of the season, and the Storm finished tied with the Saints at 5-and-11 in the Eastern Division. The biggest news for New Jersey lacrosse fans would come, again, in the off-season.
While the Buffalo Bandits' fate depends on the sale of the NHL Sabres, and the Ottawa Rebel face a make-or-break season at the box office, the future of the Storm rides on a judge and jury. Williams faces a homicide charge, along with other charges related to his alleged attempts to cover up the initial crime, in the fatal shooting of a limo driver at his New Jersey estate.
Before Brady was confirmed as Head Coach and G.M. for the coming season, he announced that he had traded defender Jordan Guindon and attacker Kerry Susheski to Buffalo for Roy Colsey III. Colsey broke into the league with the Knighthawks, leaving Rochester for New York after one season. He is the Saints' all-time leader in goals, points and penalty minutes, and was traded to the Bandits last February in a seven-player deal. Ottawa Rebel scoring leader Mike Benedict, from Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, and Colorado's Bobby Horsey also arrived via trades. Another former Rebel, the Nishnawbe Nation's Doug Noganosh, signed on as a free agent.
Brady made news of another kind when he invited New Jersey native Ginny Capicchioni, a goaltender for Sacred Heart University and the women's Team Toyota field lacrosse club, to the Storm training camp. Capicchioni also had experience with men's clubs in 'box lacrosse hotbeds' Connecticut and Pennsylvania. All kidding aside, anyone, regardless of gender, who is willing to stand in against NLL shooters deserves a look, and, indeed, she got a good enough look to be signed to the roster.
From the entry draft the Storm signed their 6th round pick, defender Dan Chemotti from Duke university, as well attacker Marc Morley of U-Mass, initially selected in the 3rd round by Albany. A New Jersey native and Hofstra grad, defender Mike Morano, was signed as a free agent rookie.
After Matt Roik was placed on injured reserve, Derek "Chico" General from Six Nations became the starting goalie, and ex-Wing Chris Sanderson as signed as the back-up. General played some 371 minutes last season (to Roik's 595) in nine games, taking 5 losses, with a 15.19 goals-against average. Sanderson played nearly 347 minutes in eight games as Dallas Eliuk's back-up, getting credit for 2 wins and 4 losses, and compiling a 15.92 goals-against average.
Veterans Paul Talmo, Stephen Sombrotto and Aussie face-off man Gordon Purdie will steady their younger mates out the back door. In addition to Colsey (47 goals last season) and Benedict (35), Cam Bomberry (17) and Scott Stewart (18) return, as does Dallas Squire (7 goals in 8 games). Bobby Horsey (10) has the kind of speed that puts pressure on defences.
While Benedict, Bomberry (who, along with the Rock's Colin Doyle, has the best no-look pass in the League), Stewart et al can supply quality service for Colsey, he is not much for reciprocating, and opposing defences will, as usual, key on and doubleteam him whenever they can. Attention draws penalties, however, and Colsey, Benedict and Bomberry are consistent power-play producers.
The Storm open their second season in Rochester, and wind up the first half in Colorado, with a first trip to Calgary in between. Outside the Eastern Division they have doubleheaders with Columbus, Ottawa and Buffalo. Since they have Colsey and the Saints do not, the Storm have the edge in the season series, and in the race to finish third in the Division.
New York Saints
In 1988, the New Jersey Saints knocked off the Philadelphia Wings and the Washington Wave to win the MILL championship; the next season, they became the New York Saints, who beat the Detroit Turbos in double overtime, but lost the championship to the Wings.
In 1990, '92, '93 and '94, they made the play-offs, only to get knocked out by the Wings. In 1997 they went out in the semi-finals, losing to the Buffalo Bandits. They have made no post-season appearances in the National Lacrosse League.
In September, the Saints announced that eleven-year veteran defender Pat McCabe, an All-American defender at Syracuse, would take over from Sal LoCascio as Head Coach. Another long-time Saint, Matt Panetta, McCabe's team-mate at Long Island's Elmont High School before going on to an All-American career at Johns Hopkins, was subsequently named an Assistant Coach along with holdover Jim Mule.
In every NLL draft, New York has selected a premier Canadian box lacrosse player, most recently Loyola grad Gavin Prout of Whitby, Ontario, also the hometown of Saints goaltender Gordon "Gee" Nash. Along with these 'blue chip' box players, owner and General Manager Mike Gongas has maintained a strong Long Island flavor to his line-up as well - there are no less than six former members of the Hofstra Pride, alone, on this year's roster.
Nick Polanco at the 2002 World Games
On draft day, the Saints plucked Dean Harrison from the Express line-up, and then selected British Columbian Nick Carlson, a member of the Canadian U-19 national squad and the Division II Attackman and Player of the Year with Limestone College, 5th overall. With their 9th overall pick, they grabbed the OLA Jr. A Orangeville Northmen's forward Chad Culp. Second rounder Nick Polanco from Hofstra joins brother Armando on the Saints' back line, along with 3rd rounder Matt McFarland of U-Mass; fellow Minutemen (and Long Islanders), attackers Don Little, taken in the 4th round, and Dan Paccione, selected in the 6th round, would also crack the line-up.
Nash anchors the Saints in goal, taking all of their 5 wins last season, with an 8th-ranked 14.24 goals-against average. Back-up Phil Wetherup was credited with 3 of their 11 losses. Veterans Tom Naglieri, Brian Spallina and face-off specialist Joe Ghedina (192 won last year) lead a young group of defenders. All-Rookie and second team All-Pro team selection Prout (30 goals, 82 points last year), Rusty Kruger (28 goals), Kris Bryde (23) and Chris Driscoll (25 goals, 11 as a Saint) lead the attackers, and Harrison (10 goals, 17 assists) adds to the veteran presence up front. Carlson, Culp and Paccione should contribute as well.
The Saints are not strong enough offensively to challenge the Mammoth or the Wings for the Eastern Division title, but they could make things more interesting, if they can get off to a decent start - their first four games are with Columbus, Albany, Ottawa and New Jersey. They also go West twice, to Colorado (January 31), then for a week-end in Vancouver (February 28) and Calgary (March 2).
With their mix of Canadian and Long Island talent, the Saints continue to make an effort to improve their performance while offering an appealing hometown flavor to their fans. The question remains for this founding franchise, is this enough to return to the prominence that the Saints enjoyed in their pro box salad days a decade-and-a-half ago? Or do hands-on owner Gongas and partner Charles Russo have a bit too much on their plate, with the Saints and the Landsharks to run, to build a title contender out of either of their two teams?
Last March 23, the Philadelphia Wings hosted the Toronto Rock in a game that they had to win to have a chance to reach the play-offs. Tom Marachek, Dallas Eliuk and company delivered for their fanatical Wingnuts, with a 12 - 11 overtime heart-stopper, just one night after being blown out of the Air Canada Centre 17 - 9. After spotting the Wings the home floor, the Washington Power ended Philly hopes of a Championship repeat with a 12 - 11 win on a final goal from Gary Gait.
Before the start of this season, Wings General Manager (and designer of the "pro-style" face-mask) Marty O'Neill and Head Coach Adam Meuller decided on something of a youth movement. This precipitated the trade of veteran Kevin Finneran to the Toronto Rock, and the departure of unrestricted free agent Tom Phair to Colorado. Former captain Dave Stilley would not return for this season either.
While not exactly a youth move, the Wings were nonetheless glad to acquire Paul Cantabene from the Mammoth, especially after what could prove to be the most telling development in Philadelphia fortunes - the loss of Jake Bergey. Bergey is out the whole season for knee surgery and rehab. Although Bergey was the team's fourth-leading goal-scorer last season, his presence in the offence makes the Wings a different team.He is an inside or outside attacker who puts constant pressure on opposing defences.
Philadelphia topped Colorado in the first match-up
While they signed no immediate help from the entry draft, the Wings did add last year's 4th-round pick, former Princeton Tiger forward Matt Striebel, to the roster. Trades have brought attacker Tony Henderson (late last season), and defenders Drew Candy (from Toronto in the Finneran trade), Andrew Guindon from Ottawa, and Paul Cantabene from Colorado.
2001 first-round draft pick Jeff Ratcliffe (Coquitlam, B.C. and UMBC) blossomed in his second NLL season, leading the team in goals and power play goals (47 and 14, respectively), and third in points after Tom Marechek and Finneran. Henderson should make a contribution playing in his first full season in Philadelphia, and the offence will also benefit from Cantabene's dependability in the face-off circle. Keith Cromwell is another sophomore to watch for on the ball.
My fellow E-lacrosse scribe, Tom Ryan, is a key transition player and defender who knows his way to the net (13 goals last season). With the addition of Cantabene, Candy and Guindon, as well as returnees like Peter Jacobs and Josh Ruhle, the Philly defence should be reliable. Dallas Eliuk, all thoughts of retirement apparently banished, will continue to confound opposition shooters, with Nick Schroeder waiting in the wings as back up.
Philadelphia takes wing (OK, I'll stop now) to open their schedule, visiting Vancouver, then Colorado two weeks later, and, like the Mammoth, they will also be visiting all four Canadian teams. They close out the regular season as they open it, with two away games (Albany and Rochester).
Veterans Marechek, Eliuk, Ryan, Jacobs and Cantabene will provide a stabilizing influence as the Wings begin to re-tool. If a couple of their young players, like Cromwell and Striebel, can step up their games to add to the offence, and if Eliuk stays healthy, the Wings will have no problems staying in front of the Saints and Storm. Battling the Mammoth for the Division title may be another story, which is unfolding in the first quarter of the schedule. A sweep for either club is improbable, but would benefit the Wings more. A home game split is much more likely, with success against Northern Division opponents having a major impact on post-season prospects for Philadelphia as much as Colorado. Should Bergey make a miraculous comeback in time for the post-season, the lift to his team would be immeasurable, but first they will have to get there without him.
Ted Montour is a communications and sports management consultant from the Six Nations Grand River Territory in southern Ontario, an Iroquois community that is the most populous reservation in Canada. Six Nations is the home of lacrosse legend, the late Gaylord Powless.
A former Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) Junior player, coach and general manager, Ted resides in Ottawa, where he handled community and public relations for the Ottawa Rebel in their first NLL season. He also coaches box lacrosse in Ottawa with the Nepean Minor Lacrosse Association, and looks after media relations for the Nepean Knights of the OLA Junior B League.