2004 NLL OUTLOOK: League / Western Division / Eastern Division

By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor

Buffalo Bandits

The most important off-season move by Bandits' General Manager Kurt Silcott was the multi-year extension to Head Coach Darris Kilgour's contract. The return of Bandit ball, as defined by the MILL championships Darris won as a player, carried the club to a 12-4 tie with Rochester atop the regular-season standings, but was stopped short by a 16-13 semi-final loss to the selfsame Knighthawks. This season, the Bandits find themselves in the much-the-senior-of-the-two East Division of the renewed 10-team NLL, where "against their nemesis" could justifiably appear in the reports on every intra-divisional game.

The Bandits lead the League last year in goal-scoring, goals-and-assists per game, loose balls, and penalties and penalty minutes: --- Bandit ball indeed. Franchise player and Captain John Tavares epitomises Banditry; the 2003 NLL scoring champion, with 49 goals and a League-leading 58 assists, will start the 2004 season as the second-leading all-time goal scorer (428) behind Gary Gait (508). With other personal stats that some might not readily associate with such an accomplished scorer, JT is second all-time in loose balls, with 1,279 to Jim Veltman's 1,554, and tenth all-time in penalty minutes with 215: --- all of this as he enters his 13th pro indoor season, all of them in Buffalo.

With starting goalie Steve "Chugger" Dietrich designated the other franchise player, the Bandits set out to fine-tune for the 2004 campaign, clearly intent on their first championship of the NLL era.

Steve Dietrich

The first round of the entry draft yielded Buffalo an instant impact player in Whitby, Ontario's A.J. Shannon, fresh off an NCAA national championship with the Virginia Cavaliers. The former Whitby Jr. A Warrior helped lead his team to a 1999 Minto Cup, along with mates Gee Nash and Gavin Prout. Buffalo already picked up attacker Jason Clark in a trade with Calgary and defender Kyle Laverty from the Rebel dispersal. But they followed up acquiring defender Drew Candy, and Onondaga Nation forward Neal Powless and a resurgent Derek "Chico" General of Six Nations (to back up Chugger) in the trade that sent Casey Powell to Anaheim.

In a late development, Ryan Powell, one game into his fourth NLL season, was placed on the holdout list after announcing that he had accepted an assistant coaching position at his alma mater, Syracuse, and was going to be "focusing solely on his outdoor lacrosse career".

John Tavares

Keyed by JT, the Buffalo attackers are a seasoned group including Jonas Derks, Jason Crosbie, Mike Accursi, Pat McCready, Aimé Caines, Kerry Susheski and Clark, along with sophomore Mark Steenhuis. Rich Kilgour keys a transition game that will be greatly enhanced by a healthy second-year Billy Dee Smith. The defensive corps is lead by veterans Chris Langdale, Kyle Couling, Candy and Laverty, a nasty, pain-in-the-ass natural Bandit. I've liked "Lavs" ever since he broke into the League with the Rebel.

With a January week-end jaunt to Vancouver and Anaheim, the Bandits get their Western swing out of the way early in the season, plus they get another shot at the Storm in the HSBC Arena. The rest of their schedule reads like that of everyone else in the East, no respite from tough games, and the recipe for success reads the same as well --- win more intra-divisional series than you lose.

Rich Kilgour and Chris Langdale

Buffalo's second-year youngsters, Smith and Steenhuis in particular, must step up their games, and Chico has to be sharp whenever he steps in for Chugger, whether relieving or starting. Without wishing to put the "kiss of death" on him, Tavares, years of relentless and inventive game, winter and summer makes him the indoor's iron man. He just won another Mann Cup, this one out West with the Victoria Shamrocks, along with, among others, Jim Veltman. The Bandits made me look good last season with their return to prominence; I am sticking with them, to represent the East in the Champion's Cup.

Photos from the Bandits Website.

Philadelphia Wings

Somehow, and I am not sure why, I have this inkling that it will fall to the Wings to ensure the parity that some have predicted for the NLL East this season. This club originated with the 1974 - 1975 National Lacrosse League, playing at the old Spectrum along with the "Broad Street Bullies" era NHL Flyers. They lost the last MILL championship in 1997, won the first NLL Champion's Cup in 1998, and later snapped the Rock's string at three Cups, with their 9 - 8 win in 2001 before 19,409 stunned Toronto fans. OK, there were a few stunned Wingnuts there as well.

Tony Resch ended an abbreviated retirement from pro indoor coaching, returning to the fold as an assistant to Head Coach Adam Meuller. Much more anticipated was the return to the line-up of inspirational leader Jake Bergey (30 goals in '02) after missing last year with a knee injury.

Tom "Hollywood" Marachek

Tom Marechek will, in 2004, finally be immortalized in bobblehead form. He is, after all, the team scoring leader and 4th all-time in pro indoor with 332 goals, now in his 11th season as a Wing. The Wings attack will also get an immediate boost from first-round draft pick (3rd overall) Ryan Ward, a Victoria, B.C. native who scored 41 goals and was voted Western Lacrosse Association MVP, for the Mann Cup-winning senior Shamrocks. Ward had 69 goals, including 27 in his senior year, for Butler University, and added 61 career assists. Offensive veterans Jeff Ratcliffe (35 goals, including 13 on the power play), Keith Cromwell (23), and the Seneca Nation's Tony Henderson (31, 12 power play) all return, along with number-one draw man (.566 average, plus 16 goals) Paul Cantabene, and former Rebel 30-goal scorer Kevin Howard. Notable by his absence, Tom Ryan will have to celebrate his 10th pro indoor season in civvies, still suffering the debilitating effects of post-concussion syndrome.

Out the back door, there is more of a youth movement; veterans Hugh Donovan and Peter Jacobs lead a super-sized group of second- and third-year youngsters including Andrew Martin, Bryan Barrett, Shawn Nadelen (acquired from the Storm) and ex-Rebel Andrew Guindon.

Dallas Eliuk

Goaltender emeritus Dallas Eliuk mumbled something about retirement amid the 2001 championship hoopla, but he has continued to shine between the pipes, playing just 70 seconds short of 900 minutes last year, and racking up a League-leading 608 saves, an average of over 40 per game. His .756 save percentage was a respectable fifth. Dallas also starts this season 3rd all-time in loose balls (982), the top goalie in this category.

Paul Cantabene

Last season Cantabene combined with Jacobs for a .547 face-off percentage, second only to Colorado, but overall, Philly special teams were no better than mid-pack - they produced 41 power play goals, tied with, among others, the Ottawa Rebel, and they had the second-worst penalty-killing percentage at .500, ahead of only Calgary. With an 8 - 8 record, they missed the playoffs just two seasons after winning the Cup, and won only 2 road games, both by a single goal, over New York and New Jersey.

Jake Bergey was named Captain soon after the opening of training camp, and his presence in the line-up will be felt in more than just the goal-scoring category. Resch's return to the team is also a psychological plus (especially when it comes to playing the Rock), but the Wings must amp up their defence. Eliuk cannot continue to stand up to 40+ shots per game, and back-up Nick Schroeder is simply untested (74 minutes, 40 saves and 16 goals-against in his two seasons); either that, or risk playing run-and-gun with the likes of Buffalo and Rochester. They visit San Jose [lost by 1 in Albany last year] and Colorado [lost there last year by 4], and host Arizona [beat Columbus by 1] and Anaheim [beat New Jersey twice, by 1 and 2].

Any Eastern team hoping to make the post-season must plan on winning its intra-divisional series. It is, however, statistically impossible for all four teams to do that. The Wings will face perhaps their toughest test of the MILL/NLL era, to try to return to the post-season.

The Wings Website.

Toronto Rock

Four NLL championships in five years speak for themselves. Rock Head Coach and General Manager Les Bartley originally made the move from the Buffalo Bandits to the new Ontario Raiders franchise before the first National Lacrosse League season of 1997-98, had a 6-6 season in the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, finishing in a three-way tie for third place, and missing the playoffs only on the second or third tie-breaker. The very next year, the Rock were born, and Bartley's charges, essentially the same squad as in Hamilton, went 9-3 to take regular-season honors, and won their first Champion's Cup, including a record-setting 13-2 semi over the Wings and a 13-10 final over the Knighthawks at the venerable Maple Leaf Gardens.

Veltman with Bartley in 2004

The first National Lacrosse League dynasty must face the 2004 season, however, without their inspirational and tactical leader. "Bart" was diagnosed, just before training camp, with colon cancer and underwent immediate major surgery, followed by post-operative therapy. Long-time assistants Ed Comeau and Derek Keenan were appointed interim Head Coach and G.M., respectively, with Rock ownership emphasis on "interim". Everyone hopes that Bartley can make a recovery and return, not only to the Rock, but to the rest of his life as well.

The Rock made some news at the entry draft, using their opening pick to, for the first time in franchise history, take a U.S.-born collegiate player; not just any player either, but Salisbury State's All American attacker Josh Bergey, younger brother of the Wings' Jake. After using the first selection of the second round (acquired from Vancouver) to take the OLA Jr. A Six Nations Arrows' Stew Monture, they opted for another NCAA grad, Cornell All American and U.S. All World long-pole Ryan McClay, with their own second-round turn. McClay averaged 59 loose balls per game in his senior season for the Big Red, an accomplishment that might eventually make him an heir apparent to Captain Jim Veltman, if "Scoop" ever retires. McClay also has one season with the MLL's New Jersey Pride under his belt, something that might mitigate against him appearing in a Rock uniform any time soon. He is currently on the Rock's holdout list.

Raising the 2003 banner

Although Toronto returned to the better-known precincts of the OLA box leagues for their later-round choices, Bergey and McClay, if anything, are clear evidence of Les Bartley's ongoing role with the club even while convalescing; these two players reflect Les's fondness for athlete/lacrosse players, notwithstanding his policy of maintaining a core group of Canadian box lax veterans as the recipe for success in the pro indoor game.

That core group, with some judicious augmentations, is still in place at the Air Canada Centre. With franchise players Veltman and Pat Coyle, and the goaltending duo of Bob Watson and Anthony Cosmo, Colin Doyle, Blaine Manning (who lead the NLL last year with 17 power-play goals), and Chris Driscoll lead the attack, joined by veteran free agent Matt Shearer, an again-healthy Ken Millin and Aaron Wilson, and former Rebel and NLL rookie goal-scoring leader Ryan Painter. In a season-opening development, Kim Squire, an opening-game healthy scratch, blew a head gasket and "quit" the team; he remains on the holdout list. The famous Rock back door is still dominant, with Dan Ladouceur, sophomore Patrick Merrill, Ian Rubel and ex-Rebel Derrick Suddons, not to mention the ever-versatile, ever-threatening Steve Toll.

Blaine Manning

Clearly the only visible chink in the Rock's championship armor is, with all due respect to Ed Comeau and company, behind the bench. Les is responsible, season after season, for at least a couple of Rock wins that can only be chalked up to outcoaching the opposition.That might mean a judicious yanking of Watson or Cosmo for an allout assault during a pivotal possession, or a half-time dressing-room exhortation for a return to "Rock lacrosse", inevitably keyed by some ferocious defence, a Veltman-induced turnover, and/or a Steve Toll scamper to the cage.

As reluctant as I am to draw too much attention to it, Bartley's ongoing condition away from the team could win or lose the Rock some one-goal games this winter on emotion alone. This will be the toughest season in Toronto Rock history, and will be a defining moment for the franchise.

Photos from the Rock Website.

Rochester Knighthawks

Celebrating their tenth season of pro indoor lacrosse, the Rochester Knighthawks want very much to be more than the Toronto Rock's bridesmaids. The winners of the last MILL title in 1997 have been to three NLL finals, but even with the arrival of John Grant Jr. in 2000, from Peterborough, Ontario by way of the Delaware University Blue Hens, the Champion's Cup has visited, but never stayed at, the Blue Cross Arena.

Last year, former team all-time scoring leader Dewey Jacobs of Six Nations and has a Barrister and Solicitor (as the legal profession says here in Canada) gig to fall back on, was traded to Buffalo, and subsequently retired before this season. Face-off master and long bomber Cory Bomberry, also from Six Nations, was traded to Arizona last fall. Curt Malawsky decided that he wanted to stay closer to home in British Columbia, and a trade to the Ravens was eventually arranged. Victoria, B.C.'s Ted Jenner found employment closer to home in Anaheim, after two seasons in Rochester.

John Grant

The trades brought, among others, attackers Jon Harasym and Kyle Arbuckle (since released), and defender Brock Robertson, as well as a slew of future entry draft selections. Power forward Mat Giles, the Rebel's last scoring leader and second in the League to Blaine Manning with 15 power-play goals, was acquired in the dispersal. Ithaca College All American Dennis Juleff, of Ipswich, Australia, is a 28-year-old rookie forward who made the roster from an open try-out camp last November.

Second-round entry draft selection Buck Stobart, the Victoria, B.C. Jr. A Shamrocks' top defender, was also a member of Canada's Under-19 national rugby squad. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, Stobart will fit right in with the likes of the Onondaga Nation's Marshall Abrams, Regy Thorpe, Steve Penny, Andy Turner, Pat Cougevan and Robertson.

Pat O'Toole and Derek Malawsky

Scott Evans of Peterborough taken in the first round and 5th overall, gives the K-hawks yet another big man up front (they have a half-dozen or so attackers six feet and over). Even with the loss of Bomberry, Rochester's offence will have a strong right hand, with the addition of Harasym and Giles. The offence still flows, for better or for worse, through John Grant - don't get me wrong, Grant is the NLL's premier young scorer, but his team-mates have an unfortunate natural tendency to defer to him, and the double- and triple-teams are a result of playing into the hands of opposition defences that are already keying on him. While these consequences produce a showcase for Grant's stellar and imaginative ball-handling, and made him the League leader in shots on goal last year (16.12 average), they all too often stall the K-hawks' attack.

2003 Goaltender of the Year Pat O'Toole will be celebrating his own personal 10th anniversary in pro indoor. "Toole Time" had the best save percentage (.783) in the NLL last season, and he and back-up Pat Campbell combined for the second-leading team goals-against average, behind only Watson and Cosmo in Toronto.

Pat Cougevan

The Knighthawks do everything well, and have renewed their front and back doors through trades and the draft. Head Coach Paul Day is universally respected in the League. They win their share of close games. So why have they yet to sip from the Champion's Cup?

A "trademark" Rochester slow start will spell doom against Eastern opposition this winter; extra-divisional games include a March week-end in Anaheim and Arizona, and visits from the Stealth and the Mammoth. The Knighthawks closed out last season with four straight wins, plus a home semi-final win over the Bandits.

The answer to the "what do the Knighthawks have to do" question is --- beat the Rock in Toronto.

Photos from the Knighthawks Website.