By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
NLL 2004 got under way on Boxing Day, as the Vancouver Ravens visited the brand new, 17,653-seat Glendale Arena in Phoenix against the hometown Sting.
With the entry draft dominated by Canadian box players, head coach Paul Dal Monte once again looked to his Burnaby Junior A squad, using the No. 1 selection overall, obtained in a trade with Anaheim/New Jersey, to take former Laker Mark Miyashita, who played for Randy Mearns at Canisius College in Western New York. The young man whose name is blocked by most fan forums and message boards, is a proven all-round player and leader, whose skill in the face-off circle should help Vancouver, who finished dead last in this stats category last season (every other team except the Ravens had at least one regular draw man over .500).
With his own first-round slot at No. 4 overall, Dal Monte took Craig Conn, a St. Catharines A's scoring star with a well-known attitude problem. The coach has said that he "did a lot of homework" before selecting Conn, whom he described as "the best player on the floor in three Minto Cups", but who washed out of U-Mass before ever playing a varsity game. Closing out the opening round with a supplementary pick originally awarded to Arizona, the Ravens skipper selected Laker forward Kevin Olson.
All three rookies were among the twenty signees announced en masse by the Ravens, a group which included veterans like ageless goalie Dwight Maetche, high-scoring attackers Chris Gill, Dan Stroup, Chris Prat and Cam Sedgwick, and defender and special-teams leader Bruce Alexander. While a trade sent emerging scorer Mike Law and veteran defender Grant Hamilton to Anaheim, the Ravens also acquired Andy Ogilvie from the Bandits to strengthen their back door. Vancouver earlier picked up British Columbia native Jamie Roy from the Rebel dispersal, and if he can finally learn to finish, he should add to the Ravens offense, particularly in transition. A deal with Rochester for forward Curt Malawsky, who had earlier expressed the desire to stay home and play in Vancouver, will wait until Malawsky's back problems have abated sufficiently to allow him to return to play.
Gill and Maetche
Last season, the Ravens were 4 - 3 against opponents in the new West division, including 2 losses to the Roughnecks and splits with the Mammoth and Attack/Stealth, and .500 on the road, before losing the semi-final to Colorado. This season, despite their location in the Northwest, they stand to log fewer real travel miles than other Western clubs, most of whose Canadian players reside in the East; plus, they have only one trip East, to Toronto on January 23rd. Vancouver will contend for the Division, but they must do better than break even when they leave GM Place.
Photos from the Ravens Website.
Last year's Landsharks are this year's Sting, complete with a new scorpion-with-a-lacrosse-stick logo, and they kicked off the Grand Opening week-end of the new 17,653-seat Glendale Arena Boxing Day evening, topping the Vancouver Ravens 16-12 triumph in front of 12,789.
Head coach Bob Hamley, who, along with associate Bob McMahon, took the 2002 Albany Attack to a 14 - 2 season, capped by a heart-breaking 13 - 12 loss to the Toronto Rock, ramrods one of the youngest squads in the League. The Sting will be looking to improve upon last year's 8 - 8 season in Columbus, and make their first appearance in the NLL post-season.
Hamley selected Minto-winning team-mates Kyle Neufeld and Mark Paniccia from the St.Catharines in the first two rounds of the entry draft, then, with the first of three third-round picks, took the first net-minder of the 2003 draft, Cole Murray of the Victoria Jr. Shamrocks.
Having earlier acquired Scott Self and Eric Pacey in the Rebel dispersal, Arizona made two of the bigger deals of the off-season, sending Jon Harasym and Kyle Arbuckle to Rochester in exchange for Cory Bomberry of
Six Nations, and a future first draft pick to Buffalo for Lindsay Plunkett.
Top scorers Pat Maddalena, Kasey Beirnes and Daniel Dawson, as well as the Onondaga Nation's Gewas Schindler, all return to lead the offense, and they will get able support from the hard-shooting Bomberry, who could have a big season after leaving John Grant's supporting cast, and Peterborough power forwards Plunkett and Self. In addition to Dawson, the Sting will have one of the larger defensive corps in the League, with the likes of Troy Bonterre, Spencer Martin, Peter Lough and Bill Greer augmented by Pacey. Mike Miron (sixth in saves, seventh in save percentage)looks to be the starting 'tender, and, with Ken Montour listed as a holdout, rookie Murray will start the season as the back-up.
Cory Bomberry will instantly improve the Sting's power-play, handling the top or right-hand shooter's positions with equal ease, and also brings along a .538 percentage as the former Knighthawks' No. 1 draw man. The Sting, in fact, have an abundance of riches in the face-off circle, as Bomberry and Self join veteran Rodney Tapp. Maddalena, fifth in League goal-scoring and tops in game-winners last season, is always dangerous, but never more so than when he jumps out the front door to lead the man-short break; as the Landsharks, this club had the best penalty-killing average in the NLL last year. Keep an eye on Plunkett, as the former 2001 Rochester first-rounder enters what promises to be his first full NLL season. University hockey made him a part-timer since he entered the League (10 goals and 11 assists in 11 games with Ottawa and Buffalo), but the former OLA Junior A scoring champ can light it up.
With three play-off spots available in the NLL West, the Sting will have to make the desert their home in more ways than one if they hope to make the post-season. They will have to lower their goals-against, even as their offense has been strengthened --- the fridge-like Miron is an angles goalie, and does not have the mobility or agility to be otherwise. When shooters start finding the chinks in his considerable armor, he's in trouble. Hamley has to be hoping "Monster" will sign sooner rather than later, with only the untested Murray in reserve.
The Sting have the firepower to consistently score in double digits, but the defense will have to do a better job of keeping shooters off Miron, if the Sting are to contend in the West.
Photos from the Sting Website.
Steve Govett and Gary Gait made the move to the Mile High City the most successful re-location in the history of pro indoor lacrosse, by every measure except an instant championship. The Mammoth challenged the Toronto Rock for attendance supremacy and fan enthusiasm throughout last season, right from the first exhibition game in the Pepsi Center. The question remains, will they win a championship before Gary follows brother Paul into MILL/NLL retirement?
If off-season shopping is any indication, this is supposed to be the year. By the time that the roster declaration deadline rolled around last month, Colorado had won the free-agent derby by a country mile, leaving the rest of the NLL at the head of the stretch.
Gee Nash, Gavin Prout, Nick Carlson, Jay Jalbert, Scott Stapleford --- the list reads right off of the end of Mike Gongas's last book of Saints' cheque stubs.
Govett and company obviously saw this as a quick route to the Cup, moreso than any draft. The pickings were also better in the Big Apple, where the Saints consistently underperformed, than in Ottawa, where the team-building was foreshortened.
That said, third-round draft picks Curtis Smith and Brian Potter, both from Victoria, B.C., of Ohio State and Whittier College respectively, made the opening-day roster, as did former Rebel Brad Self.
Good Times in Denver
Nash will finally get his chance to show why he has been so highly touted since he entered the NLL. The Minto Cup winner from Ontario's Whitby Warriors gets a chance to shine in the pro indoor post-season, after his lost years on Long Island. Erik Miller, through no fault of his own, reverts to the back-up role he successfully shucked last season, when he became the full-time starter after the release of B.C.-bred keeper Devin Dalep. Tom Still slips one slot down the depth chart to No. 3 in goal.
Colorado is the strongest NLL squad from the right-handed shooter's side of the floor. On the back side, rookie Potter joins veterans Jamie Hanford, Brian Reese, Dave Stilley, Trevor Tierney and Jalbert. John Gallant and Scott Stapleford will patrol the sinister side.
Going out the front door, vintner Del Halladay (Elephant Island Winery, how's that for some pachyderm symmetry), Rookie of the Year (a selection made immensely easier last season with the late injury to the Rock's Aaron Wilson) Brian Langtry, Ben Prepchuk, Prout, and Josh Sims, balance leading lefties Gait, Shawn Cable, Nick Carlson (designated Transition on the roster), the net-crashing Self, and rookie Smith. The inter-divisional part of the Mammoth's schedule includes hosting the Wings and visiting the Knighthawks.
The festivities being planned for the February 22 NLL All-Star Game are, in the minds of everyone associated with the Mammoth, to be a Mile-High City prelude to this season's Champion's Cup hoopla. The Mammoth have a preponderance of predictions, as well as their own expectations, to live in their quest for a first pro indoor title in Denver and a fifth for Gary Gait.
Photos by Nevin Reid from the Mammoth Website.
San Jose Stealth
With a new collective-singular team name, a ninja/caped crusader/lacrosse player logo, and a head coach with no NLL experience (sorry Johnny, coundn't resist), the Albany Attack look for a new lease on life in southern California.
All kidding aside, Johnny Mouradian's decision to step behind the bench, in addition to his Managing Partner/General Manager's duties, was the first in a series of astute moves that the St.Catharines native has made in his latest National Lacrosse League incarnation. He has added former Ravens assistant Dave Pirog to work with the defense, as well as Canadian lacrosse legend Bobby Allan of Peterborough, Ontario, formerly with the Rebel, and now-retired high school principal, to his bench staff. I'm betting that his wife Pat will enjoy the Bay Area too.
When last we saw Johnny, he had been fired as the GM in Ottawa, along with the coaching staff and the PR guy, by Brad Watters after the 2002 Rebel got off to a 1 - 4 start. As a matter of fact, the debut of the Stealth, Saturday, January 10th at home against Colorado, marks the 2-year anniversary of his rather ignominious departure from Canada's capital which has seen its share, although more usually of the political variety, with the exception of the early Ottawa Senators. The man who, along with his old pal Les Bartley, built championship teams in Buffalo and Toronto, never got a chance to follow through on his plans for Ottawa, but his deft hand can be seen in San Jose.
Mouradian has been successful in convincing key players to "live in the market" during the NLL season, something he did not get time to accomplish in Ottawa, and it's not because of the difference between Ottawa and Bay Area winters. The core players of the Stealth are the same group that carried the Albany Attack to the top of the League standings in 2002, with a 14-2 record and an 11-win streak that was stopped by a heart-breaking 13-12 loss to Toronto at the Pepsi Arena.
A stalwart defense anchored by Captain Cam Woods, Jim Moss and Shaydon Santos, was strengthened with the addition of Brennan Day from the Rebel and the draft-day acquisition of Matt Oglesby from Colorado. 6th-round draft pick Matt Bontaites made the season-opening roster, off a final year with the Syracuse Orangemen that saw him grab up 50 loosies.
Josh "Shooter" Sanderson returns for his 7th NLL season to key the offense. The NLL single-season assist record holder (68) will be joined again this year by Gary Rosyski and Dan Teat, last year's No. 2 and No. 3 team scorers, and Rusty Krueger.
First-round draft pick Scott Ranger won the British Columbia Jr. A regular-season scoring race last season (43 goals, 54 assists), and the Victoria Shamrock grad will have an immediate impact. Mouradian selected another "baby 'rock" in the first round, Whittier College Poets' attacker Kelly Hall, who collected 43 points and 83 penalty minutes for the senior Shamrocks last summer. Another Poet, Andrew Biers of Calgary, Alberta, taken in the 2nd round, also makes the squad, as does fellow 2nd-rounder Derek Lowe from Port Coquitlam, B.C. Australian Tim Fry impressed at the World Indoors, and made the most of a training camp invitation. Albany hometown hero Mike Regan may have taken some time to make up his mind, but you can expect to see him in Stealth colors by season's opening. 2002's top goalie, Rob Blasdell, should start every game, and back-up Brandon Miller returns to the club as well. 4th-rounder Kitan Gbadebo, yet another British Columbia junior product, has been signed as a third 'tender.
San Jose's schedule takes them to Philadelphia and Rochester in the first half of their season, with six home dates in the second half. Depending on how many Eastern Canadians eventually move to the earthquake zone, the Stealth may collectively suffer less than other fly-in squads from jetlag.
Shooter could challenge his own assist record, which means more goals for all of the top guns; the defense can handle anybody, and "Blazer" is still in top form. The Stealth will make the Western post-season very interesting.
Photos from the Stealth Website.
Calgary was one of three teams, now in the West Division, to finish 9-7 and make the play-offs last season. It was their misfortune to come up against a resurgent Buffalo in the semi-finals, and the Bandits disposed of them 16-9. The Roughnecks will be in a struggle with the Ravens to secure a Western post-season berth for a Canadian team, but they should hold their own, if for no other reason than that they had Vancouver's number last year.
Owner/Governor/General Manager Brad Banister and Head Coach Chris Hall did not stand pat on offense or defense, making some off-season moves that should improve the club out both the front and back doors. While they were unsuccessful in wooing Gee Nash and Gavin Prout, they did have success when it came to the entry draft.
The Roughnecks signed their first-round draft pick (2nd overall), former Burnaby Laker and Duke University captain Taylor Wray. They also dispatched their first 2005 draft selection to Vancouver to get big brother Devan, whom the Ravens had drafted in the 2nd round. The brothers from Edmonton (via Durham, NC) give the 'necks' defense an immediate boost, and their offensive skills will lift the transition game as well. 3rd rounder Brad McDonald is another young bruiser, from the OLA's Orangeville Northmen. Rookie Jordan West-Pratt was a pleasant surprise last year, and veteran Brad MacArthur can share some of the defensive leadership burden with Grant Hamilton (traded from Anaheim) and Craig Gelsvik (from Buffalo in exchange for former Rebel Kyle Laverty).
Tracy Kelusky is one of the NLL's premier players, and he has found a home in Calgary after debuting with the ill-fated Montreal Express. In their most significant offensive move, the Roughies traded Shawn Cable for Colorado franchise player Ted Dowling, the MILL/NLL's fifth-leading all-time goal scorer (268 in 118 games). The duo that lit it up opposition goalies in Montreal two seasons ago makes for a quantum improvement in Calgary's offense and power play. Wallaceburg, Ontario's own Kevin "Chunk" Dostie comes from the Rebel (21 goals), and will make a contribution.
Between the pipes the Roughnecks have been questionable. In their debut season, after starter Derek Collins got shelled, junior-age backup Matt King played most of the minutes; last year, former Express tender Curtis Palidwor arrived via some draft-related transactions, to take the starter's role, accounting for all 9 regular-season wins and finishing 6th among the NLL's top 10 goalies in save percentage.
The Roughnecks have two legitimate "franchise" players on offense, with a good supporting cast. The defense has grown bigger, stronger, and younger, with a premier face-off man in MacArthur and more of a threat in transition. The rookies going out the back door, along with Palidwor, must deliver consistent stops, and get the ball into the sticks of Kelusky, Dowling and company. Overall, Calgary must continue their mastery of Vancouver (games 1 and 3 in their schedule, sandwiched around a trip to Toronto) to have a shot at the play-offs; 9 - 7 again this season will not be good enough.
Laverty, Kevin Dostie; Brad McDonald (Orangeville) in third round of draft; Shawn Cable to Colo. For Ted Dowling, sent Laverty to Buffalo for Gelsvik
The Roughnecks were 6-2 in the first half of last year's schedule, but tailed off after that with three road losses including a disastrous week-end trip to Philadelphia and New York.
Photos by Kyle Clapham from the Roughnecks Website.
From north Jersey to southern California, the Storm moved their base of operations farther than anyone else in the NLL this past off-season and likely added a chardonnay to the beverage manu. The big question for last year's League cellar-dwellers is, can they improve sufficiently in one season, to contend for a Western play-off spot?
With room to improve every facet of their game, the Storm started from the back, grabbing goalie Matt Disher with the first choice in the Rebel dispersal draft. Having seen him first-hand since he came to Ottawa from Buffalo's holdout list (and credit Johnny Mouradian for that move), Disher is, for my money, the best athletic, reflex 'tender in the League. With Matt Roik as the back-up, the Storm now have legitimate top-flight NLL goalkeeping.
Having traded away their No. 1 overall entry draft selection, the Storm had to wait until the 2nd round to take leftie defender Cam Bergman, from Coquitlam, BC; they balanced that choice in the 3rd round, taking right-handed long-pole Damien Davis of Baltimore, a two-time All-American with the Princeton Tigers and an E-Lacrosse Summer Team Alumnus.
Pete Vipond and Captain Steve Sombrotto
Head Coach Pete Vipond and GM Jim Brady took their shopping cart out looking for offense, and they came up with Syracuse All-American and NLL enigma Casey Powell, obtained from Buffalo in exchange for veteran goalie Derek "Chico" General of Six nations and Onondaga Nation attacker Neal Powless. Powell, originally a Rochester No. 1 draft pick, scored 21 goals has in 19 gales for the Knighthawks in 1999 and 2000 (by comparison, he has 104 goals in 40 games, over three Major League Lacrosse seasons, the first two with the Lizards and last summer with the Rattlers). Rightie shooter Steven Evans came from the Rebel along with Disher, while trades also brought Mike Law from the Ravens and Ted Jenner from the K-hawks.
20-goal scorer and twice 2003-Rookie-of-the-Week, former U-Mass All-American Marc Morley, veteran Chris Panos (33 goals), and No. 9 MILL/NLL all-time goal scorer (203) Roy Colsey are among the new Jersey holdovers on offense.
The Storm Dancers
The Storm's back side features veterans Gordon Purdie (.524 face-off percentage last year), Darren Mutch and Jamie McKeracher, but Vipond has to hope that the rookies can make a quick adjustment to the NLL and contribute immediately. Disher's experience in Ottawa clearly shows that even a superior goalie has to have a defense in front of him that will hold down the number of scoring opportunities --- the best save percentage does not help when shots on goal are around the half-century mark.
There is nowhere to hide in the 2004 NLL schedule, and, with the extra-divisional opposition being Buffalo and Buffalo, the Storm don't get any breaks. The Arrowhead Pond could become the League's top shooting gallery in 2004.
Photos from the Storm Website.