Fresh off his final NLL season, Gary Gait was named the new Head Coach of the Colorado Mammoth. The newly minted Edmonton Rush signed original Knighthawk Paul Day to be their first Head Coach and General Manager, while the expansion Portland Lumberjax named Derek Keenan, late of the defunct Anaheim Storm, to the same dual post.
Ed Comeau, who served most of his NLL coaching apprenticeship with Keenan on the staff of the late Les Bartley in Toronto before moving on to Rochester, replaced Day. San Jose General Manager Johnny Mouradian relinquished the head coaching reins after one season, hiring former NLL assistant Walt Christianson. Minnesota GM Marty O'Neill promoted assistant Adam Meuller, making him only the second US-born NLL head coach, the other being the Tuscarora Nation's Darris Kilgour in Buffalo, who cut his box lacrosse teeth in the Ontario Lacrosse Association junior and senior ranks. Darris was named the General Manager of the Bandits after the departure of Kurt Silcott for Calgary.
Thus more than half the teams in the league will celebrate the NLL's 20th with a new Head Coach. With this unprecedented amount of coaching movement, not one of the new bench bosses is new to the NLL, notwithstanding the fact that Comeau and Christianson are experienced assistants, and GG is making a seamless transition from the box to the bench. The expansion clubs could be expected to go with experience, but given that the underachieving Mammoth and Knighthawks failed to make it to the Champion's Cup last season, while San Jose and Minnesota are coming off sub-.500 seasons, I am left to wonder, why not more 'new blood' among the coaching ranks?
It would be in the NLL's interests to promote greater coaching diversity, specifically more Americans, in conjunction with their efforts to increase the participation and profile of US-born players. This is ultimately the responsibility of the individual clubs, but I would like to think that there are enough forward-thinking NLL executives to plan in this direction. More American coaches learning the pro box game, seems a logical step.
A bit more adventurousness in coaching style would also be a positive change.
After a summer of watching the upstart Ottawa Titans play "old school" up-and-down-the-floor lacrosse against Jr. A opponents using pro-style offence/defence, I can tell you that old school is more fun to watch, not to mention that it works. O/D leaves, at best, about twenty seconds for a team to run its offence and get a shot. O/D lacrosse is no longer "the fastest game on two feet". Most detrimentally for new and developing players, it has permeated the minor (teens and younger) ranks in Canada. And it's not good TV. Considering that it started in Canadian box as a means to try to stop Gary and Paul Gait, the time is right for a change.
And while we're making big changes, it is well past time to get rid of fighting. The only pro sports that condone fighting are Canada's official sports, lacrosse and hockey. The only pro sports that market fighting, other than pro fighting, are lacrosse and hockey. Pro lacrosse and pro hockey owners would love to have the kind of US TV exposure and attendant revenues enjoyed by the NFL, NBA or MLB, all of which punish fisticuffs severely, and automatically. The number of fans that might be lost due to a permanent ban on fighting, is negligible - just ask the paying customers that are forced to sit next to them.
Here's the rule change suggestion:
Drop buckets and gloves, clinch and dance - two minutes each.
Throw a punch - five and the game, plus the next game, each, automatically, no appeals, no fines, no pay.
"Pearl Harbor" someone - five and the game, plus three more games, same deal.
Jump a "franchise" player, half a season or the duration, which ever is longer.
And for the team on any fighting suspension - no interim promotions from the practice roster, injured reserve, holdouts, draft lists, free agents or retirees. In short, there would be no replacement on the 23-man roster for fighting suspensions.
Huge and unexpected news hit the indoor game recently regarding the pro league's sponsorship. New sponsor Reebok's track record in pro sports is enviable, and the US-based company now has owner Adidas and its world-wide reach behind it. Talk is that Reebok and the NLL will "take it outside" and start a synergetic outdoor league, perhaps in 2007 to compete with the struggling MLL outdoor summer league. We'll see how all that plays out, but Reebok, with not a stick to speak of at press time, will, for good or bad, be the NLL's equipment brand for ten years. The same rumor mill has some top NLL pros advising in the development of the Reebok products for the league but we've heard nothing about plans to have equipment product in the marketplace before 2007. With the facilities of Reebok Hockey/The Hockey Company in the Montreal area, how long could it take to get gloves, pads and helmets out there once the pros are actually wearing the stuff each week? The Reebok jerseys and team merchandise is already for sale at arenas and the NLL store.
Dan Dawson's surge to offensive prominence carried the Arizona Sting all the way to the Champion's Cup final, where they suffered the same fate as several others who have made a quantum leap in the NLL, most notably the 2002 Albany Attack, who rode home a 14-2 regular-season wave, only to have it close out on them with a 13-12 loss to the Toronto Rock. The question for '05 Les Bartley Trophy-winning Head Coach and General Manager of the Year Bob Hamley is how to consolidate his team's gains. He certainly could not be accused of standing pat, sending Kasey Beirnes and Darryl Gibson to Minnesota for future first-round draft choices, and then sending one of those draft choices to expansion Edmonton in exchange for goalie Rob Blasdell. Troy Bonterre and Lindsay Plunkett were dispatched to Buffalo for Jason Crosbie and Bandits' draft choices which yielded Chris McElroy and Denver Pioneer Matt Brown. McElroy and Matt Dwane went to Edmonton for another draft choice.
Hamley had his core veterans locked up, including Dawson, Craig Conn and Pat Maddalena, although he did lose defender Mark Cochrane to retirement. In addition to first-rounder Brown he signed Andrew Lazore (sixth round, 66th overall) from the OLA Jr. B Akwesasne Lightning, and acquired former Six Nations Arrow Andy Secore (second round, 20th overall by Calgary). Despite being the second-last player drafted, Lazore was the third-leading Jr. B regular-season and play-off scorer last summer, with a combined 142 points (65g, 77a) in thirty-two games. His problem will be floor time in an already strong right-handed offence. Secore played sparingly for the Arrows until late in the lost-season, rehabbing a knee injury.
The Calgary Roughnecks had to be disappointed. Just one season after winning their first Champion's Cup at a sold-out Saddledome, and then compiling a 10-6 record in winning the West, they were eliminated 19-15 by the Sting. Chris Hall started re-signing veterans over the summer, before New GM Kurt Silcott arrived in mid-September. Several defenders, youngsters Devan Wray and Ryan MacNish, and elder statesman Andy "the cable guy" Ogilvie, will be returning from injury. The veteran offence, lead by Captain Tracy Kelusky, Kaleb Toth and Lewis Ratcliff, will be joined by rookie Callum Crawford (second round, 18th overall), an original Ottawa Titan traded to the Six Nations Arrows midseason this summer, where he contributed 10 goals and 10 assists plus a team-leading 42 points (14g, 27a) in eighteen play-off games. Duke and Team Canada middie Ryan Marshall was acquired after being drafted in the second round, 16th overall by Colorado. Keep an eye out as well for Louis Alfred of the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, a former OLA Jr. B scoring star who sufficiently impressed in training camp to be signed, but starts the season on the "physical unable" list.
What can one say about the Colorado Mammoth? Gary Gait's farewell season never really got rolling, and included some confounding intra-division losses and a 3-5 road record. The Mammoth were, in fact, the only .500 team to make the play-offs. Gord "Gee" Nash played all but twenty minutes of the regular season, and ranked third among starting keepers. But he had to make more saves (601) than anyone else in the top ten, and that raises questions about the defense in front of him. Amidst Toronto's dominance in the individual scoring race, GG ranked ninth with 33 goals and 48 assists, while Gavin Prout tallied 28-and-50, good for twelfth spot in the top twenty-five. Dan Stroup also contributed 31 goals, but the team offence was never better than mid-pack.
The big off-season move was Gary Gait's transition to the head-coaching job. GM Steve Govett raised some hackles around the league with his pursuit of restricted free agent Mike Law, and was probably the prime mover behind the aborted Tavares/Doyle/Prout and Nash deal. Veteran Chris Gill disappointed last season in Cowtown, while Ben Prepchuk returns after a year away, to try and live up to the billing that came with him from Calgary. Free agent forward Steve Voituk might be a bit of a mystery, but he was a Minto Cup team-mate of Prout in Whitby in 1997, and scored 238 goals in a five-season junior career before being drafted by the NY Saints in 2001. Dan Carey (7th overall) scored 30 regular-season goals for the Peterborough Lakers last summer, second on the team to Rochester's Scott Evans, and both will help on the left-hand side of the offence.
Hopes were high in 2005 for the San Jose Stealth, with some talented youngsters lead by eventual Rookie of the Year Ryan Boyle, possibly the strongest contingent of Americans in the league, and a bona fide starter in goal in Anthony Cosmo. But the offence sputtered - with just 35 regular-season goals between them, it is fair to say that Curt and Derek Malawsky under-performed; the Stealth were the only team other than Anaheim and Minnesota without a 30-goal scorer.
General Manager Johnny Mouradian signed former Calgary and Colorado assistant Walt Christianson to be his new head coach. Christianson had also been slated for the Vancouver Ravens' top job before their untimely demise. Mouradian has been successful with his business plans to make the Stealth an active member of the community, but the club still has to deliver on the floor. He was uncharacteristically absent from pre-entry draft dealing, but with two first-round selections he took Matt Vinc and Jeff Zywicki at Nos. 6 and 8 respectively. Vinc played long-pole well enough for Randy Mearns at Canisius to be selected to Team Canada '06, but is a Minto Cup-winning goaltender from St. Catharines. Ottawa's Zywicki was an All-ECAC attacker at UMass who played OLA Jr. A with the Orillia Kings, and is another first-time Team Canada member.
The Edmonton Rush will debut in Oakland Raiders-style black and silver, but let's hope that they show more imagination on the floor. Paul Day knows talent as well as anyone in the league; from among his expansion draft selections he kept former Rochester back-up tender Pat Campbell and forwards Kevin Howard and Brad Dairon, and selected defender Rory Glaves in the Anaheim dispersal. Trades and free-agent signings brought the likes of defenders Andy Turner and Buck Stobart from Rochester, and veteran goalie Dwight Maetche, who was inactive last season after the Ravens failed.
Attacker Jamey Bowen is an established senior scorer in B.C., with a big shot, who never did the pro commute to the East, but scored 20 goals in thirteen games for the Ravens in 2002. Hometown boy Kevin Howard scored 30 goals in Ottawa in '03, and Kerry Susheski has been a solid goal-a-game man since breaking into the NLL in 2002 with New Jersey.
Dallas Eliuk gives the Portland Lumberjax some instant credibility, and top draft choice Brodie Merrill is the stud around whom to build a defense. I will be interested to see what Derek Keenan can do with a truly new team after lugging the baggage of New Jersey cross-country to Anaheim. There are several players who are a good deal more well-travelled than the franchise, none more so than Ted Dowling, the sixth-all-time NLL point-scorer who will suit up for his ninth different team since breaking in with the Detroit Turbos in 1993.
The 'Jax have a distinctly West Coast feel, with more than half the roster originating in British Columbia. Goaltender Aaron Bold of the Victoria Jr. Shamrocks was selected in the third round of the entry draft, 29th overall, to back up Eliuk along with another former baby 'rock, Matt King. The 6-foor 4-inch Merrill has a veteran, and equally imposing, supporting cast that includes Bruce Alexander (6-5), David Morgan (6-10), and Ray Guze (6-2). Up front, vintner (Elephant Island orchard wines) Del Halladay, Peter (6-6) and Richard (6-8) Morgan, and former Bandits Mike Hominuck, Thomas Montour and Ryan Powell will join Dowling.
With the three Morgan brothers and big Bruce Alexander, if the Jax have any adjustment problems in the NLL, they can always have a go at the CBA. If past expansion franchises are any example, the biggest challenge will be consistency and goal-scoring.
Duos to watch in the West:
Arizona - I'm actually going with a trio here, goalies Mike Miron, Ken Montour and Rob Blasdell. "Tiny" started most of last season, "Monster" was 4-0 in seven appearances, and "Blazer" has spent most of his time in the NLL as a back-up, but was the starter with 13 of the 14 wins put up by the 2002 Albany Attack. Stability in goal is a fundamental of team chemistry, being deep at the tender position is not.
Calgary - Calgary's defense may well prove to be the best in the West, but the Roughnecks need a return to championship form from starting goalie Curtis Palidwor, who was ninth in the top ten goalie stats last season. Rookie Callum Crawford loves to shoot, but will have to work hard to see action on the right-hand side of the offence.
Colorado - With nine new faces on the opening-night roster, rookie Head Coach Gary Gait has made no secret of his plans for the Mammoth: they include stronger defense, and emphasis on transition as an offensive weapon. Gee Nash disappointed in the play-off clutch last year, and still has to prove he is a key-save, big-game stopper. Rookie Steve Voituk is a Minto Cup winner, and on the all-time roster at D-II Mercyhurst; if he can contribute 20+ goals on the left-hand side of the offence, he's a good candidate for Rookie of the Year.
San Jose - The Stealth were in more close games last seasons than just about everybody else, but they lost most of them. Matt Vinc has the chops to push Anthony Cosmo as the starting tender. Attacker Jeff Zywicki will surprise many who have not heard or seen much of him, and is my pre-season dark horse to follow team-mate Ryan Boyle as Rookie Of The Year.
Edmonton - Rush owner Bruce Urban looks to be taking some cues from the NBA's Mark Cuban in the "colorful owner" department - opening-game festivities at Rexall Place will include the unveiling of a commemorative Orange County Chopper, and some lucky season-ticket holders will win a visit to OCC. Defender of The Year Andy Turner will be counted on to lead, and goalie Dwight Maetche gets a chance to further extend his pro career.
Portland - Dallas Eliuk and Brodie Merrill. If I seem to have placed some emphasis on goaltending (and I did not set out to do so), then just maybe I have put my finger on a key difference between East and West.
I believe that Gary Gait's re-tooling of Colorado's game will prove successful, particularly if the Mammoth's transition offence outplays the opposition up and down the floor, but Gee Nash holds the key to getting to the Champion's Cup. Any one of Arizona, Calgary or San Jose can make it to the first round of the play-offs, and beyond. This is not to downplay the accomplishments of the Sting last year; I just think that all of the West contenders got better. Edmonton and Portland will both entertain, and occasionally surprise, and the Rush, with their large Victoria Sr. Shamrocks contingent, have an edge in team-building and chemistry. There is nothing to suggest instant play-off contention from an NLL expansion team, and this is as it should be in a maturing pro league.
The Toronto Rock are the reigning dynasty of the National Lacrosse League. Their fifth Champion's Cup win in seven campaigns was certainly the most melancholy, with the loss of the much-beloved and universally respected Les Bartley to cancer, coming one day later. Champions don't re-build, they re-load, as the saying goes, and that is an apt description for Toronto's off-season. Terry Sanderson was seriously second-guessed last season for trading away defenders Steve Toll, Daryl Gibson and goalie Anthony Cosmo for son Josh, nephew Phil and Rusty Kruger. Josh went on to break his own regular-season assists record, and be one of three Rock forwards to have a 100-point plus season, and "Flip" fit right in on defence. Terry, meanwhile, was signed to a three-year contract extension before the end of the regular season.
The big breakthrough came for Colin Doyle. The 'new' NLL's first Rookie of the year in 1998, Doyle became the first guy not named Gait or Tavares to win the individual scoring title in, oh, forever, and was chosen both regular-season and Champion's Cup MVP. The rest of his year was not too shabby either, as he was named for the first time in his career to Team Canada for the 2006 Worlds.
With the goaltending still in the capable hands of Bob Watson, Toronto's defence got younger with the addition of Brad MacDonald, Scott Campbell and rookie Rob Marshall, who made the jump from Ontario Jr. B and national Founders Trophy champion Elora Mohawks. Captain Jim Veltman will celebrate his 40th birthday at the three-quarter pole of this season in March. Up front, Matt Giles, who played for "Turk" in Ottawa, came over from Rochester, and Matt Taylor is the only other rookie to crack the line-up. Doyle, Sanderson, Blaine Manning and Aaron Wilson ensure that the Rock offence remains potent.
The Buffalo Bandits traded for the first pick in the entry draft last year to get Delby Powless Jr., but his stellar rookie season was not enough to get them to the Champion's Cup, or even past Rochester. 10-year veteran tender Derek General was released in favour of youngster Ryan Avery, to back up Steve Dietrich and his aging groin muscles. Troy Bonterre adds immensely to the defence, which also benefits from an early Christmas present with the surprise return of veteran Chris Langdale. John Tavares starts the season some 40 points shy of Gary Gait's career points record, and shows no signs of a drop-off in production or imagination. 2004 All Star game MVP Mark Steenhuis has some new shoes, and continues to re-define the pro indoor middie/transition role. Lindsay Plunkett was re-acquired from Arizona, arriving with Sting team-mate Cory Bomberry (via Edmonton). Rookie Roger Vyse of Six Nations is coming off an All American season in which he broke a 34-year-old D-II goal-scoring record with the Limestone College Saints. A bigger surprise is the free-agent signing of Kim Squire, who has played his way into the Buffalo line-up after all but blowing it in Toronto and Rochester. I still like the Bandits' chances, notwithstanding their historical discipline problems versus the Rock.
The Rochester Knighthawks have to hope that John Grant, Marshall Abrams and Pat O'Toole all have an injury-free season. They will also have to bounce back emotionally after the tragic off-season loss of defender Casey Zaph, who continues to recover from a brain hemorrhage suffered last June. Shawn Evans (2nd overall, '05 entry draft) adds to the Peterborough offensive contingent, and is coming off a 68-goal combined season and playoff year with his hometown Jr. A Lakers. Former Syracuse Orange defender and captain Scott Ditzell is the other draft choice (12th overall, second round) to make it onto the 23-man roster, and should help make up for the departure of Andy Turner. Six Nations Jr. A Arrows' goalie Grant Crawley, a 6-1, 270-pound steakhouse chef, was signed as a free agent to back up O'Toole.
Lindsay Sanderson took over the Philadelphia Wings last season, but whatever hopes Wingnuts had for a return to former glories dissolved in a four-game losing streak closing out a 6-10 season. Tom Marechek went out in 40-goal, 40-assist style, but the really big news came just weeks before the first whistle, when career Wing Dallas Eliuk was traded to Portland. Former Mammoth Erik Miller and Matt Roik, acquired in trade from San Jose, will give the Wings the tallest goalie tandem in the league. Unrestricted free agent defender and original Rock Glenn Clark immediately makes the defence and transition stronger, and rookie Chad Thompson should also help. Former Ottawa walk-on (and BILL star) Dan Marohl doubled his previous best season production with 23 goals and 57 assists last year. First-rounders Sean Greenhalgh (Cornell) and Luke Wiles (Delaware) are both former OLA Jr. A scoring stars, and add to the youth movement that began last season.
Last winter the Minnesota Swarm debuted by surprising the notoriously slow-starting Knighthawks 12-11, before being quickly brought back to earth by the Rock and the Bandits. In an East Division populated by Toronto and the "original three", the Swarm must improve to better than .500 to have any chance for a post-season. General Manager Marty O'Neill went with Mike Simpson last season, but elected to promote Adam Mueller to head coach before their sophomore season. The key addition is Kasey Beirnes, who came over with defender Darryl Gibson in an off-season trade with Arizona. After scoring 90 goals in his first three pro seasons, Beirnes went down for the count in the Sting's 2005 opening game; his return to health and form will be crucial. One of the more puzzling moves by O'Neill and company was an August trade with Toronto for attacker Ryan Painter. After an outstanding rookie season with the Ottawa Rebel in 2002 that saw him score 45 goals, including a league-leading 16 on the power play, Painter suffered a severe concussion in an off-season auto accident, and post-concussion syndrome has limited his play since then to 14 total games in '03 and '04 with Ottawa and Toronto. He has not been cleared to play again.
The East remains the "black and blue" division of the NLL, particularly in terms of the bumping and grinding for play-off spots. Normal comparisons like strength of schedule are largely moot, and even knocking off the Toronto Rock is no guarantee of a league title. The departures of Paul Day and Kurt Silcott for the West will have an immediate impact in both Divisions.
Ed Comeau gets his first pro head coaching gig in Rochester, and must re-orient an offence that depends too much on John Grant. If rookie Shawn Evans has his one favorite outside move and shot taken away, his effectiveness drops off dramatically. Plus, Rochester's veterans are running out of seasons.
Darris Kilgour now has the whole can to carry for the Bandits, and he has to hope that Tavares, Steenhuis, A.J. Shannon and the "Rez Boyz" can outscore the opposition in an increasingly offensive Division. Avery will likely start at least a couple of games in nets, even if "Chugger" Dietrich stays healthy. Let's hope that "Kimbo" can take full advantage of what has to be his last chance in the NLL.
Year Two of Lindsay Sanderson's multi-year plan for the Wings must show more results than Year One. It is a little hard to believe that Jake Bergey starts his seventh season ('03 was a write-off), Keith Cromwell and Jeff Ratcliffe their sixth, and Marechek and Eliuk (to say nothing of Tom Ryan!) are gone. Greenhalgh and Wiles are needed immediately and will show up. The Philly phaithful have always been quick to embrace the Canadian box guys, and they now have former NCAA studs Kyle Harrison and Benson Irwin "waiting in the wings".
Marty O'Neill has pulled a few head-scratchers since moving to the pro front offices, starting in Philadelphia and continuing in Minneapolis. The choice of Adam Mueller will bw questioned, but Kasey Beirnes is a franchise player. Too bad he can't be paid like it yet. He's already that good, and that valuable.
Did the Rock get better? Their vulnerabilities are few, but well-known: they can be beaten at even strength, with the added imperative of avoiding their power play; Watson's weakness is strong outside shooting, particularly "top cheese"; and their defence is slow getting off the floor. Their draw men are not particularly strong, but their loose-ball play makes up for that. But in order to exploit these rare points of weakness, an opponent has to first expose them. Team speed, a strong transition, discipline and patience are essential.
Two players to watch with each franchise:
Toronto - Colin Doyle endures assault causing bodily harm every game entering his 9th season, and if he goes down he leaves a huge hole in the Rock offence, while goalie Bob Watson starts his 10th pro indoor campaign. The Rock must have continued good health for the both of them.
Buffalo - Two newcomers, rookie Roger Vyse and veteran Kim Squire, both have the game to elevate the already-excellent Buffalo offence; the Bandits should lead the league, not just the East, in scoring.
Rochester - John Grant and Shawn Williams are the offence's one-two punch, and as they go, so go the Knighthawks.
Philadelphia - With the departure of Eliuk, the Wings' goal falls under the stewardship of big Matt Roik, who survived snow-blindness in Anaheim. Dan Marohl is the best US-born and -bred offensive player in the league, and he will have to lead the youngsters like Sean Greenhalgh and Luke Wiles if the Wings are to have a chance at cracking the East Division play-off spots.
Minnesota - Matt Disher has faced more rubber in his pro career than any other NLL starting goalie, and natural scorer Kasey Beirnes will be the key to an offence that was the weakest in the division last year.
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