Team Canada: The Case for the Defense

An NLL All-Rookie member and MSL Rookie of the Year in 2010, should defender Chris Corbeil have been considered for Team Canada's 2011 WILC roster? (Photo: Ward Laforme Jr.)
An NLL All-Rookie member and MSL Rookie of the Year in 2010, should defender Chris Corbeil have been considered for Team Canada's 2011 WILC roster? (Photo: Ward Laforme Jr.)

Determining the merits of defenders is hard.

On offence you can look at the numbers for much of the information you need to pick the best players. There’s more to it, but the stats give you a great starting point. Forwards are supposed to score. The one’s who do it the most are generally the best.

Defending is not nearly so quantifiable. That’s why it’s so difficult to pick the top defenders for a national team.

Well, last Friday Team Canada officially announced their final six defenders, and that very lack of quantifiability is what makes it so much fun for us lovers and observers of the game to debate if they made the right choices. So let’s do that. After the jump, we look at who’s in, some of the surprising folks who are out, and what’s behind the decisions.

Brodie Merrill, Ryan Cousins, Jeff Moleski and Kyle Rubisch had already been named to the team earlier. Friday’s additions out the back door were Sandy Chapman, Patrick Merrill, Bill Greer, Rory Smith, Brett Mydske and Mike Carnegie.

Those are 10 outstanding defenders. Right off the bat we want to make it clear we’re not dissing anyone who was selected for the team. But there are some pretty big names missing, and what fun would it be if we all just agreed, anyway? So here we go.

The most glaring name not on the team is Billy Dee Smith, but that’s an easy one. He’s still not recovered from the knee injury he suffered at last year’s field worlds, although he’s working hard to get back as soon as possible. Team Canada GM Johnny Mouradian says the coaching and management group were disappointed that Smith’s unavailable. Another strong candidate still recovering from knee surgery is Kyle Sorensen.

So what about the healthy guys? The first thing many lacrosse folks ask is “What about Geoff Snider?” Snider is a solid defender and loose ball master, but it’s his skill in the face-off circle that sets him apart from everyone else. It’s received wisdom in lacrosse that winning face offs is critical for winning games. Taking a look at this year’s NLL games backs that up to a certain extent.

Teams winning the majority of face offs in a game are 16-10 (in two games the teams tied in face-off wins). It’s a small sample size and there are some notable contradictions. When Minnesota stunned the defending champion Stealth 16-8 on January 14, they won only eight of 28 face offs The Swarm also beat Edmonton despite being only 5/21 at the dot. Colorado downed the Roughnecks even though Snider won 15 of 19 face offs And this past Saturday Rochester dumped the Wings 11-6 while winning four face offs and losing 18. It’s clear you can win without dominating the dot. Of course, sometimes there’s an obvious reason, such as one we could call the Brandon Miller Effect. Miller and the Wings downed the Mammoth when they won 11 of 27 faceoffs and were outshot 55-38, which just goes to show that a hot goalie can render many stats meaningless.

But if we agree that face offs are important, Snider is a valuable asset for a team. Under the old NLL rules that saw sticks placed two inches apart to start face offs, Snider had about a 75% win rate. He’s head and shoulders above everyone else in the league. That is the rule that will be in place at the worlds.

On a side note, Snider is at 64% this year with the new rule placing sticks eight inches apart. That number is skewed downward because he’s already faced Washington’s Jamison Koesterer, second in the league in face offs, twice and they’ve split almost 50-50 in those games. It will be interesting to see how Snider fares against the Stealth now that Koesterer is unavailable and Geoff’s brother Bob appears to be the man at the dot for Washington.

What concerns folks who would argue for Snider’s inclusion on Team Canada is that the NLL’s third-ranked face-off man is Ryan Hotaling, who is on the U.S. team’s reserve list and could well be added to their roster in the coming days, while Canada now has no one who is his team’s primary face-off guy. Most of Canada’s roster never takes face offs Sandy Chapman took 119 in 2010, winning 49 of them, and Patrick Merrill is 21/50 this year. That’s about it.

Team Canada head coach Ed Comeau says “We looked at face offs in the indoor game as the most important part about face offs being having a good team playing. Quite often it involves more than just one player. We felt we have some guys who can go in and take some face offs for us and create some loose balls and we think we’ve got some pretty good players on our face-off teams that are gonna be able to run in and get those balls.”

Another question that arises when looking at Canada’s D corps is the slight imbalance, with four left-hand shots (Brodie Merrill, Cousins, Moleski, and Greer) and six rights. Mouradian and Comeau both acknowledge that “in a perfect world” you’d have an even balance of rights and left (like Canada has on offence). Mouradian notes that on D “one philosophy is to take the best player” regardless of which way they shoot, and he and Comeau both pointed out that often in the NLL you’ll see D players matched up against specific O players, rather than worrying about left-right matchups. Comeau says “We looked at guys who are capable of playing on either side of the floor and that can match up against either lefts or rights.”

The coaching staff put in many hours discussing team selection, Mouradian says, and deserves to be commended for the work they did. A major element, he adds, is the input of the coaching staff on the players they have to game-plan for when they’re facing them in the NLL. Who’s tough to play against? Those are the guys they wanted on the squad. They also tried to put together a team with players that will mesh quickly. They don’t want a repeat of the 2002 Heritage Cup, when the U.S. beat a Canadian team that Mouradian admits was more of an All-Star team than a well-rounded roster.

Therefore, established relationships amongst players and between players and coaches is crucial. As Mouradian points out, the team will gather for just a few days in Prague before the WILC starts, so “we won’t have the luxury to put in a sophisticated defensive system.” Because of that, Mouradian says the coaches paid particular attention to players who can play solid, consistent one-on-one D and also excel in the two-man game.

Comeau believes they have put together a group of defenders with “a good mix of youth and experience, skill, finesse and grit, and if you’re going to build a team you need all those ingredients.”

None of the decisions were easy, Mouradian says, because Canada has the best lacrosse players in the world and could have two strong teams. “Heck, we do have two…in the Mann Cup.” Indeed, either of the Mann Cup finalists from 2010—the champion Peterborough Lakers and the New Westminster Salmonbellies—could be sent to Prague and be a strong contender for the gold medal (although the Lakers would need to find some goalies because their keepers, Mike Thompson and Angus Goodleaf, are part of the Iroquois Nationals player pool). The MSL runners-up from Brampton can be added to that list, and several other MSL and WLA teams would probably be serious medal threats.

Mouradian echoes Comeau’s comments that he likes the team’s mix of leadership and toughness, young players and veterans. He also loves that the Canadian lacrosse community is so passionate that the choices will be debated endlessly. So let’s get back to that, shall we? Here are some defenders many feel could have helped Canada to defend its gold medals from the past two worlds.

Billy Dee Smith could have evened out the left-right balance if he were healthy, but what about Mike Grimes in his stead? The soon-to-be 25-year-old lefty is big, tough and skilled, and he was 2010’s WLA Defender of the Year.

Snider would assuage concerns about face offs He’s also undeniably tough and a loose ball demon. Given his personality on the floor, how does he fit into a locker room? Some Lakers players admitted they were concerned about that when he joined the team in 2009, but their worries disappeared within minutes of meeting him. Snider is one of the nicest, most articulate men in a sport full of nice, articulate men. And when he’s your teammate you know he has your back.

Chris White is widely regarded as one of the toughest players in lacrosse to play against. The Bandits stalwart was Grimes’ counterpart in 2010, winning MSL’s defender of the year award. He’s also another player with an abrasive on-floor style but an easy-going personality off the carpet.

Given that only two D from 2007 are back on Team Canada (Brodie Merrill and Cousins), those who would like to see more veteran leadership could point to Scott Self, the Lakers captain. He was on the ‘07 squad, was 2nd team All Pro in 2008 and the MSL’s DoY in ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07. He’s also off to an outstanding start to this season after being dealt from Minnesota to Buffalo, including a huge overtime transition goal in the Bandits 15-14 win over Toronto.

Mac Allen replaced Self as the 2nd team All-Pro in 2009 and was a big part of the trade that saw John Grant Jr. head to Colorado for Matt Vinc. He took the MSL top defender nod in ‘09 as well. Allen is not a spectacular defender, primarily because he doesn’t need to be thanks to his impeccable positioning.

If you like the solid, stay-at-home type maybe Rush rock Derek Suddons is your man. If you’d like a bit more youth and derring-do, Chris Corbeil is making a name for himself in both the NLL and MSL.

If you’re looking for another veteran and a boost to the tranny game, ageing speedster Steve Toll is just the ticket.

So here’s your chance to have your say. If you were part of the coaching staff of Team Canada, who would you have pushed hard for? Who could add that certain something to make sure the Canucks can three-peat? As Comeau says, they’ve put in hours and hours making the difficult selections, and they believe they’ve put together a team that can win the worlds, but ultimately their success will be judged at the medal ceremony in Prague on May 28.

What defender would you like to see on Team Canada 2011?

  • Chris Corbeil (51%, 462 Votes)
  • Steve Toll (10%, 95 Votes)
  • Mac Allen (10%, 88 Votes)
  • Chris White (9%, 84 Votes)
  • Geoff Snider (8%, 70 Votes)
  • Mike Grimes (5%, 46 Votes)
  • Scott Self (4%, 33 Votes)
  • Derek Suddons (3%, 32 Votes)

Total Voters: 910

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Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at stamplax@hotmail.com.

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