Many expected big things from the Edmonton Rush last year after they were an overtime goal away from making the National Lacrosse League championship game in 2010. They were primed to regress, though, given that they were outscored by 15 points that season even as they had their best record and won a playoff game. But nobody expected the train wreck that was coming. They lost their first five games and 9 of their first 11. They then lost what was essentially a best-of-three series with Colorado for the final playoff spot in the west and it was time to go into full rebuild mode. After the jump, see what that rebuild means for the Rush in 2012.
2011: 5-11, missed playoffs
Top 3 returning scorers: Corey Small (23-40-63), Ryan Ward (25-33-58), Scott Evans (27-19-46)
League leaders: Ryan Ward, short-handed assists (4); Brodie Merrill, loose balls (187) and forced turnovers (30)
Key Additions: F Shawn Williams, F Athan Ianucci, F Aaron Wilson, D Kyle Rubisch, D Chris Corbeil, G Aaron Bold, G Kevin Croswell, F Alex Turner, G Brodie MacDonald
Key Departures: T Brodie Merrill, F Dean Hill, D Bill Greer, F Alex Kedoh Hill, F Mike McLellan
Outlook: You could make a fairly convincing argument that the six best players on the team are the first six in the list of key additions above. Even with losing Merrill and Greer, that should be enough to make them a much better team. The big question: will it be enough to become title contenders when almost everyone else has improved, too?
Where to start with the improvements for Edmonton? Let’s go to the net first, because it may have been the biggest problem last year. Matt Disher had a solid NLL career but he was a liability the last couple of seasons. Just look at the numbers. The last two years, among qualifying goalies he has ranked 13th of 16 and 11th of 11 in save percentage, 15th of 16 and 10th of 11 in goals against average. Now they have three goalies fighting for the starting job. Aaron Bold is the best bet to win it and he is a star in the making. He was the best backup in the league but was stuck behind Matt Vinc. As a starter he should immediately challenge for being among the top five goaltenders in the NLL. He was outstanding for Brooklin in MSL this summer and comes to the Rush armed with a ton of confidence and eager to show he can carry the mail. Kevin Croswell is a strong challenger for the job, although like Bold he’s never really had a chance to show he can be a number one guy. Brodie MacDonald is huge and showed in the WLA playoffs that he can be an absolute wall. He then showed in the Mann Cup that the wall can be leaky. He’s got lots of potential for down the road.
Whoever’s playing net should have a lot more support than Disher had the last couple years. That’s what happens when you add two of the best young defenders in the game. With Kyle Rubisch arriving in the Blazers’ dispersal and Chris Corbeil coming in a trade with Buffalo, the Rush back end becomes a source of great strength for the team. They’ll miss the transition genius of Brodie Merrill and Bill Greer’s contributions in that area, too, but they are upgraded significantly in pure defense. If Rubisch isn’t the best defender in the league yet, he’s on the short list. Corbeil isn’t far behind. Both starred with Canada at the world championships along with new teammate Brett Mydske. Coach Derek Keenan says that moving Bill Greer to Toronto opens up minutes for players he thinks are ready to take a bigger role, such as John LaFontaine, Jarret Toll and Tyler Codron.
One place they’ll feel the loss of Merrill and Greer is in the transition game. Rubisch and Corbeil are both capable of getting the ball up the floor, but neither brings the kind of fast-break offense Merrill provides. Keenan has high hopes for Jesse Fehr, their only pick in this year’s draft, to take up some of the slack there. But he’s keenly aware that you can’t expect a rookie to step in and fill Brodie Merrill’s shoes. It’ll most likely have to be transition by committee in Edmonton this year. For now, their scoring will primarily come from the set offense. Good thing for the Rush that area of their team has made huge improvements as well. They suddenly have one of the most dangerous right sides in the league. Scott Evans led the team in goals despite coming from Rochester three games into the season; Athan Ianucci holds the single-season goal-scoring record and appears to be recovered from his severe knee injury; and Aaron Wilson somehow continues to get open on the crease to bury anywhere from 20 to 40 goals a year while defenses focus on other players. Feeding them all will be one of the best passers in the game, Shawn Williams. Then, of course, there are their two leading scorers from last year, Corey Small and Ryan Ward. Add in the fact that Zack Greer had a breakthrough season with the Brampton Excelsiors this summer and you have an offense that could be among the best in the league.
Throw in the three first-round picks over the next three years that Edmonton got in the Merrill trade, and this is a team that should be good for a long time. Whether the team gels quickly enough to take a real run at the Champions Cup this year is the real question, because it’s always a challenge to come together when a full third of the roster is new. The Rush have tons of talent now. How quickly that talent can blend into a real team will determine how far Edmonton goes in the 2012 NLL season.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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