Dirty Dozen: Lack of offense is a problem Stealth weren’t counting on; historical gathering in Colorado; Francis went too far

Brandon Francis is a physical player, but the cross-check he threw last week crossed the line. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Brandon Francis is a physical player, but the cross-check he threw last week crossed the line. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

So what’s the difference between a Washington Stealth team that was 7-7 at this point last season and is 4-10 this season? Well, on the surface, plenty. Especially when it comes to the overall won/loss record for a team that’s been to the last 2 National Lacrosse League championship games. But if you dig a little deeper, the problems are deeper than coach Chris Hall ever thought they’d be. And he’s at a mystery to explain it. “It’s basic things,” he said this week. “Players executing. Just last week against Minnesota, Callum Crawford puts in 4 goals in the first half. And we knew that if you give him time, he’ll let it rip. And fundamental defense in the 2-man game, we just failed to execute and they burned us.” It’s one thing, Hall said, if this were a group of young players he was working with. But it’s not, and that’s what has him so confounded and the Stealth on the verge of not making the NLL playoffs.

“On offense, we’re flogging the ball from the outside and making life much easier for the goaltenders,” continued Hall. We’ve talked about getting inside, making the sacrifice and getting better angles but we’re not doing that. We’ve got to involved more players on offense and get better quickly.”

Indeed, time is running out on the Stealth. With just 2 games left in the regular season, there isn’t a lot of room left for forgiveness. The upside is that the opponents left on their schedule, Toronto and Buffalo, are teams the Stealth has beaten this season and both games are at home.

But what about the stats from last season to this one? Do they tell a story? Yes and no. Last year at this point, the Stealth had scored 177 goals, or 12.6 per game. This season, they’re at 150 goals, or 10.7 per. Defensively, Washington had allowed 165 goals (11.8) through 14 games last season. This year, it’s 171, or 12.2 per game.

On special teams, the Stealth were tops in the power play with 33 goals last season. This year, the man-up unit has 37 goals. The killers, meanwhile, had given up 29 goals through 14 games last year compared to 30 this season.

Obviously, the numbers point to offense, or the lack of it, as the biggest change in the Stealth from last year to this. The team is averaging 2 fewer goals per game this season and is on pace to finish this season with 171 goals. That’s a far cry from the team’s previous 2 seasons in Washington, where it scored 211 and 203 goals.

And that’s what has Hall and the rest of the NLL so confused. This is a unit with the likes of Rhys Duch, Lewis Ratcliff, Dean Hill and Athan Iannucci. But maybe it’s more a case of who is NOT there, rather who is there. Gone is Paul Rabil, Luke Wiles and Craig Conn. That’s 3 of the team’s top 6 scorers from last year. And of that trio, perhaps Wiles is the shooter with the most points in his stick, but the value of Rabil, as a bulldozer and transition man, and Conn, as a secondary sniper, cannot be understated. They create chances for others more than themselves, so defenses aren’t as focused on the top gunners.

Last season, Ratcliff had 77 points and Duch had 74 after 14 games. After that, the Stealth’s next 3 scoring leaders had 53, 42 and 41 points. Today, Ratcliff and Duch are tied for the team lead with 61 points each. The next 3 scoring leaders? It’s 33, 28 and 25 points. When your third-leading scorer, no matter who it is, drops a full 20 points, and the others aren’t far behind, that’s production a defense doesn’t have to concern itself with. The attention is turned to others, who in this case is Ratcliff and Duch.

There was a stretch where the Stealth seemed to be on track. Injuries certainly have been an issue and beyond the lack of production when bodies are missing, it’s a chemistry issue when they do return. Five games ago, the Stealth beat Colorado and were edged by a Rush team before dusting the Swarm. Then they competed with a tough Calgary team before losing a close one before the Swarm repaid the favor with a 5-goal victory.

The Stealth aren’t the only team that’s been up and down this season and that may be the problem. More than any stat or explanation can offer. When a team lacks consistency, how can it know what to expect of itself? Confidence becomes an issue because more time is spent wondering “what if,” instead of simply reacting to a play or situation.

Talk with Hall and that’s the sense you get, that it’s a consistency issue in Washington this season. The guns are there, and they’re definitely loaded. It’s just that there have been more misfires this season than shots on target.

Stunning reversals: How’s this for turning it around? Both the Philadelphia Wings (5-11) in the East Division and the Colorado Mammoth (5-11) of the West Division finished last in their divisions last year. This year, both have chances to win their respective divisions. Toronto this season, at 7-7, is tied for first with Philadelphia. The Rock still have a chance to win the division outright and owns the tiebreaker with Philly should they finish with the same records. Toronto also could finish 7-9 and sit at the bottom of the table in the East, although they own the tiebreaker with Buffalo as well. Out West, of course, the Stealth could finish at the bottom and may miss the playoffs outright after advancing to the last 2 NLL title games.

How tight is the East Division? Heading into this weekend, every single East team is a game within .500 when it comes to records against division opponents. Philadelphia is 4-4, Toronto is 5-4, Rochester is 3-4 and Buffalo is 4-4. It’s a bit more separated in the West, where Colorado is 6-2, Calgary is 8-2, Minnesota is 4-5, Edmonton is 3-6 and Washington is 2-8.

New system: The league’s taken some criticism for its new playoff format this season that has 8 of 9 teams qualifying. But from this seat, the system’s working out pretty damn well. We’ve already touched on the East Division and how tight it is there, top to bottom. And yes, the West is a bit more divided. But the way it’s unfolding overall in the first year of this new format, the NLL really can’t ask for much more. Six of the 8 playoff berths have been clinched, leaving 3 teams battling for the final 2 spots. The fact that no team has been eliminated from consideration this late means no dogs will be rolling over, or having their final games become auditions for next season. None of the 3 remaining teams want to be ‘that’ team, so you can count on them going hard until it those final 2 spots are clinched. Game on, boys.

No room for that: Bandit fan or not, you have to admit the Brandon Francis cross check to Jimmy Quinlan’s head was uncalled for on Saturday night. Quinlan’s not exactly shy when it comes to running smack and it wouldn’t be surprising to know if he was chirping away.  But that response from Francis went crossed the line in a big way. There’s nothing wrong with bringing it hard or even fighting to spark your team if you think it’s needed, but messing with the dome is just not cool. Especially the way Francis did. It was blatant and it was vicious. So hats off to the NLL for the suspension handed down late Thursday. Francis got a total of 3 games and an undisclosed fine, and not many would have complained were the suspension even longer. But the NLL needed to send a message, and it did. As far as we know, Quinlan wasn’t injured on the check, but it’s easy to see how the potential was there. Concussions are no joke because the injury not only robs players of games, it robs people of lives later down the road. Here’s hoping that not only Francis got the message, but every other NLL player too. Checks like that simply cannot be tolerated.

Unbreakable: Interesting results to a fan poll we posted earlier this week, asking which NLL record is unbreakable. We offered 6 records, and running away with the title of unbreakable record is the 20.12 goals-per-game average for the 1992 Buffalo Bandits. That’s an eye-popping number, but it was an 8-game season. Still, that’s pretty incredible. But here’s the thing about that 1992 team: It was an expansion squad that started the season with a 0-3 record. But with offensive players like John Tavares, Derek Keenan, Darris Kilgour and Kevin Alexander, the Bandits put up 23, 20, 22 and 27 goals during the 5-game win streak to end their regular season before going on to win the NLL title, over Philadelphia. The poll’s got it right, though. An average like that for a team probably won’t ever be seen again.

A sight to behold: If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the Calgary Roughnecks play live, make the time to do it. Sure, the Riggers lost in Rochester on Saturday night, but from to top bottom, that is one impressive team. Especially from the back end. The speed and quickness out the back door is an amazing spectacle to behold, a reminder of why we watch athletes to begin with. There’s a grace to the movement, as if it had a rhythm. And when it’s working in set positions, there’s a ferocity that you can’t help but be impressed by. Yes, the front end is talented but shooters get ink and glory all the time. For any team, though, it all starts with the defense and if you’re wondering how Calgary got to 11-4 and won 6 straight in until this past Saturday, watching a bit of the Riggers’ defensive work will answer your questions.

Playing the GM role: Who would you pick, under the age of 26, to start a National Lacrosse League franchise with if you were a general manager? The question’s been posed position-by-position this season by ILIndoor’s Stephen Stamp, and the results are in. It’s open for debate, the makeup of this team, but what cannot be argued is the talent. It’s everywhere in the world today, and the team unveiled earlier this week is not lacking for it. That the team focused on the young guns of the lacrosse world gives us an idea of the talent that’s coming down the pike and lets us know that when today’s veterans pass the torch to these kids, that torch of the NLL will be in good hands.

Lest we forget: Lots of ink has been given to the 2012 rookie class, but don’t forget the veterans. There are plenty still making noise this season and if you were at the Toronto vs. Colorado game in Denver on Saturday night, you witnessed quite the gathering of history. Of the top 10 all-time points scorers in the NLL, 8 still are active players and of those 8, 5 were on the same floor in Denver. Colin Doyle (tied for No. 2 with 1,165), Josh Sanderson (No. 5 with 1,070) and Blaine Manning (No. 7 with 801) for Toronto, and John Grant Jr. (No. 4 with 1,081) and Gavin Prout (No. 6 with 881) for Colorado. It was an amazing collection of talent and their presence was made known as the teams combined for 31 goals. The quintet combined for 6 goals and 15 assists, showing the old dogs of the NLL still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.

For the record, here’s the current top 10:
*John Tavares (1,620)
Gary Gait (1,165)
*Colin Doyle (1,165)
*John Grant Jr. (1,081)
*Josh Sanderson (1,070)
*Shawn Williams (1,027)
*Gavin Prout (881)
*Dan Dawson (862)
*Blaine Manning (801)
Tom Marechek (773)

(*-active)

Memory lane: What a great story from Larry Power, who shared with us last week how he spent an entire pension check to buy a 1910 set of lacrosse cards. Nevermind that he’s diabetic and needed insulin, Power got his cards, and it’s a rare set. If you missed the story, check it out here as he explains the situation and it’ll be easy to understand how nice of a score the set is. Names like Newsy Lalonde, Tommy Burns, Joseph Cattarinch and Charlie Querrie. All are giants in the early world of Canadian lacrosse and more than few had their part in the early days of the NHL. It’s a great read, and we look forward to future stories from Power.

Chavez is an avid lacrosse player in Rochester and a journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle as well as a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at bob.chavez@nllinsider.com or go to RochesterSports.com.

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