The mysterious case of the benched star forward: Scott Evans’ future in lacrosse

Scott Evans backing down a defender in the 2011 MSL finals. (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)
Scott Evans backing down a defender in the 2011 MSL finals. (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)

The Edmonton Rush thought they were finding a solution to their scoring woes when they acquired Scott Evans from Rochester for defender Rory Glaves a few games into the 2011 season. It’s hard to argue with the raw results he provided. Evans led the team with 27 goals last year despite playing only 13 games and was second this year with 23 in 12 games. One of the red flags that all is not well in Evans’ relationship with the Rush is those games played. Last year he came over from the Knighthawks after he had been a healthy scratch from Rochester’s lineup. There was speculation in some quarters that it was just a case of a Peterborough guy not necessarily fitting well with a Brampton guy, then-new Rochester Head Coach Mike Hasen.

That theory may have been refreshed a bit when the Knighthawks shipped little brother Shawn out to Calgary along with a first-round draft pick for the chance to select Johnny Powless, but the latter’s performance this year supported Rochester’s contention that he was ready to play in the National Lacrosse League and will be a star for years to come. Besides, fellow Lakers Cory Vitarelli and Brad Self are thriving under Hasen and will be receiving championship rings as proof.

So what was the issue? Perhaps the same one that led to Evans being a healthy scratch for four games this winter even though he was among the Rush’s few offensive threats in a season during which they scored less than any other NLL team. He’s never been known as a fitness fanatic. In fact, Evans’ weight has long been a source of curiosity for lacrosse fans who marvel at how he can be such an effective player when he’s so out of shape. And there’s no question that he’s been effective.

Evans led Major Series Lacrosse in scoring in 2005 and 2006 and has been in the top five in the league in four of the five years since. The only time he was kept out of the leading group was when he blew his knee out and missed the entire 2009 regular season. He’s averaged 38 goals and 80 points in his seven full MSL seasons. He can absolutely put the ball in the net and is an effective passer as well. So what’s the problem, exactly?

Well, it has more to do with his style of play and how it impacts the flow of a team’s offence. Evans’ preferred method of attacking a defence is the bull rush. Many’s the time he has received the ball at the left shooter’s spot, dipped his shoulder into a defender and powered his way towards the net, even if another defender slides over for the double team, then somewhere got off a shot that finds its way into the goal. It’s really remarkable when it works and Evans has scored plenty of critical goals with that single-minded determination.

He’s also turned the ball over numerous times while his offensive teammates stand by watching then race to the bench while he complains to the officials about being tackled. It’s not that he’s not a team player: Evans is a passionate player with a burning desire to win. That’s just the way he believes he can help a team. Coaches over the years have tried to get the message through, but his continued success on the scoring charts and in winning championships—four Mann Cups and counting—makes it hard to believe he isn’t helping. His impact in the 2010 title series against New West was palpable. Despite missing three games to a high-sticking suspension, Evans scored nine goals and was instrumental in the Lakers championship. The leading goal scorers in the series, all playing double Evans’ three games, were John Grant Jr. and Cory Vitarelli with 12 each (note: the official records show Grant with 13 and Cliff Smith with 12, but Grant was incorrectly credited with a Shawn Evans goal and Smith with one by Jordan Hall).

The issue, then, is that while he can be an impact player and has a knack for scoring important goals, his style of putting his head down and driving has been known to slow an offence down to a crawl. That lack of ball movement and tendency to try to do too much on his own leads to situations like Edmonton’s 13-10 loss to Calgary on March 9 of this year. In that game, Evans took 13 of the Rush’s 52 shots, exactly one quarter. Zack Greer, an emerging star who wound up leading the team in goals with 31, took four. That’s not the way to win over a coach like Derek Keenan, whose approach to the offensive side of the game is to get everyone involved, make the whole defence work hard and keep opponents on their toes.

Scott Evans fighting future Rush teammate Kyle Rubisch in the 2011 MSL finals. (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)
Scott Evans fighting future Rush teammate Kyle Rubisch in the 2011 MSL finals. (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)

So while it seemed surprising at first when Evans was made a healthy scratch, the move bore fruit when the Rush excelled in the playoffs with tons of ball movement and contributions from players who hadn’t had much success scoring during the regular season. They averaged 17 goals per game in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The well ran dry at an inopportune time against those very same Knighthawks who had sent Evans out west and they fell 9-6 in the title game.

Keenan made it clear that to be a part of Edmonton’s future, he needs to get in the kind of shape that will allow him to compete vigorously in today’s fast-paced NLL. Keenan says that Evans showed up to camp fitter than usual but lost ground during the season. If he can’t play for Edmonton, is there a spot in the National Lacrosse League for Evans? That is a difficult question to answer. Goal scorers have a way of looking good to a team that is having trouble on offence even if there are red flags. Just ask the Washington Stealth, who traded away Paul Rabil and what turned into the pick with which Edmonton will select Mark Matthews at the 2012 NLL Entry Draft for Athan Iannucci, who has a reputation as a difficult teammate to play with.

The obvious solution is to get in shape. That’s simpler than it sounds for Evans. He, like so many of us, loves food. He doesn’t, again like many of us, really love working out. He’s also getting married this summer and has a demanding job with Ontario Hydro that means he drives to the Toronto area from his home in Peterborough every workday. That’s better, though, than the travel he faced when he was based near Ottawa. Now he gets home every day rather than just weekends or game Lakers game days.

And if his discussions with Lakers Head Coach/GM Jamie Batley at the team’s first practice of the year are any indication, he may just be getting that at as a nearly-31-year-old his career may not last much longer if he doesn’t take steps to make it so. He professed an interest in working out and talked with teammate Josh Gillam, a personal trainer and fitness devotee, about working on his fitness together. Evans said he plans to work out four days a week while playing twice a week during the season, and he said he’ll commit to that routine for the next month.

Those words must be music to the ears of both Batley and Keenan. Scott Evans is an immensely talented lacrosse player. If he can stick to his plan and become more svelte, he could once again become an impact player. He doesn’t have to become the fastest guy in the league or sculpt a body like Matt Vinc or Damon Edwards, he just needs to develop the fitness to add more dimensions to his game. Many fans may find it hard to root for Evans in this endeavour; his antics on the floor have made him a target of vitriol in arenas across the continent. Whether it’s running a goalie, turtling when challenged to fight or giving the old Hulk Hogan hand to the ear to the crowd after being tossed from a game, Evans’ knack for riling up opposing fans is almost as highly developed as his outstanding shooting touch.

But like so many lacrosse players, the man on the floor is very different than the man off the floor. Evans can be genial and warm-hearted. Children love him. He is a funny and gregarious emcee for prize draws at Lakers season-end banquets. If more people got to see that side of him, he would definitely have more fans cheering him than booing him. But when he’s on the floor he doesn’t care. It’s all about winning and putting on a show. If he wants to keep doing both, he’s going to have to make a change. He says he’s ready to do it. If he really is the Rush, the Lakers and lacrosse fans will be the beneficiaries of many entertaining Scott Evans games to come.

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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