National Lacrosse League West Division breakout players to watch out for in 2013

Can John LaFontaine carry the momentum from the summer into a breakout NLL season? (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)
Can John LaFontaine carry the momentum from the summer into a breakout NLL season? (Photo: Tim Prothero, VintageLax)

Last weekend IL Indoor went through the East Division, picking out National Lacrosse League players who had breakout seasons last year and identifying the top candidates to do so in the coming year. Now it’s time to do the same for the West Division. How do you figure out who’s ready to step up to the next level? One way is to look at guys who had strong seasons last year, find someone who played well but at the same time seemed like he had something more to bring to the table. Another way is to keep an eye out for players who shone in summer ball: hello, Kedoh Hill. Find a combo of those two—a guy who showed flashes of excellence last winter then put together consistently strong performances over the summer—and you have the perfect storm for a breakout player in waiting. Make the jump to see who made the grade in the West.

Calgary Roughnecks

The Riggers had another tremendous regular season, finishing with the top record in the league. Newcomer Shawn Evans led the team in scoring, Mike Poulin was named the NLL’s top goalie, Daryl Veltman had a bounceback campaign and rookie first-rounder Travis Cornwall—while he didn’t set the world on fire—showed plenty of promise in a solid first season. Among all the positives, Calgary’s breakout player in 2012 may have garnered the most attention, at least in the first half of the season. Curtis Manning wasn’t exactly a revelation; he’d proven in New Westminster and his previous time in Calgary that he was good. But after being able to play in only two 2011 games because of the demands of medical school, the speedy transition player burst onto the scene with an eye-catching start to a year in which manged to make it to 14 contests. Manning almost doubled his career high with 14 points (including 5 goals) and was third on the team in forced turnovers, just behind the Carnegie brothers and tied with Evans at 13. He was a constant threat in transition and played in his first all-star game.

Starting in January, another Curtis looks like a good bet to be the breakout star for the Roughnecks. Yeah, he’s already scored 108 points in two NLL seasons and was named rookie of the year in 2010. But watching Curtis Dickson, don’t you just get the feeling there’s a 85-point beast just lurking inside Superman waiting to bust out? In the 2011 WLA season, Dickson put up 46 goals (second in the league), then he returned for a solid NLL year in which he put up very similar numbers to his rookie totals. With his athleticism and stick skills, he seemed primed to make a lot of noise in the summer. It didn’t happen because he had to miss almost the whole season with an injury.

But did he ever look good when he was able to get back into the lineup! Dickson suited up for the final two games and ripped it up: 2 goals and 4 assists in the first, 6 goals and an assist in the second. He was a man on a mission and if he keeps it up into the 2013 NLL campaign Calgary is going to be some scary when they hit the floor.

Colorado Mammoth

The Mammoth had a breakout year as a team but it was largely thanks to their talented crop of rookies, who don’t count for our purposes. You could actually make an argument for John Grant, Jr. as their breakout star of 2012. He rebounded from what looked like a downward career trajectory—missing a complete season to knee injury and deadly post-op infection, then producing what (for him) were a pair of down years in which he scored only 83 points—to set the single-season scoring record. Grant’s achievements are so perpetually remarkable that it’s easy to miss just how astonishing what he did last year really was. But, when it comes down to it, he’s Junior: he’s just been too good for too long to be considered the breakout guy.

So we’ll go with Mat MacLeod. The 24-year-old was Colorado’s leading transition scorer. His 10 goals and 13 assists were both career highs, pushing his total of 23 points well past his previous best of 14. He forced 10 turnovers, shattered his previous high with 66 loose balls and generally looked like he’d come into his own. I considered him as my pick for breakout player for the coming season until I looked more closely at the numbers and realized his performance in 2012 showed that he’d already arrived, rather than being ready to do so in 2013.

Instead of M-Mac, the breakout star in Colorado’s future is another defender who can play in his own end, take off with the ball and provide some offence when chances arise. Cam Holding is on his way to becoming better known largely because he just keeps playing and playing. After a solid junior career with the Whitby Warriors, Holding suited up with MSL’s Brooklin Redmen in the summer of 2011, moved on to the Midwest Indoor Lacrosse Association (a startup semi-pro league in the central States), had a brief hiatus before his rookie NLL season, returned for a stellar summer with Brooklin then headed back to MILA. He may be playing more box lacrosse than anyone on the continent and it’s paying off with huge leaps up the learning curve that are making Holding a force to be reckoned with on the turf.

Edmonton Rush

Easy peasy bright and breezy: Edmonton had an obvious breakout player last year and a clear candidate this year. Aaron Bold made the transformation from promising prospect to elite starter so smoothly you could be forgiven for forgetting that prior to the 2012 season he had played only 789 minutes in six previous NLL seasons spent backing up the likes of Paddy O’Toole and Matt Vinc. In his 971 minutes as the main man for Edmonton, Bold came this close to being the goalie of the year and led the Rush to the brink of a championship.

Like Bold, John LaFontaine was an excellent junior with a Minto Cup-winning team before moving on to MSL and NLL. Unlike Bold, LaFontaine didn’t have to wait for someone to retire or to be traded since teams get to play more than one defender at a time. He took advantage of his chance by putting in a solid 2011 with the Rush, earning that Minto with Whitby then taking his game up another step in 2012, both with Edmonton and then Brooklin. He may never match the 40 points he totalled in his last year with the Warriors, but LaFontaine is proving himself to be a steady defender with the speed and instincts to contribute in transition and he’s only getting better.

Minnesota Swarm

Kevin Ross made it easy on me, too. The lanky lefty pulled off the same feat as MacLeod, but in a bigger way; he topped his career high in both goals and assists for a total of 59 points. Ross scored 28 times and became a central figure in Minnesota’s offence. Then Minnesota management made the pick for 2013 easy, as well, by trading Ross to Philadelphia, thus making way for Jesse Guerin to step in and fill the offensive void on their left side. Guerin was second in MSL in goals, assists and points while running the offence for the Ajax Rock. While it’s true that with Ajax Guerin had the ball in his stick for much of almost every possession, it’s also true that he demonstrated the ability to make those around him better and to produce both shooting and passing.

Interesting statistical quirk: in 2011 Ross and Guerin finished tied for 15th in MSL scoring with 51 points, exactly four spots and five points behind Ryan Benesch, the key lefty with whom they played and will play, respectively, in Minnesota. Also interesting—the three guys between them on the points list that year were pretty good NLL players themselves: Mark Steenhuis, Garrett Billings and Jordan MacIntosh.

Washington Stealth

Out on the left coast, Brett Bucktooth slid into what looked like a high-octane Stealth offence and helped keep Washington from slipping even further than seventh overall in scoring during their year of perplexing difficulty all over the floor. For the third straight year he increased his career-high scoring total, tallying 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points.

Bucktooth may continue to pump up those totals, but the pressure on him to take up the slack on the right side should lessen considerably in 2013 because there’s likely to be a whole lot less slack to be taken up. In 2008, Athan Iannucci had a year for the ages, setting the single-season record with 71 goals and totalling 100 points. Sine then he’s been but a shadow of that player, struggling to overcome a major knee injury while missing a full season and averaging less than half of the century mark during the three seasons he has played.

There’s no question it wasn’t the same Nooch on the floor the past few years. But there’s no need to cull your memories for visions of the dominant offensive force the big righty can be. Just look to this summer’s WLA finals and Mann Cup. The old Nooch was back; in fact, he was better than ever. Rather than just being a threat to score, Iannucci showed off a more diverse game that helped the Langley offence flow whether he was shooting or drawing and dishing. His 15/13/28 line almost mirrored Grant’s 16/14/30 totals in the Mann and only a brilliant man-to-man defensive performance by Mac Allen in Games 5 and 6 kept Iannucci from leading the series in scoring.

Nooch also erased any worries about his ability to move the way he used to, bulling to the net for a pair of astonishing goals with three men draped all over him, one each in the West finals and the Canadian title series. He may not score 71 goals again, but Beast Mode is ready to return to the NLL and Iannucci’s bounceback year to come could be one of the great breakouts the league has seen in a while.

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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