The 2013 National Lacrosse League season is coming to life with all teams close to hitting the floor in hopes of creating the right mix for a winning season. Training camp is an exciting time for everyone from the trainers to owners as it signifies the opportunities all around. New players vie to be part of the mix and culture of the team while expectations run high for those draft picks and traded players received to lift the team to new levels. In 2012, the Minnesota Swarm and Colorado Mammoth did large overhauls to their previous season’s teams producing better than expected results. Some people have pinpointed this as a salary dump and others likely saw it as teams changing culture. The Swarm and Mammoth led by example, throwing caution to the wind while pushing out the old and bringing in the new.
Whatever their modus operandi was, it made them more successful than recent seasons. The same could be said for Edmonton and Rochester in varying degrees, as both teams traded away marquee players, which resulted in a trip to the final.
This trend seems to be something new, but it is not. I have seen it and experienced it and I even produced it myself many times. From my perspective, the motivation for turnover is always culture first. Sometimes it is about lowering payroll too, but only after a dismal season, usually not after a successful one.
Personally, my first look at this was during my final year playing in the NLL with the Bandits. I was brought in by GM Kurt Silcott at the wishes of head coach Les Wakeling in late training camp 1999. Wakeling was my coach in Six Nations when we won the Mann Cup in 1995.
The 1999 Bandits were a bunch of aging stars but still a talented group. The team under-performed that season, hovering around .500 until later in the season eventually missing the playoffs. That offseason, a coaching change was made to promote Ted Sawicki into the head role. Sawicki was behind a mass offseason exodus of players, trading away more than 75% of the team.
Remaining from the first year were Rich Kilgour, Travis Kilgour, John Tavares, Shaydon Santos, Matt Disher and myself. I was not supposed to be there either but goalie prospect Scott Komer contracted mononucleosis and was down for the count. Coach Sawicki informed me when I arrived at training camp that my chances of sticking with the club hinged on Komer’s health.
The amount of talent that went out the door from our 99 Bandits squad was nothing to sneeze at. Names like Cordingley, Rosa, Doddridge, Cecconi, Fannel and others departed, bringing in youngsters like Malawsky, Williams, Sweet, Maddelena and Accursi in trade that became part of the new regime.
I know Sawicki’s motivation was all about the culture and who would be coachable in his eyes. There were far too many veteran players with their own ideas and past history with Ted (the new coach) from their playing days. Instead of opting to win over this group of veterans, Sawicki did the smart thing and jettisoned a boatload of guys who still had value for eager up and comers. Silcott and Sawicki created a pretty entertaining youthful team that was talented and exciting by playing offense first, defense last.
Like other veterans, I was upset in the beginning. At the same time, I knew I was in the twilight of my career and still wanting to play, so I dedicated myself to doing all I could to make the team a success. My reward was to be a part of the transition and to learn about this kind of a makeover. The season proved to be very interesting and it taught me more than any other year I played lacrosse anywhere. I ended up being an outlet for younger player’s questions, jokes and details that would come back to me as a GM in near future. The team made the playoffs and improved in 2000.
In my years as a GM I’ve revisited these Buffalo years’ time and time again. It was baptism by fire in Philadelphia as GM. My first year we were dealing with a championship team decimated by expansion of four new teams and the retirement of Dan Radebaugh, John Gaglairdi and Jay Jalbert. Turnover was the name of the game again. When the season, started the Wings were minus 7 of 15 starters from the championship game 6 months earlier.
In Minnesota turnover was the rule, and has never been an exception.
The Swarm expansion year of 2005 continued to their second NLL season of 2006. Eleven players were turned over from season one to year two including names like Craig Conn and Shawn Nadelen. There was some pressure to get down to a working unit as fast as we could manage. It resulted in great growth and an improving record every year from 2005 through 2008.
The years of 2006 and 2007 produced mild turnover, great results and playoff appearances in the tough eastern division. Still, in retrospect of the Buffalo experience and with the wishing of the Minnesota upper management to cut some costs off our rapidly expanding veteran payroll, we had a mass turnover again for 2008.
Eight players from 2007 didn’t see opening day in 2008, all veterans like Disher, Biernes and Kilby. Replaced with eventual rookie of the year Craig Point, Arizona loaner player Andy Secore and player in waiting Kyle Ross, we improved another win in the 2008 standings while throwing caution in the wind. I was sold at that point that transition and ridding ourselves of veteran players was nothing to be feared.
A change in ownership in 2009 brought on a whole new perspective of turnover. Ten more players from the 2008 lineup were finished in Minnesota by mid-season 2009 due to trade or injury. Our attempt at drafting USA players to move to the market didn’t work out as planned and the combination of the last two years of wheeling and dealing finally hit a snag. The culture had been changed so much that we didn’t have enough guys around who could feel the pride of our past accomplishments. It was a lesson learned for me.
The Swarm continued to make changes in 2010 with the trades of Swarm originals Ryan Ward and Chad Culp. Another mediocre season in 2011 brought on the switch-out of 9 more quality players from the year before. Zack Greer, Ryan Sharp, Scott Self, Kevin Buchanan, Jay Thorimbert and Tim Campeau were dealt for future considerations, plus Jamie Shewchuk, while Josh Funk, Colin Achenbach and Sean Thompson never saw the opening day lineup. Nine players departing in a span of 9 months or less made for another year of transition in Swarm land.
(For more behind-the-scene videos shot by O’Neill, check out Marty’s YouTube channel that you can access by clicking the button above the image. He uploaded a few videos over the weekend and will be adding more periodically)
So what do I make of all of this? I think the results of last season speak loudly. Pick a direction and go hard and don’t look back!
Rochester let go of Grant, Williams and the Evans brothers and other veterans in 2011 and 2012 and it landed them a championship with a very young team that could be solid for years.
Edmonton shed Brodie Merrill from its lineup and made it to the final without him and a game-plan centered on his talents. It wouldn’t be fair to blame Brodie for Edmonton shortcomings in the past, although the Rush went to the championship game without any return on the Merril trade to date. That’s says a lot about Edmonton’s youthful players making the most of their opportunity to play and other offseason moves and the windfall of Kyle Rubisch.
Let’s not forget about Calgary and all of its recent success.
Before the 2010 draft, the recent champion Roughnecks shocked us all by dealing Josh Sanderson and Tracey Kelusky on the eve of the draft. It was no secret that this was an owner cutting payroll to keep his business operating within its means. Once again what appeared to be a dark cloud of rebuilding hovering over the Roughnecks was just a quick storm followed by the emergence of rookie of the year Curtis Dickson and the coming out party for Mike Poulin. Calgary never skipped a beat after the shuffle.
So heading into 2013, turnover may be on the minds of many teams. It’s apparent that Buffalo is leading the pack in that department but it remains a mystery what others will do for now. Minnesota is obvious as to what it is up to with 4 first-round picks having to make the squad but camps in Toronto, Washington and Calgary may be the end of the line for a few familiar names of the past. Or not?
Ironically, the models for consistency and the least turnover have been Washington and Toronto. These two teams met in the 2010 and 2011 NLL final and are near the top for those two seasons and even the last three season in regular-season wins.
This makes for interesting view of whats to come in 2013.O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).
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