NLL 2013 previews: Washington Stealth

Jeff Zywicki is in camp with the Stealth and hoping injuries are behind him so he can regain his form. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Jeff Zywicki is in camp with the Stealth and hoping injuries are behind him so he can regain his form. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

The world of the Washington Stealth came to a crashing thud at the bottom of the National Lacrosse League standings last season. Someone’s got to finish last, right? Right. But hardly anyone expected that team to be the Stealth, who were coming off back-to-back appearances in the Champion’s Cup game, having won it all in 2010. The problems contributing to last year’s fall were many and were varied, and being the only team left out of the NLL playoffs was a bitter pill to swallow. But, sometimes, losing is an essential part of any game because it can teach you to not tolerate that sick feeling in your gut. Did the Washington Stealth learn that lesson? Only time will tell, but until then, we can take a look at what’s new in the land of the Stealth as they prepare for the 2013 season.

Washington Stealth

2012: 4-12, did not qualify for playoffs
Top 3 returning scorers: Rhys Duch (13 goals, 46 assists for 79 points), Lewis Ratcliff (36-40, 76 points), Athan Iannucci (21-24, 45).
League leaders: Bob Snider (319 faceoffs won), Ratcliff (195 shots on goal).
Key additions: Mitch Jones (draft pick), Kyle Buchanan (draft pick), Justin Pychel (draft pick), Tyler Garrison (draft pick), David Joyce (free agent), Patrick O’Meara (free agent) Peter Jacobs (free agent).
Key departures: Jason Bloom (retired); Cam Sedgwick (retired); Kyle Hartzell (traded).

Outlook: Where to start for the Washington Stealth? The squad didn’t qualify for the playoffs after playing in the previous 2 NLL title games. Coach Chris Hall missed the first 6 games of the season while recovering from throat cancer and that clearly had an effect on the Stealth as they got off to a 1-5 start.

The departure of forward Luke Wiles, who scored 60 points in 2011, apparently had a bigger effect than anticipated because Washington’s top guns, Rhys Duch and Lewis Ratcliff, both tumbled from seasons of 90-plus points to 79 and 76 points, respectively. Slow starts from newcomer Dean Hill and veteran Cam Sedgwick hurt production as well and by the time new sticks arrived in Brett Bucktooth (free agent) and Athan Iannucci (trade), the Stealth spent the rest of the season playing catch-up.

The departure of transition man Paul Rabil after 5 games may have had an effect as well not so much in individual production, but in being one of the many changes in the lineup that affected chemistry. Still, there is something to be said for missing his speed and power in the middle of the floor. The other big factor here is right-hander Jeff Zywicki, who has played just 13 games the last 2 seasons. He’s in camp this year and appears to be healthy, so his return could provide a big boost, not to mention depth on the right side that was lacking last year with Wiles gone.

There is a rookie forward with potential to be a contributor sooner rather than later in forward Mitch Jones, who is fresh off a Minto Cup win with Orangeville. He was impressive with his consistency in Junior A this past summer, but he’s also a hockey player on scholarship at Northern Michigan, so how he’s able to balance his workload could factor into how much he plays this year for the Stealth. Another newcomer, Peter Jacobs, is no newcomer. He made waves as an 18-year-old with Portland but hasn’t played in the NLL since appearing in 5 games with the Knighthawks in 2010. He’s been keeping sharp with Senior B ball in Ontario, and the Stealth are giving him a good look in camp to see if he’s still got some scoring magic in his talented stick.

One of the brighter spots for the Stealth last season was at the dot, were transition man Bob Snider led the league with 319 faceoff wins and was second-best in loose balls (202), trailing only brother Geoff Snider, who scooped 232 for Calgary.

In the back, injuries really took their toll. Matt Beers, Jeff Moleski and Curtis Hodgson were the only regulars to play in every game last season, leaving the coaches plenty to sort through as ailments kept other contributors sidelined. It’s one thing to lose a player for a long stretch, or even the season. At least then you know you have to find a replacement and there’s the chance to work him into the plan. But when the injuries crop up week to week, and the lineup is constantly changing, it’s tough to establish any sort of continuity and that was a big challenge for the Stealth.

And as training camps continue, it’s tough to know just how it’s all shaping up for the 2013 season, but the Stealth clearly addressed their back end by using 4 of their 7 draft picks, including the first 3, on defensemen. We’ll find out later this week (Dec. 20 is final cut day) if any of the rookies will stick but it’s very possible that a veteran or two could be unseated. And even if the vets hang on to their jobs, they’ll have been pushed by the young legs in camp.

Of course, how the runners on defense do plays a big role in how well, or not well, the goalies do. Tyler Richards had the job to himself last year after splitting time with Matt Roik in seasons prior. Richards logged career highs in minutes (723:04), shots (667) and saves (514). He also had a career high, unfortunately, in goals-against as it soared over 12 (12.70). He remains the No. 1 coming into the 2013 season with back up from veteran Kevin Croswell.

Statistics never tell the entire story, but it’s pretty clear that up and down the floor, the Stealth need better production. They’ve got the horses to produce winning numbers; they just need those horses to stay healthy. The Stealth have plenty of veterans who know their way around the NLL, but there are impressionable young eyes in the form of draft picks who are champing at the bit to take their turn in the NLL. Tyler Garrison, Bill Hostrawser and Justin Pychel are eager to get their reps on defense and they’ll keep the vets on their toes. Young or old, you have to think the hunger in Washington will be a major fuel for motivation.

The Stealth struggled last season, no one can argue that. And it’s one thing to be the only team left out of the playoffs. But to be the only team with that distinction for a second straight season is not something the Stealth want to experience, so it’s a safe bet we’re going to see a real sense of urgency in Washington right out of the gate.

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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