NLL Fan Poll: Who will be the 2013 Defender of the Year?

Will Kyle Rubisch rule the roost among defenders again this year? (Photo: Cody McLachlan)
Will Kyle Rubisch rule the roost among defenders again this year? (Photo: Cody McLachlan)

Selecting the 2012 National Lacrosse League defender of the year wasn’t a difficult task. Even among a deep field of very good candidates, Kyle Rubisch’s brilliant year put him head and shoulders above the rest of the class. He was named the top D-man by both the NLL and IL Indoor; the vote here at the site was unanimous. But 2013 is another year and everyone starts with a clean slate. Rubisch is an obvious candidate for the top spot among defenders once again, but he’ll have plenty of competition. The list for Indoor’s Defender of the Year Fan Poll has a group of players with a variety of approaches to the game; one thing every top D guy has in common in this age of the high-octane NLL, though, is that you have to at least have the stick skills to get the ball off the floor and get it started up the other way.

The perpetual challenge in rating defensive players is the lack of statistics to back up perceptions. There are some numbers that help to figure out who the leading candidates are…and in 2012 Rubisch’s case as the best defender was solidly supported by the measurables. His total of 151 loose balls was second among non-faceoff men only to Brodie Merrill’s 157. The next players on the list who don’t benefit from a significant number of loosies when they win faceoffs are Jeff Shattler (111), Pat McCready and Dan Coates (94 each).

Rubisch is even more impressive in the forced turnover category. I conducted an extensive breakdown of the prevalence of the FT at each arena in the league last spring. The variations by arena suggested that the totals of Minnesota’s three players in the top five in FT were somewhat inflated. The numbers also reinforced that Rubisch is outstanding.

So if you want to just go ahead and click beside Rubisch’s name in the poll below, no one who knows the game will give you much of an argument. But the state of the NLL is in constant flux and there are sure to be some players stepping up to challenge the Rush defender’s hold on the title of best D-man in the league. One man, in particular, looks likely to push for recognition.

Mac Allen is a remarkable physical specimen. He is listed at 6′2” and 200 pounds but looks bigger. He may just be the strongest player in the league. He uses that strength, along with the fitness he works hard to maintain, to great effect on the lacrosse floor. After missing all but three games last winter because of injury, Allen gradually returned to his usual aggressive self through the summer with the Peterborough Lakers.

Then came the Mann Cup. Through the first four games of the series, a rejuvenated Athan Iannucci had 14 goals and was looking almost unstoppable. After that game, Allen told me in no uncertain terms that Nooch wouldn’t be a big problem for the Lakers the rest of the series because. Allen would be covering him the rest of the way, he explained.

The one-one-one battle that ensued over the final two games was fascinating to watch. It also played a huge role in the Lakers six-game victory in the series after dropping the first two contests to Iannucci’s Langley Thunder. Nooch scored one goal in Game 5 and none in Game 6. Allen repeatedly stood up the powerful forward as he tried to drive to the net. That is no mean feat, as anyone who has seen the video of Iannucci’s remarkable one-one-three goals in the WLA finals and Mann series can attest.

Beyond Rubisch and Allen is a host of other good defenders. Scott Self, Sandy Chapman and Mike Grimes are all veterans who combine excellent positioning and footwork with the ability to take the ball up the floor and score on occasion and the experience and wisdom to know when to go and when not to. Any of them would be welcomed with open arms by any team in the league.

Mike Carnegie is an example of the solid shutdown defender who is at his best when he’s not being noticed much. The Roughnecks’ veteran has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as one of the best in the game at limiting opponents’ opportunities. Jon Sullivan may not get quite as much recognition, but talk to people in the game and they’re well aware of his contribution. Sullivan did earn fifth place in IL Indoor’s 2012 Defender of the Year poll (one spot behind Carnegie). With his consistency in his own end, expect him to be a fixture near the top of the rankings in coming years.

Other names that appear regularly in rankings of solid defenders are the towering Jeff Gilbert and the cerebral Kyle Sorensen. The latter, besides being a good athlete and that touch of craziness on the floor that makes him scary to face, has one of the highest lacrosse IQs in the game. We’re talking about John Tavares/Colin Doyle level knowledge and understanding of lacrosse. A result is that he often seems to see things happening on the floor just a split second before everyone else. That’s a pretty handy trait for someone whose role is to stop forwards from doing what they want to do.

Last year’s breakout defensive player was probably Steve Holmes. The Wings rearguard moved into the upper echelon of the league’s defenders with a game built on smart, physical consistent play. The breakout title may have gone to Brett Mydske if the Rush D-man hadn’t already turned heads with his selection to and subsequent play for Canada’s team at the 2011 World Championships. If anything will keep Mydske from being a regular in defender-of-the-year discussions down the road, it will likely be that his growing transition game threatens to move him out of the defender category for voting.

Our final contestant is the dark horse, but as the first defensive player taken in the 2012 NLL Entry Draft, Brock Sorensen is poised to be an immediate star in the league. He’ll probably be considered a tranny in the long term, but for now we’ll include him in this poll based on his effective use of his rangy frame and athleticism to shut down opponents all over his team’s half of the floor.

There are plenty of other excellent defenders in the league. You could make a strong case for any number of other guys to be included here, but we’re drawing the line at a dozen. So if you think I’m just nuts for not recognizing Rory Smith’s conversion from thug to stalwart defender, you can vote for other below. And if you’re a Knighthawks fan who’s livid that there’s no Paul Dawson, Mike Kirk, Tyler Burton, Sid Smith or Rory Glaves in the poll, I can’t really blame you.

I will, however, point out to Buffalo backers that Billy Dee Smith almost surely would have been included had he signed a contract, but with final rosters due in three days and it not being clear whether he’ll be appearing in Banditland any time soon, I decided to leave him out of the conversation.

Who is the leading candidate for 2013 NLL Defender of the Year?

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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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