The National Lacrosse League season is just around the corner. After another epically long off-season, fans, players, coaches — and yes, even us media hacks — are jonesing for some game action. We finally made it through an off-season with no contraction-and-or-expansion-and-or-cba-dispute, meaning the storylines have been all about the game — as it should be. I’ve come up with 10 players I’ll be watching this season who have compelling plotlines to their play. Here’s the first five I’ll be keeping an eye on and why. Next Wednesday I’ll breakdown the other five.
1. Paul Rabil
He’s the face of lacrosse in the States and this past summer set a single-season scoring record in Major League Lacrosse with 72 points in 14 games with the Boston Cannons. There’s little doubt he’s the best field lacrosse player in the world right now. However, he’s never really found his stride in the NLL. That could change this season.
His recent trade to Philly makes him The Man for the Wings. Over his three and a bit seasons in the NLL, he’s primarily been a transition player. His speed and incredible stamina made that a logical role for him to fill. It’s the same reason he plays middie in field and not attack. However, I’d argue now’s the time to start playing him on offence more and hope for a Jeff Shattler-esque breakout.
Rabil’s NLL numbers aren’t bad — in fact they’re pretty good. He’s scored 44 goals and 123 points in 52 regular season NLL games; eight goals and 17 points in eight playoff tilts. With Dan Dawson gone, the Wings are going to need some more offence. Rabil could help take some heat off Kevin Crowley who will now become the No.-1 target for opposing defences. Rabil hasn’t been the type of player to impact the outcome of a game during his short NLL tenure. Will that change this year?
2. Mark Matthews
The No. 1 pick was touted by some as the best player to be taken first overall since John Grant Jr. in 1999. That’s a ridiculous and insulting statement to many current NLLers, including first-overall picks such as Tracey Kelusky, Cody Jamieson, Gavin Prout and Ryan Benesch (didn’t include Brodie Merrill since he’s primarily a D guy), let alone other first-rounders such as Rhys Duch, Jeff Shattler, Garrett Billings and Stephan LeBlanc.
That said, Matthews is an incredible talent and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first NLL campaign. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder. With Shawn Williams gone to Buffalo, opposing defences will key on Matthews. He joins a Rush team with a solid cast of forwards including Ryan Ward, Corey Small and Zack Greer, but no real, bonafide superstars on offence. Sure he’ll see the ball lots, but it’s a double-edged sword. He’s got the hype and the top-gun billing and he’ll get the wacks, hacks and checks that come with it.
A field stud who starred at the University of Denver (he also won two Minto Cups), Matthews racked up 19 goals in nine games during his first MLL season this past summer. How many NLL goals can we expect from him this season? I’m guessing in the range of 30. As for capturing rookie of the year, he’ll have plenty of competition from a really good freshman class. Makes you wonder: Is it better to be Matthews and be the No. 1 option on your team as a rookie, or a guy like Joe Resetarits who has a bevy of stars ahead of him with the Roughnecks letting him fly under the radar more?
3. Curtis Dickson
Is this the season Dickson breaks out and scores more than 40 goals? I could definitely see it happening. He’s scored 64 goals in 32 regular-season games in his first two seasons and is the very definition of a pure goal-scorer. He started playing lacrosse at the age of 3 and his dad told me it was clear from the get-go he was going to be good at the game, filling the net right away.
He’s got amazing hands, a great outside shot (especially underhand on the run) and his ‘low-post’ game is second to none in the NLL. I’ve heard him criticized for using the same move too often where he spins off a defender and dives across the net to score. My answer to that is simple: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Much like Tracey Kelusky’s swim move, defenders know what Dickson is going to do and he still makes it work and burns them — even with the occasional double team. On a stacked Calgary offence, Dickson does need to pick his spots better on occasion and recognize the double team and dish the ball to the open man. He’s a work in progress — the kid’s only 24 — but has a good crack at breaking the franchise record for goals in a season of 50, set by Lewis Ratcliff in 2007.
4. Athan Iannucci
Nooch is known as an eclectic guy, a one-of-kind type of personality in the NLL. He’s also known for growing some epic beards. However, he’s still best known as the guy who scored an incredible 71 goals (and 100 points) in 2008 to set an NLL single season goal-scoring record.
Since that season he’s battled injuries and then sat out part of last season after he and Rush owner Bruce Urban had a falling out and he refused to report to the club following the big Merrill/Wings deal that sent his rights to Edmonton. He was eventually dealt to Washington last year where he scored 21 goals and 45 points in 11 games. He spent the summer with the Langley Thunder and helped guide their playoff run that ended with a Mann Cup loss to the Peterborough Lakers. He notched 17 goals in the regular season and then added 10 in eight games in the WLA playoffs, a rather pedestrian total given the lofty expectations on him.
But he absolutely exploded in the Mann Cup, finishing with 15 goals and 28 points in just six games. Heading into this season, Iannucci is finally healthy, happy and seemingly back at the top of his game. Along with Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch, he forms one of the most potent trio of forwards in the NLL. The trick for the trifecta will be sharing the ball in a way that doesn’t limit their individual games and hamper any of them.
5. John Grant Jr.
It’s tough for a writer to admit, but I’ve simply used up all the adjectives I know when describing Junior (check out the new video on this site of him plugging a floating balloon). My thesaurus is worn out. Words don’t really do his game justice anyway. He belongs in that rarified air among athletes such as Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Pele. You can’t really describe how good they are. You just have to look at their numbers and — more importantly — watch them play.
He set a single-season points record last year, scoring 116 points in 14 games. He dominated summer ball again as the Lakers won another Mann Cup. All this after nearly DYING just a few years ago due to complications from an infection. A newfound dedication to the gym and fitness has him in the best shape of his life at 38 years old. Junior has dominated lacrosse — both box and field — like no other player before him (save for perhaps Gary Gait — let the debate begin) and shows no signs of slowing down.
Will he lead the league in scoring again? Smart money says yes.The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at email@example.com or go to CalgarySun.com.
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