Christmas signifies a time of year for every player in the National Lacrosse League that means a little more than the holiday season. Christmas is the date of when they are readying themselves for another campaign of winter lacrosse. Unless of course your name isn’t one of 23 called to trudge on past the month or so of tryout exercises you have just endured. A tough pill to swallow for some, especially vets on the other side of 30 years of age. Training camp is an exhilarating time of discovery. You’re dealing with players returning from injuries or sub-par seasons with a new purpose. Then you have rookies and free agents that are coveted to ensure this year will be better than the last. Same goes for trades that put a new spin on team direction and then there is the ultimate find, the diamond in the rough.
So the practices and bonding starts. This allows teams to manage their direction and set a course. Drills and theories are laid down to follow. New players begin to find their way and settle in to the rhythm of a team, the dance of pre-season.
Personally, I have always loved this tryout time of year in lacrosse, especially as a manager. In the word, training camp is what I relate it to. Camping, a man exercise away from it all. Guys getting out and getting at it, then some grub and a beer and do it all over again the next day. Maybe this doesn’t sound like much but you get to find out lots about people when they are locked up in a hotel for a weekend of workouts. The camaraderie is running thick without too much pressure on most of the lead players. Guys partner up on meals runs with ex-teammates from junior or another time and place while others who are out of sorts just try to fit in.
For tryout hopefuls and rookies, it is much more stressful time — as it should be. They are working to get to this level and the action doesn’t just take place on the floor. The youngsters have to scope the team’s chemistry and then apply their own self to the process to be measured by the others. Magic times for the right fit but tough for the ones who fall short on the floor and the same fate eventually for those who don’t fit in off the floor.
In my management tenure, there were just as many times a guy with talent didn’t gel with the group as the instances when players who fit the culture couldn’t maintain a spot based on where he placed with his talent. There is more to picking a team than meets the eye.
People and personalities need to blend in and accept their roles. A six-year vet isn’t gonna handle “just making” the squad as well as a second-round draft pick or free agent looking to stick with the pros. If you are the 23rd man on a team you may not see much action. If you are a young offensive fella, there is a probable chance a trade for an upgrade would be made before you get in. A nine-team NLL doesn’t provide a lot of room for development.
Making cuts is the worst. Letting guys down easy is never easy but it’s part of management’s job. Like other jobs in this world or positions on the field it’s a talent you need to possess and be good at because it’s something that people remember.
Training camp is just the first phase of the season but it is a very important part of the puzzle. Navigating the injuries and the losses as the schedule erodes makes way to second guessing of decisions from an earlier time and tact in the process of releasing players. Some of the training camp hopefuls you cut are guys you will want to have a relationship with so that they can be approached down the line if you run into depth issues.
The landscape has changed in this NLL era of less teams. More veterans are brought to camp to be cut than ever before. The ability to trade these players gets tougher every year. Another catch is that all teams play certain styles of transition or defense and not everyone fits with every team in terms of structure even if they are free. The “one way” era of players is slowly closing the door on specialty offensive and defensive players. They are becoming a transition liability in either direction. I can think of two good examples.
Noah Talbot is the kind of player every NLL GM dreams of having on or off the floor, low maintenance! Talbot played seamless defense six years for the Swarm and it was rare he ever got noticed because he rarely made defensive mistakes or offensive rushes. Last year Minnesota went to camp and changed into a full out run and gun team. Noah, not known for his stick handling or transition skills, was a late cut and casualty of the 2011 training camp.
Tough call for everyone as Talbot was left with no time to catch on with another squad and build some value in a new setting. Being an older player with a decent salary, he also would need a full training camp to get ingrained with a new team to win a position. Minnesota obviously tried to trade Noah and found out what many teams do about players they possess. Their value is locked up in the organization and system they have played in. Think Tom Montour and Ian Lllord.
Jeff Zywicki was a deadline cut of the Washington Stealth this year and it’s questionable he will get a role with another NLL club. Same reasons apply. Jeff has played his whole career for the Stealth but hasn’t been healthy the last few years. Zywicki’s value was built in Washington’s system and that system is changing. Unfortunately for Jeff, he is right handed offensive specialty guy and there is a surplus of those righties around today who make less money.
Tough times for some this x-mas season but you never know if that phone will ring. My advice for free agents is keep your chin up, stay with your workouts and be ready guys. It’s just the beginning of 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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