NLL Fan Poll: Who’ll be the top transition player in the NLL this year?

Is Brodie Merrill still the gold standard when it comes to transition players? (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Is Brodie Merrill still the gold standard when it comes to transition players? (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

“Transition” is a very interesting position in lacrosse. Imagine if they had it in hockey. Would Bobby Orr have been considered the first transition player in the NHL? In the league that is actually going to have a season this year, though, transition is still a tricky proposition. The very fact that some players are spotlighted as trannies sticks in the craw of old-schoolers who use phrases like “sticks in the craw” and who prefer a style of play in which everyone plays both ends and “transition play” is simply synonymous with “lacrosse”.

In order to qualify for the Transition Player of the Year award in the National Lacrosse League, there is one simple criteria: your team has to list you on its roster with a T next to your name (that explains why there’s no one from the Toronto Rock listed in our poll today, btw). But figuring out what makes a transition player the best is not quite as simple.

Brodie Merrill has long been the prototype for the position. He plays good defence, as attested by leading the league in forced turnovers in 2011, the first year the league used the statistic. He scoops a ton of loose balls: last year’s 157 was the lowest total of his career (his high is 216—without taking a single faceoff). He’s also scored 17 goals four times in his seven years in the league. As one coach told me when discussing voting for last year’s award, “Brodie’s still head and shoulders the best transition guy in the game.”

The guy who won the top tranny award from the NLL last year has a somewhat different style. Andrew Suitor has made much of his reputation with his fists. But while he is definitely among the toughest players in the league and led it in penalty minutes last season, Suitor is far from a one-trick pony. His transition game is predicated more on the work he does in his own end, though. The Swarm captain is a classic defence-first tranny. He’s a physical presence on the floor even when he keeps his mitts on. It’s not just about toughness, though. Suitor is athletic and has a high lacrosse IQ.

The intelligence of his game is based largely on good judgment about when not to do things. He will lock on to an offensive player to the point where it looks that player has become his sole focus. But rarely will you see him let his tenacity lead him out of position. He knows when to pass a man on to the next defender. Suitor is also a deceptively skillful scorer. He has only 20 goals and 36 points in two seasons, but if you’ve ever watched him in shooting drills in practice you know he could score a lot more if he wanted to. But one of his great leadership qualities is that he is perfectly happy to let someone else take off up the floor if they’re in a better position to do so. Hence, one staple of his game is stripping the ball from an opponent then leading a teammate perfectly with a one-bounce lob pass.

If Merrill is the epitome of the all-around tranny and Suitor the quintessence of the D-first type, who would represent the third, more offensively-minded, type? In the NLL, of course, that is really a rhetorical question. Mark Steenhuis has bounced back and forth between the front door and back door his whole career. Not too many transition players crack the 50-goal and 100-point barriers, as Steenhuis did in 2009 (51-50-101 totals). Of course, there are plenty of folks who’ll say he was an O guy that year, not a tranny.

Steenhuis defensive play has never been his strong suit; it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest he has often been more focused on taking off for a breakout pass than containing the player he’s supposed to be checking. The fact that he’s only created six FTs in each of the two seasons they’ve been tracked reinforces that line of thinking. If you had a chance to watch him this summer with the Peterborough Lakers, though, you had a chance to see a Mark Steenhuis you hadn’t seen before. He was taking real pride in playing a defensive role and was enough of a thorn in Shawn Williams’ side to have the Brooklin Redmen star forward—and now Steenhuis teammate in Buffalo—itching for a fight.

Steenhuis will never be mistaken for Kyle Rubisch on the defensive end of the floor, but he’s taken big strides in his own zone. Not as big, however, as another guy who used to be known as a defender just waiting to run up the floor. Oddly enough, focusing on the defensive side of his game seems to have resuscitated the scoring tough of Brad Self. A scoring star in junior who, like so many others was shifted to defence to take advantage of his speed, Self never played more than 10 games in his five NLL seasons prior to last year with Rochester and he didn’t play at all between 2008 and 2011 because he was playing pro hockey in Germany.

Self is an absolute burner, but his transition game was curtailed significantly under Mike Hasen’s coaching with the Knighthawks. The emphasis in Rochester is quite clearly on the defensive side of the transition equation. The result? Self has reinvented himself as a gritty and agile defender. That side of his game carried over to the summer, where he earned the Lakers first-ever transition player of the year award in 2012 but could just as easily have been named their defensive player of the year.

His evolved defensive prowess was reflected in the 20 turnovers he forced with Rochester in 2012. That number was good for sixth in the league. However, given that the KHawks’ scorers were the stingiest in the NLL at awarding FTs, Self’s total is probably the second-most impressive in the league behind Rubisch’s eye-popping 43.

And the best thing from a coach’s perspective is that the focus on defence hasn’t hurt his scoring at all. Self still had 23 points for Rochester last year and tore up MSL over the summer. He was third in goals and fifth in points on the powerhouse Lakers. He was a threat to break away and score at any time…and best of all he did it all without compromising in his own zone.

So what about the other seven candidates in this poll? You could make a legitimate argument for any of them as one of the favourites for the award. Jordan MacIntosh had a brilliant rookie season with Minnesota. He scored 51 points while scooping 153 loose balls and forcing 14 turnovers. Those numbers are compromised somewhat because he grabbed many of the loosies in his role taking faceoffs and FTs are handed out like candy in the Hive, but MacIntosh is the real deal. From the looks of Minny’s pre-season games, it appears he may play more out the front door this year; we’ll have to wait and see if he remains a true transition player.

Fittingly for the team that prides themselves on being the youngest and fastest in the league, yet another member of the Swarm made our roster of top trannies. He’s a veteran, though, practically a greybeard on a Minnesota roster that doesn’t include anything over 30. Andrew Watt is a former all-star who also has a nice level of familiarity with many of his Swarm teammates, having suited up with Self, Suitor, Steenhuis and MacIntosh with the Peterborough Mann Cup champions (as an aside: forget about the long-held notion of the Lakers as getting old and slow…they’re now the go-go Lakers).

Geoff Snider was IL Indoor’s Transition Player of the Year for 2012. Most of his offence stems from his astonishing skill in the faceoff circle and ability to take a faceoff win down the floor and score. He’s not one of the better defenders among this group, but he’s earned a reputation for his toughness and drive to win on the floor.

The NLL has been waiting for Ilija Gajic to light it up since he entered the league. He seems to be finding his role in transition rather than offence, though, and is becoming one of the best at it. Jimmy Quinlan is the Edmonton Rush’s captain and all-time scoring leader.

And then there were two. And arguably the two most imposing pure athletes on the list. Paul Rabil has brought his tantalizing blend of skill, fitness, power and charisma back to the NLL. In the tradition of Casey Powell and other top American players, it’s taking him a while to convert his field brilliance into indoor success. He’s got the potential to become a world-class box player, just like Powell did. If and when he does, he’ll be a staple in the top tranny discussion.

Finally, the rookie black horse candidate. His defensive game is a work in progress but Dhane Smith is an immense talent who led the Ontario Junior A league in scoring last year. As Bandits’ D coach Rich Kilgour puts it, he also runs like a deer and has a great attitude, willing to work hard to learn the game and do whatever his team asks of him. That combination points to a kid who’ll be pushing the best transition players for accolades and it won’t be long till he is.

One last thing before you get to vote. I left Curtis Manning out of the best defender poll because he was listed as a transition player last year and I suspected he would be again. But he is officially listed on the Roughnecks roster this year as a defender and this poll is only including guys listed as trannies. So he’s kind of caught in no man’s land. No slight was intended–he’d be a worthy contender in either group. Now, have your say.

Who will be the best transition player in the NLL in 2013?

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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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