NLL 2013 preview: Minnesota Swarm

Tyler Carlson, left, and Evan Kirk, gave the Minnesota Swarm a solid combo in goal. (Photo: Minnesota Swarm)
Tyler Carlson, left, and Evan Kirk, gave the Minnesota Swarm a solid combo in goal. (Photo: Minnesota Swarm)

It’s easy to meet expectations when there really aren’t any, but give the Minnesota Swarm credit. Their last National Lacrosse League season was spent proving wrong the doubters and they were 1 game short of playing for the NLL’s ultimate prize. But the Edmonton Rush ended the dream for the Swarm, who proved to the world last year that a young and energetic roster can indeed get it done in the NLL. Playing a host of rookies week to week, the Minnesota Swarm played through some bouts of inconsistency to emerge as a legit contender and with 18 players form last year returning, they’re ready to take their game a step further in the 2013 season.

Minnesota Swarm

2012: 9-7, lost in West Division final
Top 3 returning scorers: Callum Crawford (26 goals, 58 assists, 83 points), Ryan Benesch (33-39, 72), Jordan MacIntosh (23-28, 51).
League leaders: Andrew Suitor (74 penalty minutes), Evan Kirk (9.81 goals-against and .807 save percentage).
Key Additions: Kiel Matisz (draft), Shayne Jackson (draft), Alex Crepinsek (draft), Matt Gibson (draft), Michael O’Brien (free agent).
Key Departures: Kevin Ross (traded to Philadelphia), Richard Morgan (signed as free agent with Colorado).

Outlook: It wasn’t difficult for the Minnesota Swarm to live up to the hype last season because there really wasn’t any heading into the season. What there was a lot of was scratching heads and abstention votes because there were a lot of rookies and a lot of newcomers to the team and it was nigh impossible to know how it would all come together.

By the time the end of the season rolled around, however, the Swarm were a household name among NLL fans. Veteran mainstays Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch did what they do in leading the team in scoring with 83 points and 72 points, respectively. Helping immensely from the left side was the career year of Kevin Ross, who was a steady producer and finished with 59 points on 28 goals and 31 assists. The Wings got a 2015 first-round draft pick from the Wings for Ross, so who steps in — Joel Henry? Shayne Jackson? — could play an important role in how the Swarm responds to the success of last winter.

With 7 of their top 8 scorers back from a year ago, the Swarm are in good shape up top. Crawford (right side) and Benny (left) will bring the veteran leadership they’ve become accustomed to providing and Henry, Corbyn Tao (R), Jay Card (R), Jordan MacIntosh (R) and Andrew Suitor (R) are being counted on to return with the same youthful exuberance — and production — they had last season that was a big part of the team advancing farther than it ever has in the NLL playoffs.

There is one bigger question that hounds, however: Where is the depth on the left side going to come from? Of the top 7 scorers we mentioned who are back from last season, 5 are righties. Super-stud rookie Kiel Matisz adds another body to the right side while the experience on the left leaves a bit to be desired. After Benesch, the left side has 3 forwards listed on that side and 2 of them (Jackson and Matt Gibson) are rookies and the other (Henry), was a rookie last year.

But haven’t we heard this before when talking about Minnesota? They’re so young. They’ve got no experience. The best way to win a debate in sports to own the scoreboard and that’s what the Swarm did as coach Joe Sullivan, who took over for fired Mike Lines mid-season, and his staff found a way to make it work.

And it didn’t just happen up top for Minnesota. The defense, especially goalies Tyler Carlson and Evan Kirk, really shined in the North Star State. The goalies ended up rotating through the season and put up very similar stats, but Kirk led the league among regular goalies in goals-against (9.81) and save percentage (.807), which landed him a spot on the NLL’s All-Rookie team.

Among the runners, big Jeff Gilbert (6-4, 215) worked forwards over like a con man. His 26 forced turnovers were second-highest in the NLL and he and Richard Morgan were the rock of a unit that did well in the set pieces. But when it came time to move the ball after a turnover or loose ball, the Swarm had plenty of wheels in the form of MacIntosh, Suitor, Andrew Watt and rookie Nic Bilic, whose speed and quickness at times was almost unfair. The return of Greg Downing, who was limited to 8 games because of a knee injury, will also boost the depth in the back end.

At least 18 players from last year’s squad return for 2013 and it’s not like the rookies are without merit. They come in as proven talents, at least in other lacrosse loops. Jackson played a key role for the Langley Thunder in their run to the Mann Cup series, while Matisz (Brooklin) and Crepinsek (Ajax) have been honing their skills with the big boys. Transition man Brock Sorensen, the team’s top draft pick and No. 2 pick overall, will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list as he continues rehab for a knee injury.

It’s hard to say if Sorensen’s contributions will be missed because hasn’t exactly contributed anything yet. But his upside obviously is enormous. Still, the Swarm have made it a bit of a trademark to overcome obstacles whether they’re unforseen injuries or self-imposed youth on the roster. Yes, there was a bit of inconsistency during last year’s run but is that not to be expected with such a young team?

Point is, the Swarm last year put together a balanced roster that had the ideal chemistry and the bonus was that the guys were great lacrosse players. That’s the recipe for an ideal team and the Swarm were on the cusp of proving that but they’ll have to settle for trying to prove it again this season. Every team is 0-0 right now but some teams have more reason to be optimistic than others. The Swarm are definitely one of those teams as they come into 2013 as a legitimate contender in 2013.

Previous previews

Washington Stealth
Buffalo Bandits
Edmonton Rush
Philadelphia Wings

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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