Taking a closer look at the NLL’s West

Goalie Tyler Richards and Washington should be able to bounce back, if they stay healthy. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Goalie Tyler Richards and Washington should be able to bounce back, if they stay healthy. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

Yesterday we took a look at the teams in the East Division so today we focus on the West as we prepare for tomorrow’s opener of the 2013 National Lacrosse League season. Are the Calgary Roughnecks primed and pumped for another run at the top? How are the defending division champion Edmonton Rush looking, and what did the Colorado Mammoth do to their roster to make a deeper playoff run? The Washington Stealth are looking to turn around last year’s nightmare and the Minnesota Swarm are coming at opponents with most of the young legs from last season, plus a few more rookies for this one. Let’s see how the teams out West are stacking up.

COLORADO MAMMOTH

In 2012, the Mammoth tuned over a new leaf and restructured most aspects of their team with an infusion of new talent and youth. It was a monstrous success. The Colorado PP was number one in 2012 with the new offense that gained Sean Pollock, Matt McLeod, Jordan McBride, Jamie Lincoln, rookie of the year Adam Jones and the departed Derek Hopcroft. This group plus wily vets Gavin Prout and league MVP John Grant Jr. delivered a season to remember that was an outstanding six wins better than 2011.

All in all, the Mammoth had 13 new players in 2012 that dressed nine or more games including five rookies. Combine that with six more wins and you have to wonder what GM Steve Govett and his coaching staff had to do to be recognized for their work in 2012. The new year brings the addition of Joel Dalgarno and Colton Clark on offense and a definite plan to showcase Jordan McBride’s offensive abilities full time.

All was not perfect in 2012 as the Mammoth did struggle down the stretch. Every team has speed bumps that arrive in different forms of adversity during their season and this team was no different. Prout and Grant missed games in April. They stumbled into the playoffs and collectively underachieved in the most important game of the year leaving a bad taste in their mouths and something to build off of going forward.

Defensively the team was pretty sound statistically in 2011 so it didn’t look like much needed to be done there. Instead, many new faces were inserted on the defensive side and it paid big dividends. Cameron Holding, Dan Coates and Creighton Reid all saw 16 games of action and the trio were reliable while aiding to transition. Rory Smith and Jon Sullivan came over from Minnesota to supply leadership and work the man down unit that was a respectable .500%. Big Rich Morgan will do the same this year helping out where needed with his jack of all trades resume. Gone are John Orsen and Jed Prosner to retirement while Scott Stewart was released in training camp. A healthy Mac Allen will only make them stronger in 2013 and Ilija Gajic had his best NLL season to date. Faceoffs remain a slight weakness in Colorado but special teams are an overall strength.

Chris Levis has been as steady as they come since he was re-acquired by the Mammoth in 2010. Levis logged almost every minute in the Colorado cage in 2012 and that may be a reason the brass went goalie shopping for veteran Matt Roik to help out. It also could be that the team and Levis struggled in their last 8 games going 3-5. Roik didn’t look comfortable in Toronto playing in a completely different system than he was used to in Washington and should be better suited to Colorado’s defense. I like the goalie combo for the long haul and playoffs which have to be the focus for the boys from Denver this time round.

CALGARY ROUGHNECKS

The Roughnecks have been the prize team of the NLL for about 4 years now. This team won the 2009 championship and in reality could have won it every year since based on regular season records and continued consistency. So the questions is there to be asked, why haven’t they?

Some may blame injuries or a single knockout playoff structure or others may point to this team not being able to defeat their province rival from Edmonton in the post season. Either way the playoffs have been a sore spot for Calgary lately and remain as the mystery to be solved in 2013.

A coaching change looks to be the start of that investigation. Curt Malawsky goes full time instead of sharing the head coaching duties with Dave Pym as was done in the past. Malawsky made his mark at the draft taking one of his Coquitlam Jr. “A” standouts Matt Dinsdale in the first round just as he did a year ago with Travis Cornwall. A few other strong right handed players were drafted in Joe Resetarits and 2nd round steal Jackson Decker. This duo will take some time to fit into this team and its tight chemistry but they both have talent to contribute now. This meant the Kaleb Toth era had to come to a close and Cory Conway was also traded to make room for the newbies. Add in Aaron Pascas and this offense looks slightly different in 2013.

As for the offense, it has been running smooth for a long time and the big reasons are Dane Dobbie, Jeff Shattler and Scott Ranger. Add in Daryl Veltman, Curtis Dickson (2011) Shawn Evans (2012) and you have the most balanced and potent scoring machine in the circuit. These guys are still young so expect more of the same in 2013. Dickson has become the most feared offensive player in pro lacrosse with the ball in his stick and Shatler is one of the premier feeders in the game. Dane Dobbie’s health may be an issue as he missed his last WLA playoff game and was MIA in pre-season exhibitions.

Again in transition Calgary boasts Shattler, faceoff guru Geoff Snider, Pete McFeteridge and a supporting cast of speedsters who do it better than all other team to date. This mobile unit was created to run the pressure defense and they do it well. Calgary play as though they invented the Kilgour/Cordingley defensive system that was left behind when coach Cordingley split for a job close to home but credit Pym with helping the transition. The Roughies are lights out on special teams which says a lot about talent and coaching.

Mike Poulin has risen to be the No. 1 goalie in the league and he has worked hard to get there. That’s what you want in a goalie so he has the chops to weather the storms the goal position dictates. His late season injury may have put the team out of sorts paired with Dickson being laid up but it’s all behind them now. Backup goalie Frankie Scigliano suffered miserably in training camp exhibitions but he’s only 21 years old. Look for Poulin to play every minute in 2013.

It’s hard to find fault in this team; they have coaching, talent and consistency unmatched in the recent decade. No brainer picking them to take the West again in 2013.

MINNESOTA SWARM

The beginning of a new era spawned a prosperous year in Minnesota for the Swarm. The Swarm motto was “Out with the old guys and in with the new” for 2012. Starting with the demise of the Boston Blazers the Swarm began to assemble key players to refit their defense while the draft supplied a new youthful look offense and a goalie.

Jeff Gilbert came from Toronto along with Greg Downing in the dispersal shuffle that also delivered Mitch Belisle to build a defensive foundation with athleticism. Adding them to the core of established rushers Andrew Suitor, Andrew Watt and Tyler Hass made for one stable of quick horses. Drafting Jordan MacIntosh sealed the deal and this team was off to the races. Transition and forced turnover are the name of the game in Minny. Speed and youth ensure this will be the game plan again in 2013. The drafts of #2 pick Brock Sorensen and #10 pick Alex Crepinsek assure us the Swarm will continue to be dangerous in this system even with the loss of veteran Rich Morgan. Dan Ball and Nick Bilic proved they belonged in the NLL and made great strides in 2012. Five on five re-trans or man down this defense can strike like no other. In 2012 Minny was prone to some defensive breakdowns and that needs to be addressed without stifling their transition. Suitor’s health is also rumored to be an issue.

The Swarm offense is where we media types will try to find weakness with the mix. Kiel Matisz and Shayne Jackson have been added to the Hive offense but the Swarm success is still dependent on the goals coming from Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch. Both had big years in 2012 and expect it to be no different this season as long as Benesch remains healthy and can develop chemistry with #4 pick Shayne Jackson. Corbyn Tao and Jay Card played steady support on the right side in 2012 while Joel Henry and hockey playing Josh Gillam filled out the left handers.

Unlike season of recent past the Swarm don’t have major turnover but my focus is on the one player that isn’t easily replaceable, Kevin Ross. The reason for the trade, most likely work, leaves the Swarm having a tough time duplicating the physical inside presence of Ross. Jackson and Henry have big shoes to fill as Ross was clutch in some big 2012 wins.

Special teams were also a big part of Minny’s success and will be counted on again this year. The team made great strides on the faceoff unit and powerplay while the revamped man down put up solid numbers again.

In goal this team made strong headway last year by introducing two new backstops that played the 1-2 system as good as anyone in my memory. The consistency from this duo was unbelievable for a set of rookies. Evan Kirk comes from pedigree and had some lights out performances but Tyler Carlson sported more wins. Combined they give the Swarm enough to be confident at all times while keeping each other honest.

2012 was the year the Swarm showed the whole league not to be afraid of youth and change. It got them to the second round of the playoffs and the earned respect of the other eight teams. Minnesota’s biggest challenge this year will be that no one is foolish enough to take them lightly anymore.

WASHINGTON STEALTH

If you read into stats as some do then this team is of interest. The Stealth were champions in 2010 and returned to the final in 2011 but last year they missed the playoffs unexpectedly. In 2010 Washington sported 11 wins and in 2011 they rolled back to 8 regular season wins before peaking in the playoffs. 2012 continued the decrease to 4 wins. While I don’t expect zero or a single win this year in Everett a regular season pattern had emerged and changes were in store. Eight new players are on the Stealth 23 man roster for 2013.

Last season they endured hardships with off field events and on field injuries that I believe they have overcome. The catch is that this is a much different team than the ones of playoff greatness in the past. A few questions need to be raised starting with their left handed offense.

Lewis Ratcliff is back but Cam Sedgwick is not. Cliff Smith has been more effective in transition than on offense in the NLL but for now he is the answer. Dean Hill rounds out a shallow left side that can’t afford an injury. Rich Morgan would have been a good fit but he was scooped up by Colorado and the draft was very devoid of high end left handed scorers.

Thankfully the right side is in really good shape. Rhys Duch and Athan Iannucci are all-star material and with Ratcliffe they should carry the offense. Brett Bucktooth will have his hands full setting picks and getting scoring opps when #10 and #81 draw doubles. Kyle Buchanan performed well enough at camp to see the departure of Jeff Zywicki and he is a pretty crafty player out of the Josh Sanderson mould. Buchanan will add to the powerplay and help minimize the loss of Sedgewick there.

Any defense that includes the size and talent of Jeff Moleski, Matt Beers and Mike Grimes is on solid footing. Grimes is a real threat in transition and one of the most underrated players in the NLL. Kyle Sorensen is the team captain and a thorn in opposition’s sides. Missing is charismatic Eric Martin who was dropped at the deadline. Martin shot a little too often for my liking but was a driving spirit of this group for years. Eric made way for some youth in the form of draft picks Tyler Garrison, Tim Henderson and Justin Pychel and free agents David Joyce and sleeper Patrick O’Meara. All five guys are well over six feet tall so expect this defense to be physical from the onset of 2013 although they are going to need some break-in time. High draft pick Bill Howstraser starts the season on IR.

Goalie Tyler Richards is the key to Stealth success. I’ve read enough about how Richards took a step back in 2012 from people who don’t do their homework. The guy posted a save percentage of over .800 in 3 LOSSES in 2012. In his three wins and two other losses Tyler was well over his season save percentage of .771. The 16-5 blowout at the hand of the Rush on Jan. 28 was one of the worst defensive first quarter performances I’ve witnessed at the NLL level as Richards was hung out to dry in what resembled non-checking shooting practice. The last two games of the season saw Richards post terrible numbers in meaningless games on a team out of the playoffs. Richards alone was responsible for this team being competitive in 8 games in 2012. I’d say he’s doing his job just fine not to mention T-Rich has had as much to do with the past success of this organization as anyone.

I do think this team is capable of damage again in the playoffs and I’m betting they won’t be the team left out in the West.

EDMONTON RUSH

The 2012 season was full of surprises and the Edmonton Rush ranked right up there near the top. Not so much because they rallied to make the NLL final but more for the shakeup in the off season that changed the face of their team.

Edmonton traded away team captain Brodie Merrill, suggesting Bruce Urban had taken over the deal making process. It didn’t end there. Out went Dean Hill, Mike McLellan, Andy Secore, Kedoh Hill, Bill Greer, Matt Disher, Scott Stewart and a three first rounders. When the dust settled the Rush had added veterans Shawn Williams, Aaron Wilson and Chris Corbiel along with goalies Aaron Bold and Brodie McDonald.

The Boston dispersal gave them two gifts in Kyle Rubisch and Ryan Dilks. Additionally, free agent Tom Johnson got released from Washington just in time to catch a ride to the finals. The funny part is that the major piece of the Merrill trade hasn’t played a game in Rushland yet. Athan Iannucci and Paul Rabil refused to suit up and you all know about that. The Rush crashed the party without them and forward Scott Evans.

Fast forward to now and the Rush have continued to tinker with the squad that had a 6-10 regular season in 2012. Gone are top point getter Shawn Williams accompanied by right handed vets Aaron Wilson and Scott Evans plus steady D-man Derek Suddons. Steve Toll has re-retired but he sparked the team down the stretch. More youth has been added and for good reason. The re-trade of Iannucci brought a gift in Mark Mathews when the Stealth finished out of the playoffs. Urban and coach Derek Keenan have developed the Midas touch.

Room had to be made for #1 overall pick Mathews so Williams was dumped while Jarrett Davis and Cory Conway become the answer for Wilson and Evans. Conway could be a great fit for Edmonchuk. Ryan Ward had a playoff to remember and will be back to lead the righties. The left side boasts the ever improving Zack Greer, outside gunner Corey Small and free agent Alex Turner, cut a year ago after coming over in trade. The new mix may be able to overcome the problems this team has had on the man up, league worst two years running. Faceoffs aren’t much better but the PK is very respectable to round out the special teams that Edmonton must improve..

Defense is where this team built and advanced as the 2012 season progressed. Big, athletic and strong they also popped a few transition goals helping out in all areas. More improvement will come from faceoff man Jeremy Thompson and first round pick Curtis Knight but Suddons leadership and six goals will be missed. The Rush are young and the future is bright for Brett Mydske, John Lintz, Jeff Cornwall and Jarrett Toll. Tyler Codron will miss 2013 due to work requirements. Jimmy Quinlan continues to get it done and is a quiet leader in transition.

In goal this team took a chance with unproven goalie Aaron Bold last year and their gamble paid off. Coach Keenan had drafted Bold into the NLL back in Portland (like Conway) in 2006 and knew he liked Bold who had just come off of a breakout summer for Brooklin, Keenan’s backyard. MacDonald remains untested at the NLL level but is a quality backup. Bold and this defensive group have the Rush primed for another run at the cup but the offense will have to counter their efforts.

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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