So far, the 2013 National Lacrosse League schedule has had its fair share of close games and nail-biting finishes, par for the course in this league. Parity is a word you hear often when talking shop about the NLL, the motto anyone can win on any given night, etc., etc. It holds true when you are talking about the nine teams that make up our professional lacrosse circuit. Not much separating the seven teams in the middle of the pack. The hot topic I keep hearing the talking heads mention is how teams manage momentum shifts or runs during a game. Like parity, “momentum” is another buzz word that has been mentioned in 2013 over and over. We’ve seen lots of games that start off bad and end victorious for an NLL team in this half of a season. These games are the types of huge momentum shifts we have come to expect as the norm.
Most often these contests leave coaching staffs thankful for a win but somewhat sheepish that the game plan went right out the door and structure was replaced with improvisation and a dose of luck. Heck, sometimes you feel guilty because the end result was almost a gift win from the other team more than the execution or efforts of your own squad.
At the eight game mark of this NLL season I have seen enough games that I bet almost every NLL team is NOT HAPPY with where their team is at right now. Toronto is the NLL’s most consistent team with a couple of tight losses and six wins. Every other team has been experimenting with soaring highs and basement floor lows to some degree, creating an unsure feeling of exactly what any given NLL team is capable of due to inconsistency. Look no further than the past weekend where Philadelphia changed its fortunes over a three-day period. The Wings responded to a huge gut check after being blown out and embarrassed at home by the same Knighthawk team they started the triumphant weekend series with. Edmonton and Minnesota took turns playing poorly, handing over wins to each other while Rochester remained in a scoring drought and Colorado continues to look for success on defense.
Setting aside a few low scoring games in Rochester to date output seems to be up across the board. Teams are struggling with defensive inconsistency like never before. Team defense ie: man-down units, power-play units not getting off the floor, faceoff sets and goaltending are taking it on the chin as a whole. Goal scoring is climbing and it looks to be the cause of two things, suspect defense and lots of transition!
Goalie stats are noticeably high. Early in this season we have seen two of last year’s high achieving goalers suffer some rough outings. To name a few, Mike Poulin and Aaron Bold have struggled with ups and downs all the year and I hope they don’t think I’m a bad guy for saying it. They have above-average defenses in front of them but their saves are down and their goals against up.
The Colorado goalie situation is just another where the whole team seems out of sorts and the goaltending isn’t helping to get things back on track. Chris Levis and now Matt Roik have been singled out for less than stellar play made obvious by their releases. From what I’ve seen they got a lot of help (I say tongue and cheek) from their Mammoth defenders. Darris Kilgour dropped the hammer on his number one goalie Anthony Cosmo a while back accusing him of not coming up with a save when the team needed it and Kilgour was justified. What was the response? Cosmo came back with a game of vintage Coz stuff in a convincing Bandit win in Rochester. May have been just what the doctor ordered.
Possibly others need the same treatment so they can shake their funk? In the true sense of what came first, the chicken or the egg I know what it’s like to be a GM with a shaky goalie and a whole organization worried about it. The defense feels like they have to overcompensate when the saves are missing and that tends to lead to more issues. Down the other end the offense presses to make more scoring opportunities gambling often when they shouldn’t. It can become a nasty cycle and it can sink a team when they continuously don’t get the saves or all round defensive efforts they need to compete.
I will let the goalies off the hook some. Transition is “king” in the NLL nowadays and it’s opening up more good scoring chances league wide than ever before. This year has been chalk full of unsettled scoring situations and defenses having trouble just getting on the floor. An educated guess says that tranny opportunities are up about 20% across the board this year from last contributing to some very exciting lacrosse to watch. Teams are green-lighting it and going hard to the goal, trading in possession time for unsettled scoring chances.
One huge positive from this is the NLL has been successful in shifting the culture of pro lacrosse. Games are up and down with speed and athleticism replacing intimidation, brawn and beat downs in the defensive end. Bravo!
There are some by-products though. I see another trend that is emerging from all that transition: a lack of five on five offense and scoring.
When you add it all up it makes sense. NLL squads are pressing more to score in unsettled situations to compensate for the lack of settled offensive production. Team offense is getting less reps or runs at finding a rhythm because the transition is taking away their playing time and chances to work together as a unit 5-5. In turn that also hurts the defenses in the same way. Lots of unsettled situations playing fire-drill defense off the bench instead of settled five on five where a defense finds its ship legs and dictates shooting lanes to the opposition on a good night.
The dynamics of the pro game have shifted. Circling back to my initial observation of the 2013 season I resume thinking about how important it is to manage runs or momentum shifts in the game now. More than ever we see that pulling a goalie for a few minutes or calling a time out is needed to regroup and attempt to chase the storm clouds away. Think of the manager in baseball taking a walk out to the mount just to break the tempo of what has been transpiring. With less concentrated offense and defense there is a diminishing need for “in game” coaching and more importance being placed on managing team mojo. The team’s fate hangs on the decisions being made in transition creating a volatile environment of runs and confidence shifts. Las Vegas baby.
So I’ll make a bold prediction and say that the team that becomes the best at managing these momentum shifts from here on out will win the cup in twenty thirteen. The next 8 games will surely reveal what the last 8 games have taught us.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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