Leadership vulnerabilities exposed in NLL

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

The past weekend of National Lacrosse League action was themed by a lack of leadership in some losing causes. While we will never know what the outcomes of those games could have looked like with the rollback of time and injuries, they did reveal that Philadelphia, Minnesota and Buffalo are challenged to compete without Brodie Merrill, Andrew Suitor and John Tavares. In the near future there will be questions asked around these injuries and lip service given. “Our other guys need to pick up the slack” or “Someone else needs to step up and take charge” sound like some of the family feud answers we will get. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Worse off is the timing of these injuries, or any injuries a team acquires down the back stretch. The things you can never imagine happening yet somehow have to plan for.

The situation in Philadelphia has turned really grim.

This past weekend the Washington Stealth wreaked havoc on the young “Merrill-less” Wings defense. It appeared Washington could do as they pleased on any given shift and poor Brandon Miller was again the recipient of his team’s defensive shortfall.

Missing faceoff man and regular defender Jeff Reynolds has wounded the Wings already thus far. Brett Manney is also injured and absent from the Wings man-down unit but having Merrill out for this game led to all sorts of issues the young Philly defense was unable to cope with.

Toughness was visibly missing for the Wings Saturday night and the Stealth are a big bunch of fellas on both ends. When the Stealth pushed those buttons the Wings were completely inept and ill-prepared for battle. I guarantee that if Jeff Moleski or Matt Beers took a final shift of the game on offense with Brodie around, one of them would have ended up meeting him in the alley as Merrill always stands up for the honor of his team.

This is really the least of the Wings issues here but I mention it because it affects the whole demeanor of a young team when your leader in battle is missing. Philadelphia played a little tense in this game and it picked the wrong team to play reserved against. This game was never in doubt once after the first quarter closed.

The Buffalo story of Saturday night is the one of a team with lots of talent but no general No. 2 for their defense when Tavares is out. There have been games earlier this year when Shawn Williams and Aaron Wilson put up good numbers in the absence of Tavares boding well for the Bandits future if Tavares went missing for an extended period. This weekend the horribly inconsistent Bandits offense failed to generate enough shots to win an NLL game against the NLL’s worst team record-wise coming in to Buffalo off a game the previous night.

There is no excuse for this Bandits offense even when Tavares is resting. They have plenty of veteran leadership, possibly too much. Whatever the case may be, it looked like GM Steve Dietrich was holding auditions Saturday night as rookie Carter Bender found himself in the lineup for only the second time this year while Jamie Rooney was inserted for his first game of the year. The week before Tracey Kelusky was put on IR and Matt Giles was given a game or two to impress. These moves may have been a distraction but they are not an excuse for this offense. The good news for the Bandits is that they do have time, lots of talent and quiet toughness. Add in Tavares and you get a team capable of anything.

The case of the missing Suitor in Minnesota is heartbreaking. Of all the players wearing a “C” on their jersey lately, no one has carried more weight for his team than No. 20 in Minnesota.

If I could count all the times this guy has answered the bell to get this team through a tough spot in a game during the last two seasons, I’d guess it would be at a 2-3 times a game pace. I think the Swarm have enough talent to win without Suits but it’s the “X” factor Andrew brings that they miss, just like Merrill in Philadelphia.

The slogan “team tough” only holds true when you have a guy or two who will be willing enough not only answer the charge but who actually decides they are going to dictate to their foe when they feel it’s necessary to shake it up. Again, Merrill and Suitor can decide to take it to their opponent with fists or a fast break and it’s explosive when they do. The Swarm youth has proven resilient over the last one-and-a-half seasons and you can never count them out. Unfortunately, you can’t count on any consistency from them either and that will continue to be an uphill battle with their loss.

One time Suitor needed to ignore the bell was last year’s playoff game, which earned him a two-game suspension and a huge lesson on the learning curve of leadership. It also had the Swarm start this 2013 year shorthanded with two one-goal losses. Those games proved Minnesota still has it in them to compete without their captain if they believe in themselves.

Finally, the struggles of the Colorado Mammoth were well-scripted last week heading into a double road game weekend which looked glum. What transpired; two solid efforts equaling a lower scoring loss plus a convincing victory.

Signs of life surfaced for the Mammoth as the defense had two steady performances against high-end offenses. Especially impressive was the shot total in Buffalo and control the Mammoth commanded during the second half. The storyline was goaltending but this was a team effort having the offense protect the ball and helping get the defense in position to go to work. What was the difference in the two games? Colorado had penalty issues on Friday night and the Rock made them pay dearly going 5-for-7 on the PP. Conversely, the Mammoth powerplay unit was 0-for-4 in Toronto and there is your ball game.

I haven’t seen any of the Toronto/Colorado game but one stat I checked was John Grant’s three goals on 18 shots on net. Not a bad night’s work but too easy for the Rock to game-plan against. For the Rock, Garrett Billings, Colin Doyle and Kasey Biernes all clocked in at 7 shots each. Toronto has a balanced attack with firepower in all positions and for Colorado to succeed, they have to do the same and share the ball on offense and the PP or they just become too predictable.

Saturday night in Buffalo saw Colorado’s Grant drop his shot total to 8 shots while Jordan McBride scored a hat trick on 11 shots and the shooting was spread out among the others on the Mammoth offensive set. Oh yeah, Grant had assists on all of McBride’s goals. Distribution of the wealth worked for the Mammoth and there is no doubt it all started in the stick of John Grant. JGJ’s ability to “create” is what will ultimately bring the fortunes of Colorado’s offense back on line.

Saturday night’s win in Buffalo was the kind of win this team can rally from with the help of their leader. The trade deadline brings Casey Powell to the right side of this offense and another floor general.

It may go down to the wire, but right now Merrill, Tavares and Suitor are watching from the sidelines while Grant remains healthy and able to lead his team. In a nine-team NLL you wouldn’t think one person is so important to a team’s fortunes. A combined record of 1-9 for Buffalo, Minnesota and Philadelphia without their leaders thus far is a pretty good indicator otherwise.

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).

Rate This Story:

Vote This Post DownVote This Post Up (+12 rating, 14 votes)
Loading ... Loading ...