Ten things to watch this NLL season, part I

ten-things-to-watch-this-nll-season-part-i

The 2014 National Lacrosse League season is just around the corner, so let’s look at some things we should be keeping our eyes on. Today kicks off a 2-part series in which we’ll pose some questions heading into competition. Is Curtis Dickson the best player in the world? What will Cody Jamieson do for an encore? How much does John Tavares have left in the tank? Here, I offer my answers to those questions and I’ll be back next week with 5 more.

1. Is Curtis Dickson the best lacrosse player in the world?
When your nickname is Superman, you’re expected to save the day. It’s an occupational hazard. However, Dickson came up just short when his team needed the type of heroics that usually only come from some cape-clad fella.

After being held without a point (and barely touching the ball in the first half of the 2013 West Final against the Stealth), Superman put on a clinic in the second half, scoring seven times on 14 shots to make a game of it. He also assisted on Scott Ranger’s third quarter tally, having a hand in all eight second-half Riggers goals. His heroics were all for naught, however, as Calgary lost 14-13. Trailing 8-5 at the half, Dickson tied the game 13-13 midway through the fourth quarter before Rhys Duch scored the eventual game-winner.

After the tilt, teammate Geoff Snider referred to him as the best player in the world. A bold statement indeed. Some would argue he’s not even the best player on his team, given fellow righty Shawn Evans won the league scoring title and was named league MVP. But one thing everyone can agree on is that Dickson’s best years are ahead of him — a scary thought for opposing NLL defences.

Dickson finished third in league scoring in 2013 with 42 goals in the regular season, behind John Grant Jr. (43) and league leader Duch (45). Dickson followed up the NLL season by scoring 58 goals and 103 points in 17 games with the Maple Ridge Burrards to lead all WLA scorers, finishing 16 points ahead of second-place Cory Conway in points and 16 goals ahead of Cory Small, who played one extra game.

A standout at the University of Delaware, Dickson is making his mark in the field game, as well. He should be a shoo-in to make Team Canada, having scored six goals in a recent national intra-squad outing, showing how dominant his game can be on a bigger field with even more room to move. He also scored four goals to lead Team Canada past the U.S. back in 2012 in the Duel in Denver.

Having chosen to skip the MLL to play in the WLA for now, lacrosse pundits can only guess the type of numbers he would put up in the pro field game. But back to the NLL and the 2014 season. If Athan Iannucci’s seemingly unbreakable single-season mark of 71 goals is ever eclipsed, Dickson has to be the odds-on favourite to do it.

He gives new meaning to the old arena slogan: “You pay for the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.”

2. What will Mark Matthews do for an encore?
The comparisons were inevitable. He’s a first-overall pick built like the Gait Brothers and John Grant Jr., he’s a lefty, too, and he has the same sick stick skills as those legendary superstars.

He was hyped as the second coming when he entered his rookie season last year and shouldered the pressure admirably. He scored three goals and five points in his first game and ramped up to a season-high of six goals in a tilt on Feb. 15. He ended up finishing fifth in NLL goal scoring with 38, adding 31 helpers for 69 points — second on the Rush in points behind Ryan Ward (21g, 54a, 75pt).

However, he took 233 shots. Do the math. Not the prettiest shooting percentage.

He added two goals and two assists in the Rush’s opening-round playoff loss. When you add it all up, it wasn’t the best rookie season in NLL history. That said, it was crystal clear to all who saw him play that he’s the real deal and should live up to all the hype that arrived with him when he stepped into the NLL.

You can’t teach the skill he has, and you can’t teach being 6-foot-5 and 230-lbs. Those two together provide that rare combination of slick stick and size, a la Junior and the Gaits.

With the departure of Ward, a righty, who signed in Philly, and the loss of fellow lefty Corey Small (who was third in team scoring in 2013 with 28g, 36a, 64pt) for the season with a torn ACL suffered in summer ball in Victoria, Matthews will be looked at to increase his production for a Rush team that finally shed its reputation for anemic offensive numbers last season. The Rush notched 203 goals to finish third behind only Calgary and Minnesota in that department.

While other Rush forwards such as rookie Robert Church, Dane Stevens and Curtis Knight will also be expected to help replace the departed points of Ward and Small, the onus will clearly be on Matthews to elevate his game even further. The biggest winners should be the Rush franchise and fans, who have waited since the club’s inception for that one offensive superstar to ignite what was always a mediocre offence and ramp up the excitement level when the club is on attack.

3. Shawn Evans or Garrett Billings — who finishes first in scoring?
Evans and Billings finished 1-2 (112 and 100 points, respectively) in league scoring and 1-2 in assists (80 and 70). Both players are righties who have great outside shots (Billings more overhand, Evans a filthy sidearm which often resembles a knuckleball that handcuffs goalies) and both quarterback their respective offences, two of the best in the league.

And if Vegas carried odds for the National Lacrosse League, these guys would be the odds-on favourites to win the league scoring title this season.

Other names would get favourable odds, too: Rhys Duch, Callum Crawford, John Grant Jr. — they finished third, fourth and fifth in league scoring and could easily take the crown in 2014. However, if you have to handicap the field, Evans and Billings are the smart money to finish atop the heap.

Evans is the floor general in Calgary, who’s focused more of his game on the feeder role sharing the floor with such snipers as Dane Dobbie, Curtis Dickson, Scott Ranger and Jeff Shattler. While he’s still deadly with his shot and money in close, his greatest ability is the eyes he has in the back of his helmet, his lacrosse instinct and his ability to anticipate where his open teammate will be.

Billings is also the type of player who can score from anywhere on the floor and feeds as well as he shoots. However, when the righty has his stick dialed in he’s one of the sickest shooters in the league who can absolutely dominate goalies with his outside shot. Billings is also blessed to share the floor with such legends as Colin Doyle and Josh Sanderson, as well as young guns Kasey Beirnes and Stephan Leblanc.

The similarities don’t end there.

Both players were born in 1986, just two months apart (Billings in February and Evans in April). However, there are plenty of differences, too. Billings learned the game on the West Coast growing up in Langley while Evans is a product of the Peterborough, Ont., lacrosse factory.
Evans plays the game with more, shall we say, grit. He plays much bigger than his 5-foot-8 frame, willing to drop the mitts or mix it up if need be.

Billings, on the other hand, is more likely to be named most sportsmanlike player.

But at the end of the day, both are money.

4. What does Cody Jamieson do for an encore?
The Knighthawks star is entering his fourth NLL season. Last May he led his team to its second-straight NLL championship. He was named the championship game MVP for the second straight year, joining John Tavares as the only player in NLL history to achieve that feat.

During the regular-season, he finished fifth in league scoring with 28 goals and 61 assists for 89 points. That marked a career high for him and the third season in a row he improved on his points total.

This is the point where you say ‘wow.’

Jamieson has had perhaps the most impressive start to any NLL career. What does Jamieson do for an encore? Lead his team to a three-peat? (see next week’s second installment of Pilson’s Top 10 things to watch for more on that).

And just to pad it out a bit, Jamieson added a Mann Cup to his resume this past summer, leading his Six Nations Chiefs to a road victory against the host Victoria Shamrocks. He was named the MVP of that tournament, too. No big deal. He scored a hat-trick in the decisive 8-5 Game 6 win and tallied 13 goals and 29 points total in the series.

It’s true that Jamieson has collected titles his entire junior lacrosse career. He was the Minto Cup MVP in 2007 when the Six Nations Arrows won the national junior A title. Built like a brick-you-know-what, Jamieson has a sweet shot but is perhaps best known for dropping his right shoulder and barging to the net, before tucking home the ball with a well-placed shot or dive across the crease.

He’s the stick that stirs the drink in Rochester, and will be for many years to come after signing an NLL record 10-year deal with the K-Hawks in 2010 after being drafted first overall that same year. Jamieson is red-hot right now and the sky’s the limit, it seems, for him.

5. What does JT have left in the tank?
He’s the greatest player in the history of the indoor game. Yet he’s not even the most famous John Tavares.

Of course, the NLL legend is eclipsed in the recognition department by his nephew of the same name, who happens to be the captain of the New York Islanders and one of the NHL’s brightest young stars (was also a pretty darn good lacrosse player I’ve been told).

However, for lacrosse fans there’s only one JT. The man is the all-time points leader in NLL history with 1,666 (779g, 887a) in 280 regular-season games. In 33 career playoff games, he’s chipped in another 77 goals and 183 points. At 45 years of age, he’s entering his 23rd season in the league.

Back in 2001, he put up one of the best seasons — or THE BEST depending who you talk to — in league history with 51 goals and 115 points in just 14 games. He’s defied Father Time for longer than most pro athletes of his stature. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemiuex, Joe Montana — they all wish they could have been as productive as Tavares so deep into their careers.

Last season, nagging injuries limited No. 11 to just 12 games, in which he scored just 14 goals (seven of them coming on the power play) and 39 points. Anemic totals by his lofty standards. However, the season before he notched 41 goals and 80 points, showing he still belonged among the game’s offensive elites.

So which Tavares will we see this season? An aging superstar battling injuries or the ageless wonder who continues to amaze the sport’s faithful?

Time, fittingly, will tell on this one.

The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at ty.pilson@nllinsider.com or go to CalgarySun.com.

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