The Edmonton Rush had a crash landing in 2013, even with their second straight National Lacrosse League playoff appearance. It was the first time in the franchise’s 8-year history that it had reached the playoffs in 2 straight seasons, but considering where they were in 2012, last year was a disappointment. That’s what happens when you reach the title game; expectations rise. That’s where it is with fans and the team alike, so heading into the 2014 season, the pressure is on again and for good reason. The Rush have some shoes to fill offensively with some key departures, but that was addressed. So how well the new(er) sticks work in the offense is the biggest question for Edmonton, which returns intact a defense that’s already one of the NLL’s best.
2013: 9-7, lost to Washington, 12-11, in West Division semifinal.
Top 3 returning scorers: Mark Matthews (38 goals, 31 assists for 69 points), Zack Greer (28-25, 53), Curtis Knight (19-27, 46).
Key Additions: F Robert Church (draft), D Nik Bilic (trade), F Dane Stevens.
Key Departures: F Ryan Ward (free agency), D Jarrett Toll (released, practice squad), F Alex Turner (released, practice squad), Jim Quinlan (retired).
Outlook: Coming off a season in which they set a franchise record for goals in a season with 203, the Rush looked to 2014 as year they could contend again for an NLL championship. But losing forwards Ryan Ward (free agency) on the right side and Corey Small (ACL injury) on the left leaves some big shoes to fill. One step toward filling those roles is the return of Dane Stevens, who at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds can take up a lot of room and clear a lot of space. The big question with Stevens, though, is how sharp his NLL legs are. He hasn’t played NLL ball for 2 seasons, but he had a big WLA summer with Burnaby, leading the team with 81 points (26-55). That leaves Curtis Knight (19-27, 46) and Jarrett Davis (16-25, 41) as the team’s top returning scorers from the right side. And although both are very capable producers, the Rush will need more from them and rookie Robert Church, who was impressive in camp, to balance the front door. With Matthews — coming off a summer in which he says he focused on improving his fitness level — and Greer back on the left side, there’s some imposing balance for opponents to figure out.
The reason the focus and questions focus on the offense is because the defense should be set. Goalies Aaron Bold and Brodie MacDonald are solid, although there were some consistency issues. That said, the runners in front of whoever may be in goal help mask that issue. The stable of Chris Corbeil (captain), Kyle Rubish, Brett Mydske, John LaFontaine, Jeff Cornwall and Ryan Dilks give Edmonton one of the finest units in the NLL, and the addition of Nik Bilic via trade with Minnesota gives the Rush even more speed from the back end. It’s a disciplined unit that keeps its composure, limiting extra-man chances for opponents.
Speaking of special teams, that’s probably an area the Rush would like to see the most improvement. The downers struggled with a 40% kill rate, worst in the league, and that’s part of what finished off the Rush in their playoff loss to the Stealth, who scored a pair of fourth-quarter power-play goals in a 1-goal win. What’s more, the Rush could benefit by drawing more penalties to give their offensive talent some uneven looks. Edmonton’s 67 power plays in 2013 were second-fewest in the NLL so while the 5-on-5 was solid by franchise standards, imagine how much more damage the offense can do with some more power play chances.
There are some questions for the Rush as they enter 2014, but the upside dominates the pessimism. Defense wins championships and if Edmonton can find more consistency and draw some more man-up chances for the offense, there’s no reason to think the Rush can’t make a run deep into the playoffs.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 email@example.com or go to RochesterSports.com.
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