Ten things to watch this NLL season, part II

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

Last week, we looked at the top 5 things we should keep an eye on as the 2014 National Lacrosse League season dawns. Today, let’s take a look at 5 more, including the overhaul in Buffalo and whether it will work, can the Knighthawks win an unprecedented third straight title, is this the year for Minnesota and how will the Stealth’s move to Vancouver be received? Legit questions, all, so as the season opens tonight, prime yourself with a closer look at some of the issues we’ll see unfold in 2014.

6. Buffalo Bandits overhaul. Will it work?
Hitting rock bottom is painful. The Bandits and their fans learned that first-hand last year.

The once-mighty Bandits were the worst team in the NLL, missing the playoffs with a dismal 6-10 record.
They scored just 171 goals, second worst to Philly’s 170. They allowed 211 goals against, tied for the bottom in that category with the Roughnecks. However, the Riggers scored a league-high 222 goals, making their GAA much easier to stomach.

The Bandits spent the season battling key injuries, inconsistency and desperately trying to find the right formula to put more balls in the net. The low point of the year came with back-to-back blowout losses: An 18-11 spanking by the Rock March 29 and a 21-7 shellacking by the Swarm April 6.

To be frank, the Bandits seemed older and slower than most teams in 2013. Knowing that a mediocre product won’t fly in Bandit Land, where fans know and expect better, GM Steve Dietrich was busy in the off-season. The biggest change came behind the bench, where mainstay Darris Kilgour is gone, replaced by Troy Cordingley.

The team also bid adieu to some veterans, including forwards Tracey Kelusky — who never seemed to get his footing in Buffalo — and Luke Wiles. In a league where draft picks — especially first-rounders — are worth more than gold, the Bandits continued to deal future picks to build right now. The strategy may backfire down the road but it was clear Dietrich would not and could not stand pat.

The biggest addition is that of left-handed forward Ryan Benesch, acquired from Minny. The club also added a young right-handed forward when they dealt a pick to Calgary for Joe Resatarits. The pair, along with a healthy John Tavares, should add more punch to the club’s attack. So will giving Mark Steenhuis more time with the ball in the O end. Steenhuis is listed as a forward, leading one to assume he’ll have a bigger role out the front door. Shawn Williams will be expected to continue to shoulder a big load on offence, too.

The team also added some youth, sped and grit on the backend in Andrew Watt and Rory Smith.

On paper this year’s edition of the Bandits is a better team. However, one could argue every other team in the league got better, too. Clearly, Buffalo has gone all-in with this roster. Was it the right call to dump so many draft picks to fill the roster now (remember the king’s ransom they paid for Anthony Cosmo)?

Sure didn’t work well for the Edmonton Rush when they tried that formula.

Ah well, things can’t get any worse in Bandit Land. Can they?

7. Minny to the Max. Is this the year for the Swarm to win the NLL title?
The Swarm went into last season considered a title contender by many, this scribe included. That said, they did have some adversity to overcome.

Sure they were young, fast and skilled. However, there were some questions as to whether they were deep enough when it came to scoring goals and they had two young unproven goalies in net. Then they lost their captain Andrew Suitor — described by head coach Joe Sullivan as the team’s ‘heart and soul’ — to a season-ending ACL injury in Week 8 against Edmonton.

They limped through the regular season, finishing last in the West with an 7-9 record but clinched a playoff cross-over berth in the East. They demolished the No.-1 seeded Rock 20-11 before losing 12-10 to the eventual champion Knighthawks.

It’s been a busy off-season for the Swarm, who dealt franchise leading scorer Ryan Benesch, goalie Evan Kirk and transition man Andrew Watt, loading up on draft picks. Of course, they had room to wheel and deal warm bodies thanks to the bevy of picks they already had in the recent draft, including the No.-1 overall pick they used to select Logan Schuss, who’s being looked at to replace the departing offensive production of Benesch.

They then took two-way stud Jason Noble with the second pick; Cameron Flint at No. 4 and Scott Jones at No. 7.

So, heading into this season the club has gotten even faster, even younger and even more talented. They have an established No.-1 goalie in Tyler Carlson (no more platooning with Kirk) and should have a healthy Suitor. As well, they’ll have two forwards in Kiel Matisz and Shayne Jackson with their first year of NLL play under their belt looking to build on impressive rookie campaigns.

Oh, and then there’s Jordan MacIntosh, who’s established himself as one of the NLL’s rarest players: The Do-It-All guy. MacIntosh just keeps getting better. He can play both ends of the floor, along with powerplay and short-handed. He won 55.5% of the face-offs he took and led the team with 197 loose balls.

The Swarm should score more goals this season thanks to an improved offence and a lethal transition game. The key for them will be Carlson. He needs to have an MVP-type season for the Swarm to win a title. Tons of pressure on his shoulders. Good thing those pads are so wide.

8. Stealth has a new home. Will pro lacrosse fly in the lower mainland?
For years the question has been: Why didn’t the NLL’s first trip to the Lower Mainland work out? How could the second-biggest box lacrosse hotbed on the planet not be able to support an NLL team? Why did the Ravens fail?

I’ve heard the answer explained as a long and complex one, citing many factors that worked together to doom the team. To a certain extent, that’s true.

However, if you really boil it down there was one big main reason that doomed the NLL in Vancouver the first time around: Not enough lacrosse fans supported the Ravens and the club wasn’t able to attract enough new fans to the game.

Pretty simple.

The first point is the most frustrating to folks outside the Lower Mainland. The answer, though, is always the same from people there in the know: Lacrosse fans are used to paying next to nothing to watch NLL players in WLA summer ball and don’t want to pay for NLL-priced tickets to see the same guys. Moreover, some didn’t like the music, some didn’t like the turf, others just didn’t like something. Who knows?

So why did and do lacrosse fans in Southern Ontario, who fill barns in Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester, not have the same issues? No idea.

As to the second point, the Ravens struggled to pay the rent, pay the bills and still advertise and market the team. As things started to go downhill, the problems compounded and they were never able to gain traction in the uber-fickle Vancouver sports market. I mean, this is an area where the NBA failed!

So what will be different this time with the Stealth?

For starters, they will play in a smaller building outside of downtown where their rent is lower. Plus, the building is easier — in theory — to fill. They should have the funds (so far, that’s been the case) to market and aggressively advertise the team.

As well, the team is also a contender (not an expansion club), coming off a championship loss in that same building last May. Of course, for every upside the pessimist could find a downside.

Not being downtown equals too far a drive for some. It’s waaaaaaaayyyy out there, I’ve heard it described. And sure the team is a contender, but so is the Langley Thunder that plays there in the WLA. What makes the Stealth so much better? (you can hear some old WLA fans and new lacrosse fans asking this question).

At the end of the day, it seems the Stealth are in a good position to succeed. After bouncing from Albany to San Jose to Washington, they may have found their forever home. That would be great for not only the Stealth, but the league and the game itself.

9. KHawks drive for threepeat. Can they be the first?
They win when it matters. Period.

With back-to-back titles and two of the most clutch players in the game in Cody Jamieson and Matt Vinc, the K-Hawks HAVE to be the favourites to win another title this year.

They return essentially the same roster and based on that, it’s hard to argue against them. But they barely made into the playoffs last year, you say? But when they did, they put the hammer to the floor.

Over the last two years, they have been the best playoff team. In a one-and-done format, they brought their A-game when it mattered and that’s all that mattered. In a league where parity is the key word, this year we’ll see smaller rosters, a longer season and potentially more playoff action. Could that work against Rochester? Absolutely. But it could work against any team in the league.

While every team (save Philly in the opinions of most) has a legit shot to win the Champion’s Cup, Rochester has those extra intangibles: They know what it takes to win and know how to succeed as a team when the cards are down.

How impressive a feat would a three-peat be? As in any sport, that’s an incredible accomplishment. Without a guy named Michael Jordan, damn near impossible, especially these days. The Toronto Rock dominated the modern NLL. Twice they won back-to-back titles (1999, 2000 and 2002, 2003) and collected five out of seven titles between 1999 and 2005. However, the Rock juggernaut was never able to win three in a row.

In fact, no team in the MILL/NLL (dating back to 1987) has ever won three straight titles. The Wings won two straight titles twice (1989, 1990 and 1994,1995) while the Bandits won back-to-backs in 1992 and 1993. In a league more competitive than it’s ever been, winning three titles would be even that more impressive.

And with a young, dedicated nucleus, Rochester is built to win for years to come. That three-peat could become a four-peat. Or it could become a no-more-peat this year. We’ll have to wait and see come May.

10. Smaller rosters, more games, new playoff structure — what will the impact be?
By now we all know about the changes to the game this year. There are certainly lots of them, and significant ones, to boot. We’ve had time to study them and make up our minds.

When it comes to the smaller rosters, I’m not a big fan. Period. The change was made due to financial reasons to help keep the league viable. Fair enough. But I know Buckleys is good for my cold, but I still don’t like taking it. It still leaves a gross after-taste, just like this change.

And given how fast the game has become, reducing the number of legs should slow the product down a bit. We’ll see what teams start dragging a bit by the fourth quarter.

The onus will be on offences to not take dumb shots and use the full 30 (read: slow it down a bit) to rest their defence and transition players, moreso now than ever.

Of course smaller rosters were already a kick in the junk before we factor in those two extra regular-season games that were added. As a fan of the game and pundit, I love getting to see more games, but I would have loved it even more had the larger roster sizes been kept as they were.

The other big change was the playoff format. Fans complained the regular-season meant nothing and the one-and-done post-season format sucked. The league listened and made changes. Of course, some folks still aren’t happy. They don’t like the idea of a 10-minute overtime perhaps deciding a champion. The reality is that is the best the league could do. It’s simple: They are the second third or fourth tenants in their building and couldn’t plan a three-game series or more.

So, we give this change a chance and see how it plays out. The league can always switch back or tweak this new format a bit. The main thing here is the NLL LISTENED to their fans and tried to address the issues folks had with the playoff format. They deserve kudos for that.

Another ‘change’ of sorts that impacted the NLL was Rogers’ recent landmark 12-year deal to broadcast the NHL in Canada. That left TSN on the outside looking in with time slots to fill. The network announced this week they are broadcasting eight NLL games for the 2014 season. It’s a diverse slate of games, not all Rock tilts.

If things go well this year and they get viewership numbers they like, maybe they expand the schedule. Let’s also hope they start playing NLL clips in their nightlight package. That could all serve to grow the league big time.

Imagine one day every NLL game broadcast in high def. You listening Santa? You got some free time now. Get on it!

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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