As some NLL stars struggle, guys like Priolo, Pollock and Kelusky answer the bell

Sean Pollock has been a thorn in the side of many a Colorado Mammoth opponent. (Photo: Colorado Mammoth)
Sean Pollock has been a thorn in the side of many a Colorado Mammoth opponent. (Photo: Colorado Mammoth)

The National Lacrosse League season has reached the 1/3 mark and the feeling-out process has given way to some serious ups and downs for most teams in the circuit. The Colorado Mammoth have gotten off to a sluggish start and put themselves firmly in catch-up mode with 5 losses in 7 tries while most of their other siblings are flirting with .500 except the 4-0 Edmonton Rush and the ageless 4-1 Buffalo Bandits. We have seen some of the top players from recent seasons straining to maintain their mark on the score sheets and in the win column. Garrett Billings, Curtis Dickson, Callum Crawford, Shawn Evans and Kevin Crowley are all notable point producers lacking in the finishing department. I don’t expect these players to stay down forever but they don’t have much time left to get hot. There are other players who are suffering through a production drought so far and we look to future weeks to see them regain their stride.

In 2014 what I have really been looking for are the guys on each team that are improving and emerging, over-achieving or just downright play their butts off consistently week to week. Let’s take a look at some under-the-radar performances that are noteworthy.

The Buffalo Bandits are a team that has raised its level of play almost every week. The offense and defense are putting things together nicely but the standout has been big No. 23. Steve Priolo has been a Bandit since 2010 but he waited until 2013 to stabilize as a dependable back end guy with his regular mean streak. Confidence arrived in Steve’s game during the second half of the Bandits schedule and he became noticeable as a force in the back end.

Over the summer, many teams tried to lure him out of Banditland to no avail. Good on GM Steve Dietrich for holding tight as 2014 has revealed even more potential in the big man as he has tried his hand at offense and is pouring in the goals so far this year. I think it is more fate than design, but Priolo is making huge strides in his growth cycle.

A championship team usually doesn’t allow much room to squeeze new guys in the lineup. Injuries allowed right handed forward Joel McCready a shot at forward in the Knighthawks season opener and he has been pumping goals in ever since. McCready has been a transition player thus far in his NLL career but he has a nose for the net and now everyone knows. Joe Walters has played a role similar to McCready over time as a sub in guy on offense but Joel has been absolutely lights out in January for the K-Hawks.

The Philadelphia Wings were looking questionable going into 2014. The team does not lack talent but just throwing a bunch of guys together is a tough road to hoe. So far this year the Wings are making the best of it with spirited efforts from Tracey Kelusky and Ryan Ward, who are playing like younger versions of themselves.

Garrett Thul has also made a fantastic addition to the mix, making the Wings’ offense dangerous. Quietly, one Wings player is blossoming into a savvy box D-man and draw guy. CJ Costabile is our man. Costabile scored an electrifying goal to win the NCAA Championship in 2010 straight off of a draw and he has brought those abilities indoor. While he represented himself very well last year as a starter on the Wings defense, he has quickly relieved the loss of Jeff Reynolds to the USA World team and is making the case for himself as a top NLL draw man and an even better defender.

Toronto’s Rock have brought some young bucks into their stable over the last few years and this season is no different. Early on, the Rock lost Chris White, Pat Merrill and Bill Greer to injury, insert Craig England. The thing about England, he isn’t afraid to get involved and let you know he is serious about his trade. In the season opener, he made his presence felt by a few Roughnecks and sent Dan MacRae to the sidelines with a meaningful hit. England is sure to become a fan favourite with continued rugged play.

The Swarm of Minnesota have had a tough go so far in 2014. Not from lack of effort as it seems Minnesota has run up against a hot goalie in all of its losses. Speaking of goalies, the Swarm have had a hot one in their own net lately in young Zach Higgins. Higgins has been in to rescue an ugly start twice now and looked pretty smooth doing so for the Swarm.

While the Swarm are rife with 1st round picks year after year, both their goalies are free agent walk-ons that have backstopped their team in sturdy manner. Flat starts have cost Tyler Carlson some playing time, but the silver lining is Minnesota has learned that Higgins can be relied on without hesitation.

The Stealth returned to the professional lacrosse scene to entertain the lacrosse fans of Vancouver this past month. A team that has been busy changing faces to get some youth the last two years has had a resurgence from a team member who’s not so young. Spirited play to go along with the leadership that “Hodgie” supplies has been apparent to anyone watching this new Stealth team play. Curtis Hodgson is in his 11th season in black and red and there no indication he needs to stop anytime soon. Hodgson has been anchoring the man-down and defense while scooping lose balls and making plays over center with zest.

In Edmonton, we have a team playing to the best of its abilities and the 4-0 record shows. What doesn’t show is that many teams at the 2012 NLL draft missed the boat on No. 8 pick Curtis Knight. Knight is quietly assaulting Rush opponents with his slick crease play and deadly shooting percentage. Most impressive is his corner work for big clock resets and momentum. Another notable, Knight has a knack already in 20-odd NLL games for scoring big goals. Curtis is looking to be a headache to other NLL teams for many years.

The Calgary Roughnecks have limped into the 2014 schedule minus a few key defenders. The good news should be that their offense is intact. Collectively as a group, the Calgary offense has underachieved up until now in this young season. Check that. There is one guy shooting 20% and making plays all over the floor. Dane Dobbie has looked like a man possessed of late with his gutsy plays to get to the net and to collect lose balls in the offensive end. His contribution of 16 goals has been just what the Roughnecks have needed to balance the offense with others still not up to speed.

In the summer of 2013, Colorado traded for Drew Westervelt from Philadelphia. With Drew onside and Casey Powell the other most recent addition to the Mammoth offensive rights, it looked like Sean Pollock may be done in Denver. In fact, the writing was on the wall.

Then Powell decided to skip the first month of the season and Pollock got a reprieve. After sitting the first contest of 2014, Pollock has been a spark plug for a team struggling to compete. In last Saturday’s win at Calgary, the 12 year vet dropped his gloves early in the game to get the intensity up for the Woolies. Pollock is known as that guy who comes to play every night and his play can’t be measured by points or lose balls. Opposition defenders hate playing him because he sets hard picks and never stops coming.

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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