In the National Lacrosse League, the mid-season mark brings many things to light. Squads who are competitive and winning most of their first-half matches are seeing some of the rewards from a good draft or trades and free agent signings. Teams suffering from more losses than wins continue to search for answers and look for something to make a difference or a way to salvage what seems to be lost. I have been in both situations countless times over an NLL career of playing and managing. Things get tricky on either side of the fence in the pro league where you are only as hot as your last game. The teams that have been losing are usually due for a win and it’s not easy to go against a desperate team either.
In 2008, our Minnesota Swarm group headed into the playoffs with a 10-6 record very sure of our playoff chances. In hindsight, we had won a perfect 4 out of 4 games that went in to OT in that year. The margin for victory was slight but the unit played with robust confidence because we had great chemistry. A four-way split for first place lined us up for a home date vs. New York’s Titans in the first round.
Two regular season victories against the Titans and our previous coach Adam Mueller had us over-confident we would advance to the second round. Instead, luck ran out on our 2008 rendition at the Xcel Energy Center that playoff night. The good fortune of winning tight games continued to escape the Swarm for 2 more years. Looking back, I think we had developed a false sense of how good we really were.
The following season, we ran into all sorts of issues and missed the playoffs in a dramatic production slide. Then in 2010 the Swarm literally lost four games in the month of April by a goal, three in overtime. On paper it appeared that we backed into the playoffs at 5-11.
I would debate that the 2010 Minny team was not a 5-11 team, just as our 2008 rendition was more than likely an 8-8 team instead of the 10-6 record we posted. In 2010, we knew that were still dangerous and had nothing to lose. Ultimately, we registered a playoff loss to the stronger team and eventual NLL champion of that year, the Washington Stealth. The Stealth were dominant that season and it all played out in their favor as it should have.
The very next year, an improved Swarm squad played at home versus the Stealth again in the playoffs as the two 8-8 teams squared off. The Stealth took that playoff game too and went to Toronto as the West Division champs before bowing to the Rock by a goal in the 2011 Champion’s Cup. Washington had a solid lineup but I felt we were equally as good, if not better, except in goal. Two 8-8 regular season teams, not much separating us on paper, but one playing with some serious gusto when it mattered most.
The Stealth, being the most consistent NLL organization in the 2010 and 2011 seasons entered 2012 thinking about another championship run. Instead, they were singled out as the lone NLL entity to not make the playoffs in another strange twist of fate. How could they go from a one-goal loss in the championship game to the basement of the league in just one short year? Then explain to me how they could turn that around and march back to the 2013 NLL final the next year?
They say the best trade is sometimes the trade you don’t make. I’m a firm believer that everything goes in cycles and sometimes you just gotta ride things out. Desperation trades at the deadline rarely work out in the NLL. The Stealth swapped for Athan Iannucci in that 4-12 down year to gain a spark but it didn’t get them back on track and they missed the playoffs. Would they make that trade again given the chance?
The Stealth did make it all the way back to the 2013 NLL final and a one-goal loss. They came that close but after the 2014 season training camp, Iannucci was released. It was a big leap of faith to give up a first-round pick for Nooch to try to salvage the 2012 season. That trade could be viewed as success or a failure depending on how much you value a season or making the playoffs. If Washington had beaten Rochester in last year’s final, the answer would be clear but instead, it remains forever obstructed by a one-goal differential.
For me, the answer to recent playoff success lies with the reigning NLL champs, the Rochester Knighthawks, a team that has peaked at the right time in the last two go rounds. They have kept personnel pretty static over 2 years and I think that says a lot about their ability to hit a higher level when they go to war in the postseason.
The murky waters of the halfway mark are truly when teams come together and grind out games shift by shift. It is the time the will to win shows up for all the right reasons. Things aren’t taken for granted and the character or lack of presides in that dressing room. Pay attention to the teams winning or losing tight games or winning 2 or more games in a row in March and April. It’s a sign they are ready or they are close.
If history repeats itself again this year, you want to bet on the team that is playing .500 ball and starts putting more positives together and peaking as the season wears down. The style of team that has won the two most recent championships and bears out my NLL playoff theory of he who laughs last laughs best.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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