The 2016 NLL draft: the rich get richer

The draft order for the 2016 NLL entry draft was released on Friday. The defending champion Saskatchewan Rush have three first round picks, including two of the top three. Talk about the rich getting richer.

You might think the Vancouver Stealth or Toronto Rock might have the first overall pick since they finished last in their divisions. Normally, you’d be right but the Stealth traded that pick for Corey Small. The Rock do pick second overall and the Stealth pick first in the second round.

You might also think that so many first round picks would be a great thing for any team but there’s a bit of a problem. In order to have room for the new guys, the Rush will have to drop some players from the existing lineup. Given that they won the last two Championships, there isn’t a lot of deadwood around to get rid of. Make no mistake, this is a much better problem to have than, say, finishing last and having no first round picks at all. But it’s going to be a lot of work for Derek Keenan and his staff trying to figure out what to do with all of these great players. From a Rush perspective, it might be nice if they could defer those top picks to a future year. Of course, there’s no mechanism to do that.

So maybe they could try to trade this year’s first overall pick to someone else for next year’s first overall pick. But they can’t guarantee that; the best they could do is trade their pick for someone else’s first round pick, which can be quite different than the first overall pick. What they might be able to do is find a team who might want a first round pick now and offer them the 9th overall pick in exchange for that team’s first round pick in the 2017 or 2018 draft. Since this is the last pick in the first round, the Rush might have to throw in another, a second or third rounder maybe, to sweeten the deal a little. Obviously a team would have to have a first round pick for 2017 or 2018 available to trade, which immediately removes the Stealth from the picture.

Chad Tutton, drafted 5th overall in 2015, with Ed Comeau and Andy Arlotta

In Major League Baseball, the players drafted generally don’t even make it to the majors for several years. In the NHL and NBA, drafted players get to the big leagues much faster. Guys like LeBron James and John Tavares (no not that one, the other one) can have an immediate impact on their teams as rookies, but mostly it takes a year or two before the impacts are really felt.

And then there’s the NLL.

In the 2016 season, every player drafted in the first round of the previous draft not only played but had a significant impact on his team. Randy Staats led his team in scoring, Jesse King and Wesley Berg finished third on their teams, and Chad Tutton and Graeme Hossack are already considered among the top transition players and defenders in the league. Of the twelve players drafted in the second round, only two didn’t play in a game and some second rounders like Anthony Malcom, Mitch de Snoo, and Jordan Durston played almost every game.

But the 2015 draft was one of the deepest ever so it’s not surprising that 19 of the top 20 players made it to the show right away. If the 2016 draft isn’t quite as deep, Keenan may not have a problem drafting someone and trading him for a future first round pick.

We all know that Derek Keenan is one of the best GMs in the league so I’m anxiously awaiting his undoubtedly clever solution to this “problem”.

The home floor advantage

We all know that teams have an advantage when they play in their home arena. The fans are on your side, the home players don’t have to travel while the opposing players do, and the PA guys get excited about your goals and their penalties but not the other way around. The numbers back this up – in the 30-year history of the NLL (in all its forms), the home team is 973-796 (.550) in the regular season and 92-58 (.613) in the playoffs. Over 1769 games, the home team has won almost exactly 10% (actually 10.006%) more games than they’ve lost. The difference isn’t huge but it’s there, and it’s even more pronounced in the playoffs.

But there’s one home floor advantage that is, in my opinion, too much of an advantage and should be removed. But I’ll get to that.

Much of the advantage is the fans. I’ve heard a number of players say that they tune out the crowd while playing but if the fans are really loud, they do get heard. Having the fans on your side gives you a little mental boost, while having loud fans cheering against you can be deflating. Conversely, we’ve all heard visiting teams try to grab a lead early to “take the fans out of it” since playing in your home arena to silent fans is pretty deflating too.

Buffalo fans cheering Kedoh Hill

The travel thing I mentioned is not really an advantage in the NLL. The majority of NLL players come from either southern Ontario or southern BC so for most teams, playing in Toronto or Vancouver means the least amount of travel regardless of where the team is based. When Georgia visits Colorado, most of both teams have to travel but when they play in Toronto, it’s almost a home game for both.

But as I said above, there’s one difference that’s too much. It sometimes gets overlooked as an advantage but can really have a huge impact. When the visiting team scores a goal, the video replay guy shows the replay of the goal on the video screen as soon as he can, so that the home team’s coaching staff can watch for crease violations and such and know whether to throw the challenge flag. This also happens when the home team scores a goal that is waved off by the refs because of such violations. Depending on the arena’s camera placement and video system, you may get multiple angles and slow motion to make it easier for the coaches.

But the visiting team doesn’t get that courtesy. When their goals are waved off or the home team scores a goal that’s even remotely close to being questionable, you will not see a replay, or at least not until the time window for issuing a challenge has elapsed. The visiting coaches have to decide whether to throw the challenge flag from what they saw in real time, and this is much more difficult.

And it’s wrong.

The intention of the coach’s challenge is to make sure that the refs get the calls right. Clearly we want as many calls to be correct as possible, so that a team that legally scores ten goals is credited with scoring ten goals, not nine or eleven. But to get that right as often as possible means either the refs replay every single goal, or the coaches have as many challenges as they want. Coaches challenges can take a fair bit of time which disrupts any flow the game has and kills any momentum for either team. It’s also boring for fans, particularly those on TV who might leave to watch something else. We have to balance “getting all the calls right” with “don’t disrupt the flow of the game”, and so we limit the number of challenges.

Refs are human and so they’re going to make mistakes from time to time and we accept that. That’s why the challenges exist. But for a team to be able to handcuff the opposing coach and not their own is too much of an advantage, in my opinion. Suppose we said that the home team should get four challenges and the visiting team only two. Or that the visiting team is allowed one fewer coach on the bench. Nobody would accept those changes. But somehow it’s OK if the home team gets better insight through technology as to when to use their challenges?

The home team already gets a number of advantages, as I listed above, though most are “intangible”. But this one is not and in my opinion gives the home team too much of an advantage. The goal should be to get calls correct, as many as possible, so that the players decide the outcome, not honest mistakes made by the referees (who also have to make goal/no-goal calls in real time). To make this process more fair, replays for all goals should be put up on the video screen as soon as possible, and we should tweak the rules for challenges so that all coaches have a chance to see the replay before deciding whether or not to challenge.

Memories of Josh (Part II)

Yesterday I shared some of my memories of Josh Sanderson, but I had more to say so I broke it into two articles.

Sanderson was given the nickname “Shooter” and as has been noted many times, it’s a little misleading. Make no mistake, Josh can score with the best of them – only five players have scored more NLL goals. But he’s more associated with assists than goals. He’s set the record for assists in a season several times. Only John Tavares has more in his career, and only Garrett Billings has a higher assists/game average than Sanderson.

Josh SandersonSanderson was best known as a “playmaker”, the quarterback of the offense. He’d watch the floor and see where the defense was setting up, who was covering who, where the goalie and defenders (and his own teammates) were weak or strong, and come up with a game plan on how to score, adjusting the plan in real time as things developed. Sometimes he’d score himself, but even more often he’d pass to someone else who’d score. Sometimes he wouldn’t end up with credit on the goal at all but was nonetheless instrumental in making it happen. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest guy on the floor – in fact at 5’7″, he was one of the smallest. But none of that mattered, because he might have been the smartest.

Josh had played for his father Terry in Albany, Calgary, and twice in Toronto but nobody accused Terry of nepotism for acquiring him. Josh was one of the best offensive players in the game his entire career, so any GM who traded for him was getting a great player, son or not.

Congratulations to Josh Sanderson on an outstanding playing career. He was a goal-scorer, an assist master, an expert playmaker, a captain and alternate captain, a two-time NLL champ, and a Championship game MVP. He’s also a no-doubt future Hall of Famer. In various seasons he led the Rock, Roughnecks, Attack, and Stealth in scoring, and had the best Movember moustache this side of Andrew McBride.

And given that he’s the GM of the MSL’s Oakville Rock, it may not be a big stretch to say we might see Josh Sanderson back in the NLL in a different capacity before too long.

Memories of Josh (Part I)

My first real memory of Josh Sanderson was the 2002 Championship game. It was my second season watching the Toronto Rock, and the Rock went to the Championship game for the fourth straight year. The Rock finished the season 11-5 but were playing the 14-2 Albany Attack. The game was in Albany but was on TV so I met all my lacrosse buds at my friend Steve’s house to watch the game there. The Rock won the game 13-12 thanks to a few goals from some unlikely sources: defensive guys like Dan Ladouceur, Drew Candy, and Ian Rubel.

Sanderson & John Gallant

Aside: That Rock team also featured five current NLL head or assistant coaches in Dan Stroup, Pat Coyle, Glenn Clark, Blaine Manning, and Jim Veltman, and one former coach in Dan Ladouceur. Other coaches Chris Gill and Kaleb Toth were on the team the previous year. Colin Doyle, Anthony Cosmo, and Sandy Chapman are the only remaining active players from that team.

But back to the 2002 Championship. Another thing I remember was the play of Albany’s Josh Sanderson. I knew who he was, since he was one of the league’s leading scorers. He had picked up 103 points during the regular season, finishing fourth in scoring. But in the Championship game, he picked up 10 points and was the clear offensive leader of the team. At the time I even thought he should have been named game MVP, despite being on the losing team. I also remember an interview he gave after that game, in which he criticized the people of Albany for not coming out to support the team.

After another season in Albany, the Attack began their migrant ways (as ill-timed as Josh’s comments were, they were correct) and moved to San Jose but in the summer of 2004, Sanderson was traded to Toronto in a deal that came to be known to Rock fans (for a while anyway) simply as The Trade.  Adding Sanderson to Colin Doyle and Blaine Manning was (not unexpectedly) genius and the Rock, with one of the strongest offensive teams in NLL history, won the Championship in 2005. Sanderson, Doyle, and Manning became the first trio of teammates to eclipse 100 points in a season, a feat that has still not been repeated.

If there was one thing he was occasionally criticized for (sometimes by me), it was taking his time getting back to the bench on the O-to-D transition. Instead of running (or sprinting a la Sandy Chapman) to the bench to let the D get out there, Josh would casually saunter back. He also wasn’t the greatest defender in the game – I remember seeing him get caught on the floor and have to play some D and wishing the other Sanderson (Phil) was out there instead of Josh. But even that got better over the years. By the end of his career, I still wouldn’t have called him a great defender but he could certainly hold his own at the other end of the floor – though perhaps less so against the 6’5″+ Crowleys and Dawsons and Matthewses of the league.

I have more to say about Mr. Sanderson, but I’ll leave the rest until tomorrow. Until then, enjoy this overtime goal from 2015.

My NLL 2017 wish list (part II)

Yesterday I began a list of changes I’d like to see in the NLL next season. There were only two but they got kind of long so I broke the rest out into today’s article. Did I miss any? Leave a comment with your 2017 wish list!

Better schedule – Some teams had a great schedule in 2016. The Stealth had a bye in week one and then played exactly one game per week until week 18. The Bandits played twice in weeks 8 and 16 and only missed weeks 1 and 12.

But the Black Wolves played twice in one weekend four times and had four bye weekends. Between March 25 and April 9 (16 days), they played five games. Rochester played their fifth game on Feb 13, the same night the Mammoth played their eighth. The Rock and Rush played in Toronto one night and Saskatoon the next. Creating a schedule when many of the teams in your league are the second- or third-highest ranking tenant in their building is challenging but it’d be nice if it was a little more balanced. And since this is a wish list, let’s hope for all Friday and Saturday games.

And like every other year, it’d be nice if Eastern teams played more games out west and Western teams played more games in the east. Of course, that increases travel costs quite a bit and so I suppose it’s not likely to happen.

The Rock won’t suck – It sounds like Josh Sanderson is done as an NLL player, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Colin Doyle retires before next season as well. That puts the Rock down two strong lefty forwards. While I’m sure guys like Dan Lintner (though he’s a righty) and Turner Evans are looking forward to more floor time, I imagine the Rock may be looking for other solutions. But barring a trade for Shawn Evans or Adam Jones (and I know Evans is a righty but I imagine they could still make it work), the Rock may be in for some offensive struggles for a season or two.

Then again, you may remember back in the summer of 2010 when the Calgary Roughnecks lost two of their biggest offensive threats in the same offseason – Tracey Kelusky and, coincidentally, Josh Sanderson. We all thought that the Roughies were in for a rough (see what I did there?) 2011 season but they ended up 11-5 and won the West. Why? Well, some of it was a rookie named Curtis Dickson, some of it was Kaleb Toth and MVP Jeff Shattler each increasing their offensive output by 50% from 2010, and some of it was the addition of Cory Conway and Daryl Veltman. They didn’t replace two superstars with other superstars (though Dickson eventually became a superstar), but the changes they made were more than enough.

The next Superman?

It might be a tall order for the Rock to win the East next year without Sanderson and Doyle but if one of Lintner and Evans turns into Curtis Dickson, Hellyer and Leblanc score 171 and 105 points respectively, and the Rock bring in two other 50-point scorers, they could be fine. Of course I’m kidding here, but the point is that while it will be tough, the Rock could still have a successful season despite losing Josh and Colin. It’s far too early to make a prediction either way, but again, this is my wish list, not a prediction list.

Gains in Swarm, Black Wolves attendance – Another wish that is not a prediction, unfortunately. Perhaps the fact that both teams made the playoffs in 2016 will help to increase attendance, but there have been too many teams whose on-floor success was not correlated with butts in seats to really believe that. In fact, you can look at the Black Wolves themselves: In 2015 when they were 4-14, they averaged 3915 per game. In 2016 when they were 10-8 and made the playoffs, their attendance actually went down by about 160. Their two lowest attended games of the year were their third-last and last games, meaning that they had already cemented themselves as a playoff-bound team. Didn’t matter.

The Swarm averaged 4668 per game, almost a thousand more than New England but about half of the 2015 Minnesota Swarm. The off-season build-up seemed to work – they had over 9000 out to the first home game. But the very next game it dropped to 4850 and pretty much dropped steadily after that to a low of 2957 in the second-last game, and then jumped again to about 5300 in their last game.

Part of the problem in both cases was the schedule. The Swarm went from January 18 to March 17 – TWO FULL MONTHS – with a single home game. Each team also had three Sunday games, which are rarely good for attendance. In contrast, the Bandits, Knighthawks, Mammoth, Rush, and Stealth had NO Sunday home games. The Rock and Roughnecks had one each. If we can get rid of the Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) games, surely that will help with attendance as well.

Both the Black Wolves and Swarm are young, talented, and exciting teams to watch. The Wolves have one of the best players in the league – last year’s MVP and possibly this year’s as well. The Swarm have a crop of young players who have the potential of turning into one of the best offenses the league has seen in many years. If each team can beef up their local and social media presence, community involvement, etc. maybe they can get those attendance numbers up to the 6000-7000 range, ironically where the Philadelphia Wings and Minnesota Swarm were in their final years.

My NLL 2017 wish list (part I)

At the end of the 2015 season, I posted a list (Part 1 and Part 2) of my wishes for this past season. As expected, some of my wishes came true while others didn’t. In fact, one of them didn’t (the Edmonton Rush did not stay in Edmonton) but I think things actually turned out better overall than if it had.

So let’s do this again. Some of the wishes that didn’t come true last year will carry over – I’m still hoping for a new hi-def camera setup for Rochester – but I’m not going to list all the wishes again. Again, remember that this is a wish list, not things I think will happen.

Just like last year, it got kinda long so I’m splitting it into two articles.

NLLTV for all games – The league experimented with this new video streaming service in the playoffs this year and I have to say, I was impressed. The feeds were solid, the picture and sound were great, and the games were (mostly) easy to find. The ability to rewind and fast forward the stream, go back 10 seconds with a single button click, play in slow-motion, and then rejoin the game live are invaluable. Best of all, you can watch games after the fact: the next day, a week later, or whatever. This replay ability alone is worth the switch, but given all the other advantages, it’s a no-brainer.

Ideally, this will be available for all games next season for free, but I suspect this will be a pay service. Maybe they’ll give you 3 free games and then you have to start paying, which would help to get new fans interested (or at least it wouldn’t immediately turn them away). Maybe there will be a “season ticket” package for each team, and a “golden ticket” package for those of us who will watch any and all games. I can’t speak for anyone else but as long as it’s not going to cost me $100 for the season and the quality stays high, I’ll pay it.

Expansion – I did mention this last year, but I’m going to list it again. Given the number of NLL-calibre players that did not play in 2016, spent the season on the practice roster, or were cut mid-season, I think the league could definitely support two more teams.

The league has a new commissioner who has been talking about expansion a lot, so I’d be very surprised if we don’t have at least a couple of new teams by 2018, and possibly 2017. Oddly, I haven’t heard any significant rumours of where the league might expand, so Mr. Sakiewicz is playing it pretty close to the vest.

Better be..... EDMONTON!But where to put them…? How about Edmonton and Minnesota, for starters? Both the Rush and Swarm had decent (though not great) crowds but finances were their downfalls. I wrote last year about NHL ownership, and I think an Edmonton team owned by the Oilers and a Minnesota team owned by the Wild would be pretty successful. It might be tough for Edmonton fans to go from the Championship Rush to an expansion team that will probably be terrible for the first couple of years – they’ve already had more than their share of “sucky expansion team” years. Lucky Minnesota fans won’t have to worry about that – the Swarm were never that good anyway. If you want to call that “lucky”.

Other possibilities: the Portland LumberJax failed but not due to low attendance, so with the right ownership, Portland could work. I might consider giving Philadelphia another shot. Boston too, with the right arena deal.

As for new NLL cities, I have no idea. But then again, nobody else does either without having done a ton of market research. Looking solely at population hasn’t worked (right New York? Chicago? Anaheim?), and lacrosse popularity hasn’t worked either (right Baltimore? Albany? Syracuse? Vancouver?). On the other hand, few expected Saskatoon to be successful because it had neither population nor lacrosse popularity. Denver is a big city but I’m not sure the popularity there was expected either. To find the next NLL success story, we need a lot of market research and a little bit of luck.

2016 NLL Awards

As we do every year, the IL Indoor staff have each submitted our choices for a number of annual awards. On Addicted to Lacrosse a couple of weeks ago, the three of us went over our choices for those awards as well. Here are the picks I announced on A2L:

  • MVP: Shawn Evans, New England
  • Rookie of the Year: Randy Staats, Georgia
  • Transition Player of the Year: Alex Kedoh Hill, Buffalo
  • Defender of the Year: Chris Corbeil, Saskatchewan
  • Goalie of the Year: Nick Rose, Toronto

Not all of the IL Indoor winners have been posted yet, so I’ll just include the ones here that have. My choice is listed first, followed by the winner in brackets.

Goaltender of the Year hasn’t been announced yet but I’ll say here that when doing my IL Indoor picks, I changed my mind and voted for Dillon Ward (sorry Nick). I’m now… well, not exactly regretting that decision since Ward did have a great season but if I were to submit my picks now, I think I’d stick with Rosey (sorry Dillon).

But there are a couple of other awards that weren’t included in either list, so I wanted to cover them here.

Tom Borrelli Award (Media Person of the Year)

Teddy Jenner. I mean no disrespect to the recent winners of this award, all of whom are deserving, but I’ve had Teddy as my Borrelli pick for several years now. Given how much he does for lacrosse every year, I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t won this. He is an all-around sports guy for sure (from hockey to basketball to Teddy Jennerrugby – huddy huddy, whatever that means), but clearly lacrosse is his passion. He does colour for various TV broadcasts, he’s been doing his Off the Crossebar podcast for several years, he writes for IL Indoor (and his 30 Second Shot Clock articles this past season were awesome – insightful thoughts from his many-times concussed head), he had a lacrosse radio show (also called Off the Crossebar) in Vancouver for a couple of years, he was the on-floor host of the Stealth when they were in Washington, and he’s active on twitter. Did I miss anything? Probably.

He clearly knows the NLL but he’s just as knowledgeable (if not more) about the WLA, MSL, MLL, NCAA, as well as senior, intermediate, and junior A, B, C, and any other letters there are. He knows the game as well as anyone and loves to talk about it, and we love to hear him talk about it.

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually met the man in person but we’ve been Twitter-buds for a few years. Then again, Teddy’s Twitter-buds with everyone. He interviewed me on his radio show once, and I interviewed him for this blog a few years ago.

Honourable mention: Paul Tutka. Given his year-long twitter rant about how to improve the NLL (which came down to “change everything but the game itself, and even change some of that”), it’s unlikely that the league will honour him again, but three-time Borrelli winner Tutka is still one of the most knowledgeable lacrosse writers around. He wrote a preview of the 2016 Champion’s Cup series which is about as in-depth as any article you will ever see. I read stuff like that and think “WTF am *I* doing writing about lacrosse? I don’t have a hope of covering things to that level of detail.” The old adage about “he’s forgotten more about lacrosse than I’ll ever know” has never been more apt.

But I’ve decided that I cater to a different audience. I’m going for the “I want to read articles written by someone who doesn’t know anywhere near as much about lacrosse as Paul Tutka” demographic. And I’m killing it, thankyouverymuch.

I guess more full disclosure: The Money Ballers column that I’ve been writing on IL Indoor for the past five seasons was created and written by Tutka for the previous five seasons. Again, though, I’ve never met him personally.

Executive of the Year

Lee Genier, Saskatchewan Rush. The lowest attended game in Saskatoon this year was their second game, when they had 8,624 come out. Again, that’s the lowest attendance this year. The Edmonton Rush only had three regular season games higher than that in the previous six seasons. They went from 7th in the league in average home attendance to 3rd in one year. Saskatchewan averaged 11,737 per game, an average higher than every Edmonton Rush season – in fact the Edmonton team only had four games higher than that ever. One of those four was a Championship game and another was $1 ticket night.

Lee GenierWe certainly can’t give all the credit for the success of the team in Saskatchewan to Mr. Genier, the President of the Rush, but there’s no question that he’s been instrumental. The Rush didn’t have the crazy theme nights they had in Edmonton, when they put Twitter handles on their jerseys and brought in wrestlers and GSP (who, it turns out, is not me despite those being my initials) and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and other celebrities. Not that these were bad ideas, but if you’re filling your arena based solely on the lacrosse team, those extras just aren’t necessary.

They even held a rally on a Friday afternoon (not a game day) and got a thousand people out. Can you see that happening in Edmonton?

Now, Edmonton averaged over 10,000 per game in their first two seasons, and then it started to drop off until it was down in the mid-6,000’s by 2015. Could that happen here too? Sure it could. But the first season of the Saskatchewan Rush has been an unqualified success, regardless of how the team does in the finals.

Honestly, I have no way to know if Mr. Genier himself is the architect of the plan that brought in the big crowds. Maybe the award should go to owner Bruce Urban, or the entire Rush marketing team, or someone else. But Genier is one of the more public NLL team Presidents, popping up on social media and doing radio and TV interviews and such. The way that Saskatoon has embraced the Rush is partially due to lacrosse being an exciting sport and partially due to their team being the defending champs and one with a very good chance of repeating. But getting the word out to the public and getting the local businesses and politicians involved takes significant work and Genier and his team have done an outstanding job.

Sportsmanship Award

I have no particular opinion on this award, but I will fearlessly predict the three finalists for the 2016 NLL Sportsmanship award:

  • Eli McLaughlin, Colorado
  • Corey Small, Vancouver
  • Travis Cornwall, Vancouver

If they don’t want to put two Stealth players on the list, the third would be John LaFontaine from Saskatchewan.

It’s not really much of a prediction, it’s just the non-goaltenders with the most games and lowest penalty minutes. None of these guys picked up a single penalty in 2016. McLaughlin and Small played 18 games, Cornwall 15, and LaFontaine 13.