Who’s the most dominant player in the NLL? Well, that’s a pretty vague question – what do we mean by “dominant”? You can’t really argue with fact that Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, in their primes, were dominant. Not only was it a given that when you looked at whatever statistics they excelled in that they would be near the top, but you could assume that unless something really unusual happened, that they would be at the top. When I was in hockey pools during high school, we decided that nobody was allowed to choose Wayne Gretzky because whoever got him had an unfair advantage. That’s dominance. But it doesn’t always mean the absolute best player; Dennis Rodman was never the best player in the NBA, but he dominated the rebound category for years.
This is not the dictionary definition, but for purposes of this article, I’m going to describe a player as being dominant if they are the best at something, and significantly better than second place. A player could be dominant in one aspect of the game (face-offs, for example) but not as much in another aspect (goal-scoring). But even if it’s a difficult question to conclusively answer, it’s fun to think about. Let’s look at a few candidates from the past and present.
Gary Gait won six MVP awards, including five in a row, and led the league in scoring seven times. You could certainly make an argument for him as the best offensive player of all time, but as soon as you mention Gary, you have to mention his brother Paul as well as John Tavares. As good as Gary was, he wasn’t significantly better than Paul or JT so “dominant”, using my definition above, doesn’t really apply. Perhaps you could put all three together and say that they were collectively dominant. After all, one of these three won the MVP award every year from 1994 until 2003, and one or more of them led the league in points from 1991 until 2004.
Dallas Eliuk and Bob Watson are the top two goaltenders in NLL history, and few people would argue with that. The argument over which of those two was the best will likely never end. But that fact alone likely makes it impossible to say that either was dominant. They don’t really fall into the same category as the Gaits and Tavares, in that both were always among the best in the league in any given year, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they would be #1 and #2 in some order every year.
Brodie Merrill is one of the top loose balls guys in the league now, having led the league in 2007 and again last year. He’s also won the Transition Player of the Year award twice, and Transition Player of the week nine times in five years. Those are pretty impressive numbers, and you could make an argument for him being the best transition player in the league. Jeff Shattler won the award last year, but that was a little weird since Shattler played offense far more than transition. Is Merrill really that much better than Shattler, Paul Rabil, or Geoff Snider? No, but when it comes down to Transition Player of the Year voting, you can safely assume that Merrill will be right up there. I may not put him in the “dominant” category given my definition above, but he’s pretty close.
Geoff Snider probably comes as close as any active player because he’s so good in a couple of different categories. He’s led the league in loose balls in three of the past four years, he set records with the highest face-off percentages in league history (75% in 2007 and 73.8% in 2008), and he’s one of only two players to ever reach 100 penalty minutes in a season (Rory Smith is the other). If you’ve ever seen this guy in the face-off circle, he’s absolutely unbelievable. Sure he had the second-highest percentage in the league last year, but his brother Bob only beat him by about one percentage point, while he beat third place by almost nine.
So who’s the most dominant player in any category in NLL history? Even given the vague criteria above, there is really only one choice.
Jim Veltman led the league in loose balls for the first fourteen years of his career, from 1992 to 2006 (minus 1997, when he didn’t play). He has been retired for three full seasons now, and is still by far the all-time leader in that statistic. Nobody else is even close. Veltman scooped 2417 loose balls over 194 games, an average of 12.5 per game. In 25 playoff games, he averaged 13.2 per game. The next closest on the all-time list is John Tavares, with an even 2000 in 58 more games. Tavares’ average is only 7.9 per game, so he’d have to play 53 more games, more than three seasons, at that pace to match Veltman. This means that if he continues to play, Tavares will set the record during the fifth game of the 2015 season at the age of 46.
Both Snider and Merrill have higher loose-ball-per-game averages than Veltman, Merrill with 12.8 and Snider with an amazing 14.1. But they will have to play for six more full seasons before they reach Veltman’s record – and that’s assuming they keep up their current pace and play in all 16 games every year. Interestingly, at their current paces, they’d reach the record at almost the same time – Merrill in 94 more games, Snider in 97. If you’re keeping track, that’s sometime in the 2018 season.