We all know about the rule changes that the NLL has put into effect this year, most notably the eight-second rule and the “two feet in the box on the change” rule. The idea of these rules, and others, was to speed up the game and the general consensus seems to be: mission accomplished. This means that we’re seeing more transition – after a turnover, the transition guys race up the floor trying to force odd-man rushes and breakaways, which seem to be happening with a little more regularity this season. With that will come more goals by transition players and defenders, and more assists by defenders and even goalies. After three games Mike Poulin has 4 assists, and Tyler Richards has 3 assists in 2 games. But whenever you create a rule like this, there are frequently unintended consequences. If these rule changes means that strong transition players get more floor time, someone has to get less. But who?
When transition players are heading up the floor on an odd-man rush, the players on the floor for the other team are going to be the attackers, not the defenders. They will likely not have time to get back to the bench to let the defensive specialists onto the floor, so you’re going to see more offensive players playing defense this year than in previous years. I’ve seen lots of people on the NLL Message Boards who talk about the good old days of the MILL, when just about every player played at both ends of the floor. If you were a great offensive player but sucked on defense, you better work on your D or you will find yourself on the bench. But in the last 10-15 years, that hasn’t been the case. Every now and then you’ll see a primarily offensive guy caught on the floor playing defense, and much of the time they keep looking towards the bench to see when they can get off.
There have certainly been players in the “modern era” who are/were comfortable at both ends of the floor – reigning MVP Jeff Shattler, Mark Steenhuis, Jim Veltman, and Chris Driscoll are great examples. Driscoll was primarily a (very good) transition and defensive guy for the last six or seven years of his career, but scored 49 points in 10 games with Rochester in ’97, and an amazing 76 points in 12 games (which extrapolates to 101 points over 16) with the Saints in 2003. Whatever era you’re in, two-way players like that are going to be exceptionally valuable, though I agree with Ty Pilson on the recent IL Indoor roundtable that we’re not likely to get back to having everyone play both ends. But what happens to the offensive stars who aren’t very good defensively?
I watched Josh Sanderson play for the Rock for several years, and after three years away in Calgary and Boston, now he’s back on the team. In the offensive zone, he’s the quarterback: setting up plays, making amazing passes, and scoring a ton himself. In this role, he’s one of the best ever and I have to say I’m a big fan of his. But at the other end of the floor, it’s a different story. Josh is simply not the greatest defender around. I have to wonder if the Rock will reduce his playing time slightly, depending on the speed of the opponent and the strength of the their transition game, to make sure he doesn’t get caught out there and have to play defense.
Josh is probably a bad example here – he’s so good in the offensive zone that any potential liabilities in his defense are more than offset, so his playing time will likely not be affected. But what about the good-but-not-superstar forwards who have weak defensive skills? I’m sure there are plenty of guys in the league who are decent offensively but can’t play D. (I tried to come up with some examples, (“What about the Kasey Beirneses, Zack Greers, and Daryl Veltmans of the league?”), but in the current NLL, these guys play defense so infrequently that I have no idea if they’re good on D or not.) They made the NLL and managed to stay there because of their offense, and since they didn’t need to play D anyway, their lack of defensive skill wasn’t a liability. Also, the fact that they never played on D means that their already-limited defensive skills have atrophied. With these new rules, these guys might find themselves warming the bench more often than in previous years.
Given the choice between a defender who prevents goals but can’t score and a forward who can score but is a defensive liability, I wouldn’t be surprised if coaches start to opt for the former more often than the latter.