Top 10 surprises from the 2012 NLL season so far (pt. 1)

2012 has been a season full of surprises in the NLL, and it’s only half over. In true “top ten list” fashion, we’ll start at #10 and move up towards #1.

 

10. Steve Toll’s return

Steve TollHe hasn’t played yet, but Rush GM Derek Keenan has already announced his signing. I guess Toll’s retirement was never official, so he’s just a free agent. What I don’t know is whether his “iron man” streak will continue. He played all 16 games with the Mammoth last year, and wasn’t on a roster for the first part of this season, so does that count as breaking the streak? If not, he’ll only be one game behind the new leader Shawn Williams. Williams and Toll are good friends off the floor, so it stands to reason that Willy was involved in this transaction somehow, but I don’t know whether he convinced Steve to come back, or Steve asked him to put in a good word with the boss.

In case you are wondering, the other Toll on the Rush, Jarrett, is not related to Steve. At least he doesn’t think so.

9. Iannucci and Rabil

The biggest trade of last summer was unquestionably Brodie Merrill for Athan Iannucci. At the time, I thought Philly got robbed blind – not because Iannucci is so much better than Merrill, but because they gave the Rush three first round draft picks among everything else. Well, someone got robbed blind, but it wasn’t Philadelphia. Merrill is playing very well for the Wings, but Iannucci never reported to the Rush. Apparently he didn’t have problems with the team or the city, but the contract negotiations got heated and apparently things started to get personal, and Iannucci refused to play. Five games into the season, Nooch was finally traded to the Stealth, where he’s been OK, though nowhere near his level of play back in 2008. In return, the Rush got transition star Paul Rabil – who then refused to report to the Rush, and the whole thing started over again. This time it wasn’t about money; Rabil had been trying to get traded back east for years, but Washington couldn’t do it. I guess travelling to Edmonton would have been worse than to Washington since there are likely no direct flights from the Baltimore area (where Rabil lives) to Edmonton, so he’d likely end up having to fly to Seattle anyway and then to Edmonton so his travel schedule just got way worse. I guess you can’t blame him for that, but when you hear that someone like John Grant can up and move his entire family, including a young child, to Denver, you feel less sympathy for Rabil.

My impression of Rabil has always been that the MLL and field lacrosse in general is his thing, and the NLL is an interesting pastime and way to make a few bucks and keep up his skills during the winter. That’s not to say he doesn’t try hard; I’m sure he gives 110% when he’s on the floor, but if he had to give up the NLL or the MLL, the NLL would lose in a heartbeat. This is not a judgement or criticism of him, he just likes field lacrosse better. He’s happy to play in the NLL, but if it means lots of travel and major inconvenience, then he’s fine giving it up.

The trading deadline has just passed and Rabil was not dealt, so the deal now looks like Merrill, Mike McLellan, Dean Hill, a 5th round pick in 2011, and a 4th round pick in 2013 to the Wings for Alex Turner, Brodie McDonald, and first round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Given the first rounders, it’s still not that terrible a deal for the Rush long term, but certainly isn’t helping them this year.

There are rumours that Derek Keenan will ask Rabil to report for the rest of the year, but that seems unlikely. I can’t imagine the reception he’d get from the Edmonton fans when his name was announced.

8. The rule change making the most difference

A number of rule changes were announced for 2012. A lot of people, myself included, thought the change from ten seconds to eight would be the most significant, or possibly the “two feet in the box” substitution rule. But when I’m watching the game, the two that make the most difference for me (and I’m putting them together because they’re related) are the delay of game on possession change, and the fast start rule. When the ref blows the whistle to signal a possession change (eg. a moving pick) or the shot clock expires, the attacking player must immediately put the ball down on the floor and give the other team some room. None of this rolling it away from the other team or running around for an extra second or two to give your team a chance to change. It’s been pushed to the limit a few times, where a player will put it down but not completely stop it, and it rolls a couple of feet and the player is given a penalty. That seems excessive, but assuming those kinds of calls disappear as the refs and players get more used to the rule, it really keeps the game moving.

The other one is related – say a player on team A shoots at the net and misses, and then the shot clock expires. If the ball bounces off the boards and all the way out to centre and a team B player picks it up there, the ref blows the whistle and play just continues. In previous years, play would be stopped, the ball would be brought back to the goal area, and team B would start again. Again, the new rule keeps the game going. It makes transition plays more likely and forces teams to either change faster (but the “two feet in the box” rule makes sure that they’re not too fast) or have the O guys play more D, which we’re seeing a lot this year.

7. The goalie situation in Minnesota

At the beginning of the season, it looked like Minnesota’s goalies might be Nick Patterson and Anthony Cosmo, which should have been an excellent tandem. In reality, Cosmo was unlikely to play, as he told the Swarm before they picked him in the Boston dispersal draft. So the Swarm decided to go with rookies Tyler Carlson and Evan Kirk backing up Patterson. After Patterson let in 20 goals in the Swarm’s first game, they gave Carlson a try. Carlson went 2-2 with a GAA around 11 in his first four games, and Evan Kirk and went 2-0 and an amazing 6.50 GAA in his first two games. Patterson was released, Cosmo was finally traded, and Minnesota has just as great a goalie tandem as expected, but not with the players that we expected. After ten games, the Swarm are 5-4 and third in the west, Carlson is 3-2 with a GAA of 11.14, and Kirk is 2-1 with a league-leading GAA of 8.33 and by far the best save percentage with 83.2%. Only one other goalie is over 80%, and that’s Calgary’s Frankie Scigliano (another rookie), who’s only played 51 minutes.

6. The goalie situation in Toronto

Bob Watson decided to retire following the 2010 season but after the Rock lost the Championship Game, owner Jamie Dawick (among others) managed to convince him to come back for one more year. It ended up as a storybook ending that couldn’t have been scripted any better, with a Championship for the Rock and well-earned Championship Game MVP honours for Watson. But as happy as Rock management and fans were with 2011, the question loomed: how do you replace Bob Watson?

Matt RoikThey answered that question in July, when they traded Kyle Ross to Washington for Matt Roik. Over and over, Rock management sung his praises. When Boston announced in September that they would “temporarily suspend operations” (NLL-speak for “vanish forever”), the rumours of Anthony Cosmo’s return to Toronto started almost immediately. The Minnesota Swarm traded three players to the Mammoth to get their first round pick, and they chose Cosmo. When I heard that Toronto and Minnesota had made a trade during the dispersal draft, I assumed it would be for Cosmo. Instead, it was Josh Sanderson coming to the Rock, and once again the Rock said that Matt Roik was their man and that they had no interest in Cosmo.

Five games into the season, it certainly looked like they’d made the right choice. The Rock were 3-2, and Roik had been solid in the two losses and great in the three wins. He was even named Defensive Player of the Week for week 5. Smooth sailing, right? Wrong. Four games later, the Rock are 4-5 and last in the East. So do they stick with the guy they’ve been talking about as “their man” since July? Nope. They release him outright and trade for Calgary backup Nick Rose. Then they talk about how it wasn’t Roik’s fault that they’ve played badly in the last few games, but Roik paid the price anyway with his job, possibly his season, and maybe even his career.

This whole situation is eerily similar to the 2004 Rock season. Legendary coach and GM Les Bartley had announced over the off-season that he was fighting cancer and would not be able to be behind the bench during the 2004 season. The Rock named Derek Keenan and Ed Comeau the interim GM and coach respectively in Les’ absence. But after only 6 games, both were fired and the Rock hired Terry Sanderson (who was an assistant coach with the Bandits at the time – the Rock would give up a draft pick the next year as punishment for “tampering”) as the new GM and coach. Considering that both Keenan and Comeau have gone on to great success in the NLL, both winning the GM and Coach of the Year awards, I have to wonder what might have been if they had been given a little more leeway and time. But Rock fans certainly can’t complain about how things worked out, considering the team went 8-2 over the rest of that season and then won the Championship the next year. (Les Bartley would lose his battle with cancer at the tragically young age of 51 the day after that 2005 Championship game.)

Rock fans may always wonder what might have been had Roik been given more time. But if Rose works out in Toronto as well as Sanderson did, the question may just never come up.

 

Coming soon: the top 5.

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