Top 10 surprises from the 2012 NLL season so far (pt. 2)

In part 1, we covered Steve Toll, Athan Iannucci, Paul Rabil, Tyler Carlson, Evan Kirk, Matt Roik, and Nick Rose, as well as some rule changes. In this article, we’ll cover the top 5 surprises in 2012.

5. John Grant

John Grant being an impact player should not surprise anyone. He’s been an impact player his entire career in the NLL, MLL, MSL, or any other L he’s played in. But I don’t think anyone expected him to be as dominant as he has been this season. Not only is he 37, but he’s only three years removed from missing an entire season because of a serious injury that became life-threatening. He recovered well enough to go out and score 83 points in his last year in Rochester and another 83 in his first year in Colorado. Fine numbers, to be sure, but not Grant-like. In fact, 83 points was Grant’s lowest total (playing a full season) since his rookie year in 2000.

John Grant

Grant is a fierce competitor, so it is no surprise that he’d want to get back to his previous numbers – not because the personal stats are important to him, but because he wants to lead his team to as many wins as possible, and his contribution to that objective is putting up tons of points. Starting the season with 11 points was nice, but following it up with 9 and 10 points was amazing. Nobody thought he could keep up a 10-points-per-game pace, and he hasn’t. But he’s still averaging 8.3 points per game. He has yet to pick up less than 3 goals or 3 assists in a game and his season low for a single game is 7 points. He missed two games with an upper body injury, and then returned with another 7 point performance. Before the injury, he was on pace for 136 points in a season, blowing the old single-season record away by 21 points. In fact, even after missing two games (1/8 of the season), he is still on pace to break the record. Unbelievable.

4. Buffalo’s 6 game losing streak

The Bandits are mostly the same team as last year. They traded Chris Corbeil but got Billy Dee Smith back from injury, and also gained Luke Wiles and Mat Giles. They went 10-6 last year and given the team changes, you wouldn’t expect a huge drop-off this season. Sure enough, they started the season 2-0 with wins against the Rock at home and the Knighthawks on the road. And then it all fell apart. The Bandits lost their next six in a row, something they have never done before in a single season. (They did finish the 1999 season with five losses and missed the playoffs, then started 2000 off with a loss. Similarly, they finished 2009 with two losses and started 2010 with four, but there was a playoff win and loss in between.)

Some of the games were ugly. They managed to shut out Philadelphia for half the second quarter and all of the third, and still lost the game. They lost 19-11 to the Swarm in a game that included a 7-0 third quarter. They lost to the Knighthawks in a game that included a 7-0 second quarter. But there were two one-goal losses in there as well, including an overtime game against the Stealth. Of course, the Stealth were 0-3 at the time and then lost their next three.

Bandits coach and GM Darris Kilgour has a reputation for being fiery and passionate, and I’m sure that during this streak more than a few f-bombs were dropped. But after losing six in a row, the Bandits started their next game against the Rock down 5-1 and losing 11-8 at the half. Did Darris lose his mind and scream and yell like a stereotypical drill sergeant? Not at all. In his IL Indoor interview with Tracey Kelusky, Ty Pilson used the unlikely word “gentle” to describe Kilgour’s reaction. Kelusky said “he just said you guys are sticking with it, you guys aren’t panicking, and that’s something we were doing during that six-game skid… He said we’re playing confident, keep doing that and we’ll have success.” How did that go over with the Bandits? They outscored the Rock 13-3 in the second half and won 21-14. That is solid coaching.

3. This year’s crop of rookies

Every year, one rookie is singled out and given the NLL Rookie of the Year award. And every year, there are arguments that someone else deserved it as well. Last year, Curtis Dickson won it over Cody Jamieson, and in 2010, Stephan Leblanc beat out teammate Garrett Billings. This year, the number of deserving rookies who will not win ROY is crazy. It seems that every team has a rookie who’s having an outstanding season, and some have more than one. In the case of the Minnesota Swarm, you could almost nominate half the team.

There are high-scoring forwards like Crowley, Powless, Jones, Lincoln, and Keogh. There are defenders and transition guys like Gamble, Thompson, MacIntosh, and Cornwall. And there are goaltenders like Kirk, Carlson, and Scigliano. At this point in the season, the race is likely between Crowley and Jones, but all of these guys have played well so far and with a few strong games to finish the season, any one of them could find themselves in the ROY race. I don’t remember another season with such a strong group of rookies – not just in terms of how good they are, but in terms of how many good ones there are.

2. Colorado starting 6-0 and 8-1

Maybe others saw this coming, but I certainly didn’t. This is related to #5 above, the amazing play of John Grant, but even if you thought he’d have a good season, did you foresee Adam Jones being so good? And the defense playing well even without Mac Allen? And Gavin Prout playing so well? And Chris Levis? And Sean Pollock and Jamie Lincoln and Jordan McBride and Derek Hopcroft and Ian Hawksbee and Rory Smith and Creighton Reid and Ilija Gajic and…? Honestly, none of those things individually is an absolute shock but the fact that they all happened at the same time has resulted in the Mammoth being the best team in the league, which is a distinction they haven’t been anywhere near for years. The Mammoth only won 5 games in 2011, and managed to match that total in 2012 after… 5 games. They have a very good chance of doubling their win total from last year.

The team is quite different from last year – Mac Allen is out with an injury, Steve Toll retired (temporarily – see #10 on this list) as did Brian Langtry, Joel Dalgarno is out for the year because of work commitments, Ned Crotty and Dan Carey were traded, and Connor Martin was released. Instead, we have Adam Jones, Jordan McBride, Jamie Lincoln, Jon Sullivan, Rory Smith, Sean Pollock, Mat MacLeod, Creighton Reid, and Derek Hopcroft. Is the fact that a team with this many changes has gelled as well as they have a testament to good coaching by Bob Hamley, or Gavin Prout becoming captain, or some combination of both? I’m sure Mammoth fans don’t care, but they’re certainly enjoying the ride.

1. Washington starting 1-6

It was surprising that a bad team would retool and instantly become a great team, but it’s even more surprising that a great team would make very few changes over the off-season and become a lousy team. And that’s what the Stealth looked like for the first seven games of the 2012 season. They won an overtime squeaker against the also-struggling Buffalo Bandits, but lost to the Roughnecks twice, the Wings, the Knighthawks, and the Swarm, and they got smoked by the Edmonton Rush 16-5 in their own arena.

Rhys Duch

Sure, they lost Jeff Zywicki to injury early in the year, but he only played three games last year anyway. They traded Matt Roik but Tyler Richards played more than twice as many minutes as Roik did in 2011. Richards and Rhys Duch got injured as well, but not until the Stealth were 1-5. They did lose Luke Wiles, who’s tearing up the turf in Buffalo, and didn’t really replace him, so that’s something. But Duch and Ratcliff couldn’t find the back of the net, and Richards had a worse GAA than every starting goalie in the league and several backups.

The Stealth have been struggling with low attendance despite two consecutive Champion’s Cup appearances; the highest Washington crowd this year, 4687, is 600 less than the lowest crowd anywhere else (5267 in Rochester). Maybe you could use that fact to argue that winning and losing has no bearing on attendance in Washington so it doesn’t matter if they win or lose. But I doubt it. And I doubt the players are OK with losing if it doesn’t affect the crowds.

Part, maybe even most, of the problem was the absence of head coach Chris Hall. CH was the heart and soul of the Stealth, but our old nemesis cancer raised its ugly head once again, this time in the form of throat cancer, and Hall had to stay away from the arena to concentrate on his treatment and recovery. Thankfully, it seems that Hall has won this battle, and after missing the first six games of the season he returned cancer-free to the bench. The Stealth lost their first game after his return, but have won two of three since then.

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