Offseason Report #3: Trade frenzy

Just nine days after the NLL and the NLLPA agreed to a deal that will allow the 2013 season to go forward with the same CBA as 2012, there have been all kinds of moves involving every team in the league. The Bandits named Steve Dietrich their new GM, the Stealth re-signed head coach Chris Hall and signed a five-year lease with Comcast Arena, the Roughnecks and Mammoth announced a pre-season game in Langley BC,  the Rush re-signed GM and coach Derek Keenan, and there were no less than five trades involving seven teams in only two days.

The first trade was the Rock sending holdout Aaron Pascas to the Roughnecks for a third round draft pick. This is one of those deals that looks worse than it is – in an ideal world, Pascas is worth more than a 3rd round pick. But he’s a BC boy who has already missed an entire season due to work commitments, and so perhaps the Rock decided that getting a pick was better than the nothing they may get if he can’t play in 2013 either. The Roughnecks get a scorer for the left side who is young and yet has won a Championship. If Pascas has scheduling issues with his job as a firefighter, it’s more likely that he’ll be able to make games in Calgary than in Toronto, so it’s a good deal for him as well.

Jarrett DavisA few hours after the Pascas deal, the Swarm sent forward Kevin Ross to Philadelphia for a first round pick way off in 2015. Swarm owner John Arlotta said that Ross will “get the chance to play closer to home”. Home for Ross is London Ontario, which is nine hours from Philadelphia and fourteen from St. Paul. (Note that I am Canadian, and in Canada we measure distances not in miles or kilometres, but in driving time.) Cutting down your commute from 14 hours to 9 is not much of an advantage, really. Perhaps the flights from southern Ontario to Philly are shorter than to Minnesota, though I can’t imagine it’s much of a difference there either. Anyway, Philly is pretty happy with the trade, especially when you consider that Ross scored 9 points against them in one game and 5 in another last season. Swarm fans were less thrilled since they lose Ross’s 59 points and get nothing in return for over three years.

A day later, three trades rocked the NLL, as the Edmonton Rush finally made the trade that everyone has been waiting for since February, sending Paul Rabil to Rochester for Jarrett Davis. The Rush finally have something to show for Brodie Merrill – but the whole Merrill / Iannucci / Rabil drama has been done to death so I won’t give all the details again. Davis is a very good player even if he’s no Merrill or Rabil, so at first blush it would seem that the Knighthawks clearly win this trade. Adding someone of Rabil’s calibre makes the reigning Champions a far better team, and that’s not something that Rock, Bandits, or Wings fans want to hear. But then again, Davis may actually put on a Rush uniform at some point, which is more than Rabil ever did, so the Rush are up one transition player and down nothing. This is a pretty good deal for both teams.

Well, in that trade they’re down nothing. Associate captain Shawn Williams will not be returning to the Rush, so they are down a scorer as well. The Rush traded Williams, who was a few days away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, to the Minnesota Swarm for draft picks. But Williams’s career as a member of the Swarm was just as long in terms of games played as that of Anthony Cosmo or Josh Sanderson, as he was immediately shuffled off to Buffalo along with Brendan Doran and more draft picks for Buffalo’s first round pick this year. The Swarm now have the #2, #3, and #4 picks in this year’s entry draft. The Bandits pick up Doran, a “young gritty defenseman” says Steve Dietrich, as well as the veteran Williams. Willy is fresh off a season in which he reached the finals, scored his 1,000th NLL point, and set an NLL record for most consecutive games played (190+ and counting). The move reunites the 38-year-old Williams with 43-year-old John Tavares, who played together in Buffalo in 2000 and 2001, and gives the Bandits another legitimate scoring threat. I wouldn’t say the move immediately propels the Bandits into first place in my 2013 NLL East division rankings, but it certainly raises some eyebrows for anyone looking at how the Bandits might recover from the 2012 season, which was terrible disastrous horrific less successful than they might have liked.

So all of those trades happened in just two days. The 2013 NLL season doesn’t start for over five months. It could be a busy summer.

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Movie review: Crooked Arrows

There are lots of sports movies out there, and some are iconic for a particular sport: hockey has Slap Shot; baseball has Major League,The Natural or Field of Dreams; football has Any Given Sunday, Friday Night Lights, and Rudy; boxing has a ton including Raging Bull and the Rocky series; basketball has Hoosiers; and the list goes on. But lacrosse didn’t really have anything; there hasn’t really been a movie that included lacrosse as an integral part of the film. Any mention of lacrosse in movies such as American Pie was generally tangential, and usually involved US prep schools. And there has certainly been no film that looks at lacrosse from a Native American point of view. Until now.Crooked Arrows

The plot of Crooked Arrows isn’t exactly groundbreaking. It follows a relatively tried-and-true formula that has worked in a number of other sports movies, that of the underperforming team that gets a new coach / owner / manager who turns things around and makes them champions. Think Major League with middies. The difference here is that at the beginning, the coach doesn’t particularly want to be there either – so rather than Major League, perhaps A League of their Own might be a more apt comparison. Gradually the players start to adapt to their new playing style and gain confidence in their coach and themselves, and the coach realizes that he needs the team as much as the team needs him.

The coach in this case is Joe Logan (played by Brandon Routh, who has distant Native background), a half-Native whose father is on the tribal council. Logan is a former lacrosse star who is coerced by his father into finding his spirit by returning to his roots and coaching the reservation’s hapless lacrosse team. As you would expect, he encounters resistance and is pessimistic about his chances of success but gradually wins the team over. After that, it’s fairly predictable: most of what you might foresee happening does happen, and nothing really happens that you don’t see coming.

That said, I didn’t care how predictable it was. Even if you know the destination, how you get there can be entertaining and fun. There were a number of funny lines, particularly the stuffy rich mom of one of the prep school players who asked “when did the Indians start playing lacrosse anyway?” or the double-entendre “wisdom” of the coach – “if you don’t go into the forest, you don’t have any balls”. The characters you’re supposed to dislike (opposing team’s coach and players, greedy developer) are sufficiently slimy, and you do like the characters you’re supposed to like (coach’s sister and father, love interest, team benchwarmer). The scenes of lacrosse practices and games are exciting, and though they don’t go over the game in much detail (this is a film about the team and the community, not so much about the game itself), you do get a pretty good idea of how fast and exciting lacrosse can be. You find yourself cheering for the Crooked Arrows and are genuinely happy when they are successful.

When I saw the film, I was curious how accurately the Native issues in the film were portrayed. I have no Native blood in me, and I’m not even sure if I’ve ever set foot on a Native reserve, so I can’t personally speak to that. But I did talk to someone who can, and was assured that the movie was accurate and realistic. The reservation in the film looks like any small town in rural America, so anyone looking for fields of tepees and wigwams may be disappointed, as they would be on a real reservation. But the fact that Natives are featured so prominently in a so-called “Hollywood” film is somewhat unusual in itself. Another recent movie that includes Native Americans in a prominent role is the popular Twilight series, and indeed the actor that plays Joe Logan’s father in Crooked Arrows also plays Jacob Black’s father in Twilight. I did notice that the Native characters in this film seemed a lot more upbeat and generally happy than the grumpy werewolves in Twilight, though I suppose if there were vampires living nearby I might be grumpy too.

One thing I really liked was the juxtaposition of the scenes of Native warriors from 800 years ago playing lacrosse with scenes of the Crooked Arrows team playing now. This was a very effective way to remind the viewer about the history involved with the game and the fact that to the Native community, lacrosse is not just a fun game or a sport that they invented, but an integral and important part of their way of life, and has been for hundreds of years.

Those in the lacrosse community have known this movie was coming for a while now, and the @crookedarrows twitter account was quite active in keeping followers informed on the progress of writing, casting, filming, post-production, and when and where the movie was playing. The filmmakers even managed to squeeze in a few cameos including some of the biggest names in lacrosse: Zack Greer, Brodie Merrill, Paul Rabil, and Gary Gait (though Gait wasn’t mentioned by name as the others were).

In a nutshell, I really enjoyed Crooked Arrows, as did my sons (12 and 10). Lacrosse fans will enjoy the action, but you don’t have to be a lacrosse fan to enjoy the movie.

Offseason report #2: Kilgour’s title cut in half

The other day, I covered the first major NLL personnel change this offseason, the firing (actually, non-re-signing) of Dave Pym. The other move that was made was the Bandits removing the “GM” title from Darris Kilgour’s business cards, leaving him with just “head coach”. The Bandits’ press release plainly stated that they were unhappy with how the team has performed over the last couple of years. Midway through the 2012 season, I wondered if Darris’ days in Banditland were numbered and I guess Bandits ownership agreed with me, though I did say it was unlikely that he’d be fired from one of his roles and not the other. In that article, I concentrated on Kilgour’s tenure as head coach and didn’t really look at his record as a GM, so let’s do that now.

In terms of drafts, it does appear that he’s been less effective in the past few years than at the beginning of his tenure. In his first five NLL drafts, Kilgour drafted Billy Dee Smith, A.J. Shannon, Delby Powless, Jeff Shattler, and Brett Bucktooth in the first rounds. Shannon was a bust because of injury problems, through no fault of Kilgour. Powless never became the star some expected him to be, but he was an effective player for a while. Bucktooth still is an effective player for the Stealth after Kilgour gave up on him this past year. But Kilgour hit gold twice, even if the Bandits only benefitted once – Smith has been Defender of the Year and Shattler was the league MVP in 2011 for the Roughnecks.

In his last five drafts, he’s only had two picks. In 2010 he picked Kyle Clancy right before the Rock took Stephan Leblanc. In 2011, Kilgour chose Travis Irving who is a decent defender (and notched the second-most penalty minutes on the team last year), but is hardly what you’d call first-round material. Of course, it’s easier to see all of this with our 20:20 hindsight.

As for trades, when was the last time the Bandits were involved in a blockbuster trade? They’ve been involved in trades for big-name players like Tracey Kelusky, Luke Wiles, and Anthony Cosmo, but they’ve been acquired for draft picks. In fact, the most recent Bandits trade I can find that involved players going both ways was back in July of 2009 when they sent Phil Sanderson to the Rock for Chris Driscoll. Why have the Bandits only had two first round draft picks in the last five years (and none for the next two)? Because they traded their picks away for Phil Sanderson, Mike Accursi, Tom Montour, Tracey Kelusky, and Anthony Cosmo. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any one of those deals; in particular, the Accursi deal was fine and Cosmo started shaky but played great down the stretch. The Kelusky deal looked good at the time – in fact many people thought the Roughnecks got hosed. The Bandits couldn’t have known that the next two seasons would be the worst of Kelusky’s career.

But when you trade away that many first round picks, all for established players, it’s clear that you’re not interested in getting younger. And indeed, the Bandits are one of the oldest teams in the NLL. But the weirdest move was the trading of Chris Corbeil to Edmonton for draft picks, all the while saying they did want to get younger. You don’t trade away a 23-year-old budding star for a draft pick when the best case scenario is to draft someone as good as who you traded away.

At the end of the day, the Bandits needed this change. They have been known for years as a gritty, tough, physical team – not surprisingly, traits that we associate with Kilgour himself. This worked really well during the middle part of the last decade, but the Bandits are aging and their style was less effective last year than in the past. If the league continues to crack down on head shots, their often undisciplined system will continue to decline in effectiveness.

Would Kilgour be likely to pass on drafting a big strong tough defender in favour of a smaller, faster transition guy? Probably not, just ask Damon Edwards. Would he trade long-time Bandits like Mark Steenhuis, Chris White, or Billy Dee Smith? Again, probably not , but a new GM might. Not saying that these players need to be traded, but a fresh view of the Bandits and some outside-the-box thinking might be needed to make the Bandits successful for years to come.

Offseason report #1: Pym out in Calgary

The 2012 NLL season was over for about a month and a half before we had out first off-season employment casualties. Within a week of each other, Calgary’s Dave Pym was told that his contract as head coach was not being renewed and Buffalo’s Darris Kilgour was relieved of his GM duties, though he remains head coach. While neither of these moves were expected, one is a lot more surprising than the other. I will get to Mr. Kilgour in a couple of days, but right now, let’s look at the most active NLL coach on twitter, Dave Pym.

Pym only coached the Roughnecks for three years, and finished with a 33-15 record and two West Division banners. What he didn’t do is bring a Champion’s Cup to Calgary. The Roughnecks have been a dominant team for years, and have won two Championships, but you can’t fault Calgary management for not resting on their laurels and demanding more. In Pym’s three years in Calgary, they’ve had great regular seasons but have only made it as far as the division finals once. In two of those three seasons, the Roughnecks were expected to be Champion’s Cup contenders, if not favourites, so from that point of view you could say they underperformed in the playoffs.

But in 2011, the Roughnecks traded both Josh Sanderson and Tracey Kelusky, who were numbers 1 and 3 on the team’s scoring list the previous year. Many picked the Roughnecks to finish out of the playoffs but Pym coached the Roughnecks to an 11-5 record, first overall. With all due respect to Mike Hasen, Pym really should have been the Coach of the Year in 2011. In 2012, the Roughnecks got a game better, but then bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. They got smoked 19-11 by the surprising Rush, who in the 2012 playoffs played the best 2½ games of lacrosse in team history.

In three years, the Roughnecks won more than twice as many games as they lost and so in a one-and-done playoff format, it’s hard to blame coaching for their lack of success in the playoffs.

Pym is a successful and well-respected coach, and it seems unlikely that he remains unemployed for long. But where could he go? Derek Keenan and Chris Hall aren’t going anywhere. Mike Lines just won Coach of the Year, and Bob Hamley turned the Mammoth around in a single season, so it seems unlikely that there will be any coaching opportunities available in the West. In the East, Darris Kilgour is staying as Bandits coach, and defending champs Rochester aren’t likely to fire their coach. Troy Cordingley is likely safe as long as Terry Sanderson is around in Toronto, and he’s not going anywhere either. But what about Philly? The Wings made a lot of big player moves last season but still underperformed, and while Johnny Mouradian has seen a fair bit of success as a GM (five Championships with the Bandits and Rock), he hasn’t had as much success as a coach. Could Pym come in and finally return this storied NLL franchise to respectability?

On a possibly-relevant-but-probably-not note, Pym has since tweeted pictures of himself wearing a Bandits cap and a Wings t-shirt. Hmmm.

MLL game review: Boston 15 @ Hamilton 13

I’ve seen a fair number of NLL games since my first game in 2000 – every Rock home game (other than most of the 2010 season and one game in 2002) plus a couple of games in Rochester and a bunch in Buffalo. But when it comes to non-NLL lacrosse games, I’m a relative neophyte. I saw the Heritage Cup game in 2002, a couple of games during the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in 2003, and one MLS game in Brampton during the Mann Cup in the mid 2000’s. As for the field game, I have now seen all of two outdoor lacrosse games. The first was the Toronto Nationals first-ever home game back in 2009, and the second was this past Saturday, as the Hamilton Nationals lost to the Boston Cannons.

If you’re looking for a review of the game by someone who knows what they’re talking about, you may want to venture on over to InLacrosseWeTrust.com. But if you’re interested in how field lacrosse looks to a box lacrosse fan, then read on.

My impression of field lacrosse over the last few years was that it was obviously similar to box, but with a much bigger field, the pace is slower. I’ve even joked that field lacrosse combines the strategy of indoor lacrosse with the blazing speed and excitement of soccer. But there doesn’t have to be blazing speed and things happening all the time for a game to be exciting – if you know what’s going on and can understand the strategies. Many people describe baseball as the most boring sport ever but I love it, because I do know what’s going on and I do understand the strategies.

I found the same thing at this game. I don’t pretend to be a lacrosse expert, knowing every play and strategy inside out and backwards. But I’ve watched enough to be relatively knowledgeable, and the much bigger field allows you to watch plays develop a little more than in the box game. If you watch the game assuming the strategy is “pass the ball around randomly until someone gets a good shot” then yes, it looks boring. But if you see what they’re trying to do and watch the plays develop, it can be pretty exciting. Is it slower than box? Sure, but only because the field is so much bigger, so it takes more time to run between the goals and even to pass the ball from one side of the field to the other. Play in the Boston end

The long sticks add an interesting element to the game as well. In my review of the other MLL game I saw, I mentioned that “It didn’t really seem to me that the long sticks were much of an advantage” because there weren’t that many long passes, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Firstly, there were there a number of long passes that were amazing to watch as well as one impossibly long shot. With less than a second remaining in the first half, the ball was shot behind the Hamilton net. Brodie Merrill picked it up and immediately launched it toward the other net, where it landed maybe a foot or two wide. Had the goal line been extended out beyond the posts, the ball would have landed on it. But not only were the long sticks good for passing, they were deadly for getting the ball away from the attackers and hacking at them from five feet away. Defenders in the NLL were disappointed that they can no longer use 48″ sticks; imagine how effective they could be with one six feet long.

The other huge difference between the field and box games is the goalies. Field goalies always look awkward to me. They don’t have a “stance” like box goalies do; it looks like they’re just standing up holding the stick. But then a shot comes in and they spin that stick around at lightning speed and make far more saves than they really have any right to. Scott Rodgers and Brett Queener were very good in net for the Nats, but I thought Jordan Burke was ever better in the Boston net. Queener was pretty entertaining though, not only did he never shut up (because there’s no music during play, you can hear the players and coaches shouting to one another quite clearly), but on many of his saves, he’d run the ball up the field himself. And I’m not talking about a goalie running twenty or thirty feet away from the net before passing it, or Pat Campbell running to the other side of the centre line – Queener once made it almost to the 2-point line around the Cannons’ net before passing it, which would be a good 60 or 70 yards away.

And they’re not padded! Or at least not noticeably more than any other player. Yet they face the same 100+mph shots with the same hard-as-a-rock rubber ball on a net that’s twice the size of an NLL net. It’s amazing to me that (a) there are players willing to play goalie without NLL-type padding, and (b) the scores aren’t 40-35 every game.

There is no penalty box, so players who are penalized just sit in one of two chairs a few feet away from each team’s “bench” area. I pointed this out to my son (“There’s no penalty box, just a couple of penalty chairs”), and he responded by chanting the way Bandits fans do: “To the chair! To the chair! To the chair chair chair!”

The best part of this game? My ticket cost $10, my older son’s was $5, and my ten-year-old was free. $15 for three tickets. My Rock season tickets are $45 each. The other best part? The 10 minute drive home.

So there are some field-newbie thoughts on the game. As for this particular matchup, I just have a few game notes:

  • Both Brett Queener and his brother Brice Queener play for the Nats – Brett’s jersey just says “Queener” on it, while Brice’s says “B. Queener”. Not helpful. Then again, even “Br. Queener” wouldn’t have been helpful. One’s a goalie but as I said, you can’t tell unless he’s holding the stick so it was impossible to tell who was who. I can’t remember what the Evans brothers did when they both played on Rochester – did they have “Sc. Evans” and “Sh. Evans” on their jerseys?
  • How long are MLL timeouts? In the NLL they’re 30 seconds, but they seemed to be two or three minutes at this game.
  • The stadium announcer mispronounced Paul Rabil’s name a couple of times. He said “Rabble” on each of Rabil’s first two or three points, and then said it properly after that. Paul Rabil has been described as “the best lacrosse player in the world”. If you know anything about the MLL or NLL in the past few years, you’ve seen him or heard his name. Mispronouncing his name is akin to a hockey announcer talking about Sidney Corsby.
  • I may be new to the game, but I still know a really dumb play when I see it. With less than two minutes left in the game, the Nationals needed a goal to tie the game. Dan Burns decided that elbowing an opponent in the face right in front of the ref was a good strategy in such a situation. He may want to rethink that since it led to a Cannons PP goal and ended Hamilton’s hopes for a last-second comeback.
  • Three years ago, I wrote that the Nationals looked like an NLL all-star team: “Gait, Iannucci, Dawson, Doyle, Zywicki, Williams, Grant, [Merrick] Thomson, Snider, Prout, Brodie Merrill, Point, [Delby] Powless, Vyse, Patrick Merrill, Jordan Hall, Matt Vinc, Ken Montour“. Of those superstars, only Snider, Hall, and Brodie Merrill are still on the team. But the team still looks like an NLL all-star team: Billings, Casey Powell, Keogh, Jamieson, Merrill, Hall, Crowley, Bucktooth, Snider, Rubisch, Jeremy Thompson, and Walters. Six of these guys (CP, Hall, Bucktooth, Snider, Rubisch, Thompson) didn’t play.