Welcome back! We’re back for the 12th year of NLL Chatter, as we get ready for the 2023 NLL season. We’ve had a busy off-season with some trades, free agent signings, and for the first time in six years, league expansion so there’s lots to talk about. Let’s get to it!
The NLL is now the biggest it’s ever been, with the 13th and 14th teams joining for this season. For the first time since 1999, the NLL will have a team in Baltimore, as the Lightning join the Eastern division. Too bad the old Baltimore Thunder name wasn’t still available, as the Mammoth still own that, but Lightning is a pretty good homage to the old Baltimore team. In the West, the Victoria Islanders join their British Columbia cousins in Vancouver. The league announced that only two of the expansion bids would get a team this year, and the Baltimore bid was pretty much a lock, but I thought the Winnipeg one had a better shot than Victoria. The announcement that the Islanders were joining was a little surprising, but we must assume that Commissioner Jenner had good reasons for that decision.
As I said, this is the first league expansion since 2017 when the Vancouver Rough Riders and Chicago Beagles joined, just a year after the Detroit Hammerheads gave the league an even ten teams. Considering the issues the league had in the 90’s and early 2000’s with teams folding and moving all over the place, it’s amazing that the nine teams from the 2012 season (that’s all there was at the time!) are still around, though I think the Stealth might have been gone if Rhys Duch hadn’t married Dakota Fanning in 2014, thus bringing lacrosse into the national spotlight and sending the Stealth attendance through the roof.
Obviously every team had some changes with the expansion draft, and there were a couple of trades as well. The most surprising was the trading of Garrett Billings from Toronto to Vancouver, so he can play closer to his hometown of Langley. Giving up seven-time MVP Billings was huge for the Rock, though receiving veterans Kiel Matisz and Johnny Powless, prospect Cam Sanderson (son of Toronto GM Josh), and two first round draft picks is a pretty good return for the only 200-point player in NLL history.
Dan Dawson joins his eleventh NLL team by signing with the Washington Stealth. At 41, Dawson can still put the numbers up, and by joining the defending Champion Stealth, he sets himself up pretty well for finally winning that first Championship. Of course, that’s what he thought when he joined the 2013 Knighthawks, the 2020 Bandits, and the 2021 Roughnecks.
In Buffalo, nothing new under the sun as John Tavares returns for his 32nd season as a Bandit, and 21st playing for head coach Darris Kilgour. Ever since Tavares had his knees, hips, ankles, elbows, and shoulders replaced with titanium joints, he’s been unstoppable, even over a 24-game season. And to think we called him “ageless” ten years ago!
Only one coaching change, as Kevin Finneran steps down as Wings coach after their first time missing the playoffs in over a decade. Another former Wing player, Brodie Merrill, takes over the reins. Merrill will try to bring the Wings back to their glory years when they won all those Championships in the 1990’s and from 2014-2018.
In the East, I have to go with the Knighthawks in first yet again. We’ll see if Matt Vinc can break his own record of three shutouts in a season. After that, we have the Rock, Bandits, Wings, and expansion Baltimore Lightning.
The Central division will be interesting, as the Swarm try to extend their seven-year streak of finishing first, while the Mammoth, newly retooled by GM and head coach John Grant, attempt to improve on their three consecutive second place finishes. Detroit should do OK if Dane Dobbie’s switch to goaltender goes as smoothly as last year, and Chicago will probably suck again since Nick Rose’s switch to forward didn’t work out quite as well.
Defending champs Washington have to be the favourite in the West, closely followed by Edmonton and Calgary (featuring the first player-GM-head coach in NLL history, Andrew McBride), with Vancouver and Victoria duking it out for last.
This is going to be one crazy season! But it’s the NLL and it’s late October, so bring it on!