Top 5 non-surprises of 2015

Earlier this week, I listed the top 5 surprises of this season, so now it’s time for the top 5 non-surprises. Here are things that happened that we probably could have foreseen.

 

5. Ben McIntosh and Miles Thompson having strong rookie years

The #1 and #2 picks in last year’s draft, big things were expected from McIntosh and Thompson and they have not disappointed. Coincidentally, both are sitting at 43 points right now (McIntosh has one more goal and one fewer assist) though Thompson has played one more game than McIntosh. In fact, they only differ by 2 in power play goals, by 11 in shots, by 4 in loose balls, and by 1 in penalty minutes. They’re having the same season. Big question I can’t answer yet: how on earth do we pick between them for Rookie of the Year?

4. Edmonton playing strong defensively

The Rush are giving up an average of just under 10 goals per game, ½ a goal better than anyone else (and 5½ better than the Stealth). Aaron Bold’s GAA of 9.36 is the lowest of anyone who’s played more than 19 minutes (hi Angus Goodleaf!) and he’s 5th in save %. Still, even with these outstanding numbers, Bold’s GAA is half a point higher than last year and the team is allowing 1.2 more goals per game than last year, which just tells you how amazing the 2014 Rush were.

3. Brett Hickey scoring a bunch

Brett HickeyBrett Hickey’s career stats before the 2015 season: 5 goals, 5 assists, 9 games, 2 Stealths (Washington in 2012 and Vancouver in 2014). So far this season: 33 goals, 15 assists, 13 games. But as I said in the Top 5 Surprises article, Hickey has been lighting up the WLA for two years, finishing in the top 10 in scoring twice. I certainly thought he’d improve on his 1.11 points per game pace, and I read a number of tweets and blog articles before the season talking about how Hickey was going to light up the NLL as well. I have to admit that I didn’t expect these kind of numbers, but the fact that he’s doing well is not a big surprise.

2. Jeremy Noble traded to Colorado

We knew that Noble wasn’t going to play for the Knighthawks. We knew that he lives in Denver and plays for the Outlaws in the MLL. And we knew that the Mammoth had an interest (and who wouldn’t?). So it was almost just a matter of time before this deal got made, and as I said on Addicted to Lacrosse a couple of weeks ago, it looks like a good deal for both teams. Another big question I can’t answer yet: could Noble be the Rookie of the Year after playing at most 9 games?

1. Dhane Smith emerges as an offensive star

Over his two NLL seasons, Smith has shown himself to be a great offensive player, but the Bandits decided to use him on defense and transition a lot. This was not a terrible decision; he’s very good in that role as well. (And it’s not the first time the Bandits have done this – they made Mark Steenhuis a transition player after a 50-goal 101-point season followed by a 90-point season.) But when they chose to have Smith play a primarily offensive role this season, we all knew the effect he’d have and the numbers he’d put up. And Smith has delivered. After two seasons averaging a little over 3 points per game, he is currently averaging 5.38 points per game and is tied with Ryan Benesch for both the team lead and 4th on the overall scoring list. This surprises me not at all.

Top 5 surprises of 2015

We’re about halfway through the 2015 season, and many of the unusual things that always happen at the beginning of the season have sorted themselves out. Nobody’s winless. Nobody’s undefeated. Nobody’s on pace for 180 points. But as always, there are a few things left over that have not sorted themselves out. Here are the top 5 surprises at the mid-way point of the 2015 season:

 

5. John Tavares’s scoring drought

Due to injuries, John Tavares has only played 7 of the Bandits’ 13 games so far this season, but that’s not the surprising part. What’s surprising is that he only has 17 points. Tavares has averaged 5.8 points per game over 23 seasons and is not only less than half that this year, his 2.4 points per game is a drop of 3/4 of a point per game from last year.

4. Johnny Powless’s scoring drought

When Johnny Powless was brought in to Vancouver, they billed him as the Next Big Thing, the offensive superstar-to-be that was going to help them win Championship after Championship. Of course they didn’t explicitly say those things, but the implications were clear. After 10 games, Powless only has 7 goals and has only scored more than one in a game once. Not only is he nowhere near the league leaders in points, but he’s third on the team, tied with Corey Small who’s played three fewer games in a Stealth jersey. He does have 31 assists, good for 2nd on the team and 14th in the league. This is not to say Powless has been a bust in Vancouver, but if you were expecting him to light up the nets and become half of the one-two scoring punch with Rhys Duch, that’s not what’s happened.

3. Toronto not missing Billings or Doyle

Nobody would deny that Garrett Billings was one of the league’s top players over the last few years, or that Colin Doyle has been one of the best ever. So a team with a .500 record who loses those two players and replaces them both with one guy from the Vancouver Stealth scrap heap will suffer, right? Actually, just the opposite.

Doyle & BillingsI’m certainly not arguing that the Toronto Rock is a better team because they are without Billings and Doyle. But it’s safe to say that they’ve dealt with the losses rather well. The emergence of Brett Hickey has been a somewhat unexpected windfall – I say “somewhat” because Hickey has been in the top 10 in WLA scoring for the past two years, and finished 4th in scoring last year. It’s not as if nobody expected him to do well in the NLL, but Hickey’s on pace for 45 goals and 66 points. I’m sure many people are not surprised by those numbers but I was. Pleasantly.

Rob Hellyer had a breakout season in 2014 and hasn’t just continued that strong play, he’s exceeded it. Hellyer is averaging 6.62 points per game, third in the league behind Shawn Evans and Mark Matthews, and a full two points per game higher than last year. Stephen Leblanc and Kasey Beirnes are each averaging a half-point per game higher than last year, Kevin Ross is only 2 points behind Beirnes and has played 13 games compared to last year’s 2, and of course Josh Sanderson is having an outstanding year as well, on pace to be his best since 2010.

Rob Hellyer got injured this past weekend and there’s been no word on his status, but talk immediately started about the possibility of Garrett Billings returning to the team. I also heard a rumour today that Colin Doyle may be back before the year is out. But if none of those things happen and Hellyer is back by next weekend, it seems unthinkable that Billings and Doyle could sit out an entire season and not be missed.

2. Who’s not playing

You could make up a team with all the players not playing in the NLL this year for various reasons and it’d be a damn good one. The aforementioned Billings and Doyle are obviously two of the biggest names, but there are lots of others. We’ll start with Matt Beers, Kyle Sorensen, Tim Henderson, Alex Gajic, and Kyle Belton – and that’s just the Stealth. We also have Mike Grimes, Curtis Knight, Garrett Thul, Jamie Rooney, Scott Jones, Cam Flint, Jimmy Purves, Matt Roik, and half of last year’s Philadelphia Wings.

Lewis Ratcliff retired after 4 games, and Athan Iannucci was released after being benched for a few. Shawn Williams was signed by the Rock and then cut before the season began, but I happen to know that he’s been working out and keeping in shape, hoping for a phone call.

An impressive list. And that’s not even including the big-name players who retired after last year, including Ryan Ward, Tracey Kelusky, and Scott Ranger.

1. Calgary in dead last

I think the most surprising thing about the 2015 season, hands down, is the Calgary Roughnecks. They began the season 0-6 thanks in part to a brutal start by Mike Poulin, who had a GAA over 17 after three games and lost the starting goaltender’s job. It’s not as if the team was completely terrible; they lost two in OT and another by a single goal. All the time, Shawn Evans was at or near the top in scoring but neither Dane Dobbie nor Jeff Shattler exceeded 5 points in a game until their 7th or 8th game.

RoughnecksThey seem to have pulled it together since then, having won 3 of their last 5 including a 20-9 blowout of the early-peaking New England Black Wolves. Poulin has pulled his GAA down to 13.75 after a few good starts. But the team is still 3-8 so they’d have to almost run the table just to end up at .500.

No team who’s started the season 0-6 has ever made the playoffs in the NLL. But given the Stealth’s inconsistency so far and the fact that they only have to finish higher than one team in the West, it’s still not out of the question for the Roughnecks.

Game reports: Rock and Bandits split the weekend series

If you’re a Bandits fan, a Rock fan, or just a fan of the game, this was a great weekend to watch the NLL. The Bandits and Rock played back to back games on Friday and Saturday nights, and as expected, both games were close, exciting, chippy, and very entertaining. I got to both of these games but didn’t do a separate game report for Friday night’s matchup for reasons I’ll get to. This article will serve as a game report for both.

I decided to bring my kids to Friday’s game in Buffalo so I messaged my buddy Steve Bermel to see if he could get me tickets. He’s done this for me in the past and gave me hell once because I bought tickets through the box office (and therefore paid full price plus fees rather than Steve’s season ticket holder discount price). Steve called me back and said that Kevin Kennedy, the Bandits anthem singer, wasn’t using his tickets for that game and had donated them to me and my boys. These tickets were “row 3, behind the Rock bench” as Steve put it, so I was excited about sitting only a few rows back from the bench. It turns out that row 3 is the row directly behind the Rock bench, so we we right in the action. This was as close as I’ve ever been to a sporting event (except a spring training Blue Jays game where I was sitting behind home plate, next to the guy with the radar gun) so that was very cool, and my boys really enjoyed it as well.  We were close enough to see that Blaine Manning has a mole on the back of his head. The more you know.

Play at the far endSitting so close had some advantages: we could see that the Rock have a special stick they use for face-offs. Whenever a player went to take a face-off or came off the floor after one, they’d swap their regular stick with the face-off one. Nicky got high-fives from most of the Rock players as they came out for the second half, and one of the Rock employees gave them each a ball after the pre-game shoot-around. I could hear Brett Hickey trying to get the team fired up (“Come on guys, let’s do this. Let’s go”) as they took the floor before the game and after halftime, as well as when they left the floor just before halftime. I’m more impressed with that guy after every game and thanks again to the Vancouver Stealth for releasing him.

But sitting so close has some drawbacks too, the main one being that we couldn’t see the game. The players and coaches never sit down during the game (and I wouldn’t expect them to), so we ended up watching play at the far end on the Jumbotron (see the picture above for our actual view of the far end) and play at the near Selfie showing my view of the gameend through a maze of players. During the 1st and 3rd quarters, we were staring at Dan Ladouceur’s back (picture at right) and during the 2nd and 4th it was Blaine Manning’s.

As for the game itself, I honestly couldn’t see enough of it to have a good opinion on how the teams played. I thought the Rock offense looked kind of haphazard in the first. They didn’t seem to be getting many good looks and their ball movement wasn’t great. It was better in the second half. Cosmo played well and Rose was pretty good with flashes of greatness here and there.

Hey, remember that game where Mark Steenhuis didn’t play very well and didn’t seem to be trying very hard? No, me neither. That man’s only playing styles are HARD and HARDER.

The end of game 1 was beyond chippy. At one point, Troy Cordingley was yelling at John Lovell and had to be physically restrained from leaving the Bandits bench. Brodie Merrill came back to the Rock bench near the end of the 4th and literally punched the wall in front of the bench three times. Good hard punches too. I don’t know what he was so pissed about, but on his next shift, he fought Steve Priolo and was tossed from the game. Then a couple of other fights started as well, and it looked like it was going to get out of hand, but it stopped just short of that. The game eventually ended and the players lined up for the handshakes. Brodie’s brother Patrick Merrill led the line for the Rock, and the teams went through the line just fine until the Rock got to Cordingley who immediately started yelling at Merrill (“F**K YOU” was clearly the take-home message for Merrill here) and once again had to be pulled away by his team. It seemed like a typical Bandits “We’re losing so let’s start some fights” move, except that the Bandits weren’t losing. Again, I couldn’t really see much so I don’t know how the fights started or what Cordingley was so mad about.

Fast-forward almost 24 hours, and both teams are at the ACC in Toronto for the rematch. I was in my regular seats for this one, so I have a better idea of who played well and who didn’t. Answer: the goalies played well, the offenses not so much.

This started off looking like it was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s game. There were penalties all over the place including a fight. I imagine the refs were just waiting for Priolo and Hostrawser to go at it so when each gave the other a couple of shoves, the refs sent them off for roughing. I didn’t think penalties were warranted here and I guess Priolo wondered the same thing out loud since he got an extra 2 for unsportsmanlike conduct.

There were a few other incidents where players were almost looking for penalties. Hostrawser hit a Bandit with a full crosscheck right across the back, knocking him down, in full view of the ref with no call. Mark Steenhuis got a penalty early in the second but when they showed the replay of why he got the penalty, you got a good view of a Rock player punching Ryan Benesch in the side of the head. Someone slashed Kedoh Hill who waited a second before falling down. My son said it looked like a soccer play but the slash was called and not the dive.

One of the best plays of the game (and penalties were neither called nor deserved on this one) was Billy Dee Smith racing down on an almost-breakaway and then deciding that rather than trying to deke or shoot around Rob Marshall he’d just go straight through him. Both players are 6’3″ but Smith has 35 pounds on Marshall. But Marshall lowered his shoulder at just the right time and while he did get knocked over, Smith went down too and the Rock recovered the loosie.

I don’t know if the coaches were warned by the refs at halftime or if they both decided to just drop all that revenge crap and play lacrosse instead, but the second half wasn’t chippy at all and it turned into a great game. The Rock were up by 3 going into halftime but Toronto’s offense came out flat in the third for their first scoreless quarter of the season. Just like part of the previous night, the Rock couldn’t seem to get their offense going and couldn’t get in close. They took a lot of shots from way out and with lots of time left on the shot clock, and many of those shots hit Cosmo square in the chest. After the Bandits took the lead midway through the third, both goalies stepped up their games but the Rock managed to tie it twice in the 4th before we headed to OT.

OT only lasted a couple of minutes, but both teams had some good chances to end it. Brandon Miller and Anthony Cosmo both stood tall, as they had all game. But Brett Hickey managed to get one past Cosmo a couple of minutes in to send the crowd home happy. The Rock and fans celebrated the goal while the refs went to review it and we thought about how deflated the crowd would be if they came out and waved it off. There was even a Bandits player who got himself set up at the restraining line. He looked like he was getting ready for the ensuing face-off – which was weird because if the goal didn’t count, there wouldn’t have been a face-off anyway.

I really don’t know if there was bad blood during the handshakes on this night too but the refs were ready for it. The teams went through the line and I paid special attention to Troy Cordingley, who simply shook everyone’s hand. When he got to the Rock coaches, it looked like he gave Lovell a sincere handshake and even patted Dan Ladouceur on the chest. But then the refs came running over. I don’t know if words were said that made them think something was going to happen, or if they just saw the coaches together and thought something might happen, but nothing did.

As I said, we had two entertaining games between these two teams, as we frequently do. I like a chippy game with lots of hitting as much as anyone, but the second half of Saturday’s game was great because it had none of that. There was the potential for it to turn into a bench-clearing brawl, but instead we had some great goaltending, solid defense, and some nice goals (and some ugly ones too).

Next weekend: the Edmonton Rush are in town. This will be another great game.

Garrett who?

Garrett Billings has been out of the Rock lineup all season but his agent tweeted last week that Billings has been cleared to play. So where is he? Not only has he not played, but the Rock haven’t said a word about him. No tweets, no mention of him at games, nothing. I’m hearing that Billings is an RFA but has not signed a contract with the Rock. Now that the team is 8-1 and first overall, they’re not exactly desperate to get him back into the lineup, so the combination of Billings being ready and the Rock’s silence has raised rumours that he’s going to be traded. The two big questions here are: 1. Where? 2. For who?

Seeing as he’s from Langley BC, the obvious choice is the Vancouver Stealth, and I do remember seeing a tweet this past weekend (though I can’t remember who and I can’t find it now) that implied that Billings would only play for the Rock or the Stealth. Then on Saturday night, Teddy Jenner tweeted:

This startled a few people but he clarified later that there had been no move and he was just referring to the rumours.

Garrett Billings

Interesting aside: Note the similarity in the picture above to the player in the NLL logo.

The “for who” question is even more interesting. What would the Rock want in return? Billings is arguably the best player in the NLL over the past three seasons (though Cody Jamieson might disagree), so any deal better be significant. But the Rock are 8-1 and don’t really need anything. They have the best 1-2 goaltender combo in the league. Their defense is also among the best in the league and they’ve scored more goals per game than anyone except, ironically, the Stealth. If the Rock trade Billings anywhere in the east or for anything less than three first round draft picks, Jamie Dawick should fire himself as GM.

Personally, I think the best idea for the Rock would be to keep Billings and drop a defender (likely Bill Greer since he was just called up, though I’d be OK with Patrick Merrill or Bill Hostrawser since they take too many penalties). But if they decide they can’t and they want to trade Billings for Rhys Duch, I guess I could live with that. Or I’d take Tyler Digby and a couple of first rounders. But Duch and Digby are both right-handed, as is Billings, so the Rock would end up with the same “problem”, if you want to call having too many talented players a problem.

Maybe Billings can get together with Jeremy Noble and just hang out until their teams stop playing so well.

Update: As Tyler brought up on Addicted to Lacrosse, this was the same injury that Athan Iannucci had back in about 2008 and he was never the same afterwards. In my discussion above, I was assuming that Billings will be 100% back to his old self – if not right away, then shortly thereafter. But it’s possible that he may never get back to where he was. Perhaps three first round picks for the old Garrett Billings might have been fair but until we know how full his recovery was, nobody’s going to give up three firsts for an unknown.


Here’s an unrelated thing I want to bitch about but doesn’t warrant an entire article: the Western Union commercials that have been playing during NLL games. One features Swarm defender David Earl talking about when he was struggling at college and his father came to visit him and helped him get back on track. The other has Mammoth forward Drew Westervelt, who talks about discovering his dyslexia and how his family was very helpful and supportive while he worked to overcome the academic problems that came with that. But then the narrator says “Western Union is there for you”. Are they really trying to equate or even compare their services with the support and care that a family provides? And what the hell does “Moving money for better” mean? It’s not even an English sentence. Are these commercials supposed to make me want to use their services?