Top 6 surprises of 2016

I did this last year and it was fun, so here’s this year’s version of the top surprises at the season’s midway point. I only did five last year, but I couldn’t narrow down this list any further.

6. Logan Schuss & Johnny Powless

These guys both struggled with their original 2015 teams and were traded for each other in what has turned out to be one of those rare trades where each team thinks they got the better of the deal, and they’re both right. Interestingly, Powless and Schuss had almost identical points/game averages at the time of the trade – Schuss at 3.56, Powless at 3.55. After the trade, Schuss’s numbers jumped 1.3 points to 4.86/gm while Powless’s dropped 1.38 to 2.17/gm.

But this year’s a different story for both of them. Nobody’s really surprised that these guys are having good seasons. But they’re not just having good seasons, they’re having career seasons. Each is leading his team in scoring, and that’s saying something when Schuss is playing with guys like Billings and Duch. Each is averaging 2+ points/game more than last season and also 2+ more than their career average. At this rate, Powless will finish with 93 points, beating his career high by 40, and Schuss will finish with 114, beating his career high by 37.

5. Dhane Smith

Dhane SmithSimilar to Schuss and Powless, nobody’s surprised that the Great Dhane is leading the Bandits in points. Nobody’s particularly surprised that he’s leading the league in points. To be 21 points ahead of second place halfway through the season is surprising, but it gets better.

Last season, Shawn Evans shattered the single-season points record with 130, breaking the previous record by 14. Evans averaged 7.22 points per game, a pace many thought he wouldn’t be able to keep up for the whole season. Some have even asked if anyone would ever be able to match it. But only one year later, Smith is not just on a pace to break that record, he’s way ahead. Smith is averaging 8.44 points per game, a pace that will give him 152 points. In fact, Smith only needs to average 6 points per game over the rest of the season to break Evans’s record so even if he falls off a bit, the record is still quite breakable.

4. Welcome to Saskatchewan

Many people, myself included, criticized Edmonton Rush owner Bruce Urban for leaving Edmonton and taking the team to Saskatchewan last year. While I don’t particularly like the way he did it (announcing the possible move as a threat during the playoffs, criticizing the City of Edmonton during negotiations, etc.) and I still think Edmonton is a legitimate lacrosse market, it looks so far like this was a great move. Saskatoon has welcomed the Rush and the NLL with open arms. The municipal government and local businesses seem to have grabbed hold of the team and the crowds have been great. The Rush are averaging 9765 per game, a number higher than eight of the ten seasons they were in Edmonton.

Now, let’s remember that the Rush averaged over 10,000 per game for their first two seasons, when they were a combined 7-25. So perhaps we should wait until season 3 or 4 in Saskatchewan before deciding whether or not this was a good idea long term. But for now, it’s great to see.

Another big pro of having a team in Saskatchewan: I can now type the word Saskatchewan in less than four minutes.

3. Struggling goaltenders

In 2015, six goaltenders had a GAA under 10. One was Cody Hagedorn who played about 14 minutes, and another was Angus Goodleaf who played 92 minutes. But the rest played at least 250 minutes and two of them (Aaron Bold & Matt Vinc) were everyday starters with over 1000 minutes.

This year, only one goalie has a GAA under 10, Tye Belanger who’s only played 43 minutes. Bold is third at 10.53 and Vinc is eighth at 11.76. Bold’s GAA is over a full goal higher than 2015, and almost two higher than 2014. Vinc’s is two goals higher than both 2015 and 2014. He has only had a GAA that high twice in his career: 2006 when he played 14 minutes with the Stealth, and 2012 when he had a 12.22 GAA but won the Championship with the Knighthawks.

But they’re not the only goalies having tough seasons – Nick Rose, Brandon Miller, Angus Goodleaf, Frankie Scigliano, Anthony Cosmo, Zack Higgins, Davide DiRuscio, and Tyler Carlson all have higher GAAs than last season. On the flipside, Dillon Ward, Evan Kirk, and Mike Poulin are all having strong seasons, and Eric Penney and Tyler Richards also have lower numbers than last season though they’re in a weird situation – their roles are reversed and Richards has only played in a couple of games.

2. The Toronto Rock

0-6 to start the season? Have you ever heard of such a thing? The Rock had never started a season worse than 0-4 in their history, and this is a team that went to the Championship game last season. They averaged 6.25 goals in their first four games, and then gave up 18.5 in the next two. Finally they got the offense and defense both working at the same time and have pulled off two wins in a row.

The only reason that this is not the #1 most surprising thing is that the Roughnecks did exactly the same thing last year, including going to the Championship game the previous year. The only difference is that the Roughnecks had never started a season worse than 0-2. The Roughnecks pulled it together though, and not only made the playoffs but went to the Western division final. The Rock seemed to have pulled themselves together as well, so the fact that Calgary salvaged their season last year gives the Rock some hope.

1. The New England Black Wolves

The Black Wolves started last season with a victory over the Bandits and then a 17-7 blowout of the Knighthawks, and things looked very promising for the relocated Wings. But then they must have realized that they were the relocated Wings. When I think about last year’s Black Wolves, I think of a team that wasn’t very good but looking at the numbers, they were even worse than that. After their 2-0 start they went 2-14. Their 14 losses is the second-worst in league history and their -63 goal differential is the fifth-worst in league history. They gave up 20 goals three times, and lost by eight or more five times. Only two teams have ever given up more goals than the 249 that the Black Wolves gave up in 2015 (though one was the Stealth of 2015).

So a coaching change was not all that surprising, though picking up the reigning league MVP was. But Clark, Veltman, and Evans can’t make that much of a difference, can they? Clearly, they can.

Kevin Crowley

Last year, they only had six players with more than 30 points – and it’s really only five since two of them were Garrett Billings and Kevin Crowley, who were traded for one another. This season, they already have four with 30, and they’ve only played seven games. Pat Saunders led the team with 68 points last season; Saunders, Evans, Kevin Crowley, and Kevin Buchanan are all on pace to beat that this year. In fact, Shawn Evans could have that total by the end of next weekend – after nine games.

They’ve already won more games than last season, and are on pace to score 55 more goals and give up 54 fewer. Shawn Evans is still in the MVP conversation (though that conversation is being dominated by Dhane Smith right now), and they have five players above four points per game, something not even the Mammoth can boast. They are allowing a league-low 10.9 goals per game, the defense has been great, and Evan Kirk is playing his best lacrosse since his debut season with the Swarm in 2012. These guys are for real.

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