Field players: Thinking inside the box

The winds of change might be sweeping over the lacrosse scene this winter, affecting not only the NLL but the MLL too. OK, that’s a little melodramatic, but there have been some significant signings over the past month or so. A few NLL teams have signed a number of MLL players to contracts and some of those players seem excited to join the NLL. This is not unprecedented, but it does seem to be reversing a trend.

There have been players who’ve played in both the MLL and NLL for many years. The roster of the inaugural Toronto Nationals back in 2009 looked like an NLL All-Star team. Some guys like Brodie Merrill, John Grant, and Kevin Crowley have played in both leagues every year, while others like Jesse Gamble, Kiel Matisz, and Chad Tutton were listed on MLL rosters this past year but did not play. There have also been players who were primarily MLL guys but played in the NLL too, guys like Paul Rabil, Ned Crotty, Max Seibald, Brendan Mundorf, and Connor Martin. Some were successful indoors, others weren’t. Rabil scored 161 points in 68 games over 5 seasons and won a Championship with the Stealth, while Connor Martin’s NLL career consisted of 6 games with the Mammoth, picking up 2 goals and no assists – though his backflip off the boards after his first was memorable. None of these guys has played in the NLL since 2013.

Paul Rabil with the Stealth

But the NLL and MLL seasons overlap, and to make matters worse for players who want to play in both leagues, the NLL season has become longer over the past few years. First they expanded the regular season from 16 to 18 games and then they also extended the playoffs. As a result, NLL players end up missing the beginning of the MLL season. In 2011, Kevin Crowley went to the NLL finals with the Toronto Rock and missed at least a month of MLL games.

So when it was announced in July that the Toronto Rock had traded a draft pick to the Black Wolves for the rights to Paul Rabil, it seemed like a weird move. Why bother trading for someone who’s already been in the league and has seemingly given up on it? But when Rabil acknowledged the trade and didn’t immediately say “yeah, not gonna happen”, a few eyebrows were raised. Could he actually report to camp and suit up for the Rock? Rabil is obviously a very skilled player but I don’t think that was even the main reason the Rock went after him. He’s probably the most famous lacrosse player in North America so what he brings to the team in attention off the floor may be worth just as much as what he brings on the floor.

Almost three months later, the New England Black Wolves drafted Myles Jones in the fourth round. Jones went first overall in the MLL draft earlier this year and is regarded as the steal of the (NLL) draft – if he plays. It sounds like this is unlikely (or he would have gone earlier) but it got people talking about MLL players in the NLL again.

Tom SchreiberBut then the bigger news came down early in October. The Rock signed MLL stars Tom Schreiber and Kieran McArdle to one-year contracts and both have gone on the record as “looking forward to the challenge“. And these aren’t just MLL guys. These are really good MLL guys. McArdle was Rookie of the Year in 2014 and led the Florida Launch in scoring in 2016, finishing 6th in the league. Schreiber led the Ohio Machine in scoring, finished 3rd in the league, and was named league MVP. For comparison’s sake, Callum Crawford was 3rd in league scoring last year with 115 points and Mark Matthews was 6th with 109. This is not exactly the same since Schreiber and McArdle have no box experience but if you’re that good at field lacrosse, you’re unlikely to suck at box.

The same day, the Buffalo Bandits announced that they had signed Blaze Riorden, another MLL player. This one’s a little weird in that Riorden is a field goalie but was signed by the Bandits as a forward. Both Matt Vinc and Anthony Cosmo are goalies in box but not field, so there’s no reason Riorden couldn’t do things the other way around. And he’s familiar with the other end of the floor field too; here’s some (dizzying) video of Riorden the goalie scoring a goal.

Ten days after signing Schreiber and McArdle, the Rock signed McArdle’s Florida Launch teammate Connor Buczek. Buczek finished second in scoring on the Launch this past year and just like Schreiber and McArdle, he’s said that he’s looking forward to playing in the NLL.

For me, the big deal here isn’t that NLL teams are signing MLL stars. That’s happened before. But after the last three years where many MLL players have shied away from the NLL, the big deal is that now they’re not. Rabil hasn’t said whether or not he’ll report but hasn’t ruled out the possibility, at least not publicly. I haven’t heard anything from Riorden but the others have said that they are looking forward to it.

I have to think that if more MLL players are interested in playing in the NLL, this is good for both leagues. More players will start asking the two leagues to work together to make it easier, and eventually the leagues will have no choice but to work something out. But that possibility is a whole other kettle of fish – or can of worms. I’ll discuss that in a future article.

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The NLL Draft is not about building for the future. It’s all about now.

While I was growing up as a hockey and baseball fan, drafts never interested me. I knew they happened but they were never televised and barely covered in the media at all, and there just wasn’t the hype about these young players that we have now. We all knew the names Sidney Crosby and John Tavares and Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews for months, sometimes years before they ever played an NHL game but a few decades ago, that’s not how it worked. I’d read about the draft results in the newspaper but it never meant anything to me because I don’t follow minor league baseball or hockey, so I’d never heard of any of the drafted players.

Most of the time, it didn’t really matter much anyway. Other than the very top draft picks, most players would sit in the farm system for a year or two (or five in baseball) before making the big club. If you remembered any names from the draft after the first round, you might never hear them again, or at least not for a long while.

Connor Brown, Stealth drafteeFor the players and teams, it’s more of a big deal. Being drafted by a team means they thought highly enough of you that they want you in their system. And even if you can’t contribute right away, they’re willing to wait. It’s somewhat of a commitment. Sure, you can be cut at any time but a team has the option of playing you in the minor leagues for a year or two and see how you adjust to their playing system, get along with teammates and coaches, all that sort of thing. The draft is used to build the team for the future, not just next year.

The NLL is different

For most fans, the NLL draft is much the same – if you don’t follow the Canadian summer leagues or NCAA, you may not have heard of the players either. I was there last week and I certainly hadn’t heard of most of them. And there will be some whose name you never hear again after the draft.

But for the players and teams, it’s different from other sports. Teams aren’t drafting for the future, they’re drafting for now. And players aren’t hoping to get drafted and play for the big club sometime in the future, they’re hoping to play now. The reason for this is simple: there is no farm system. There are no minor leagues. Teams can’t draft a player and send him to the minors for a year or two before he’s ready. If you get drafted, there are three options:

  1. you make the roster for the upcoming season, or
  2. you make the practice roster for the upcoming season, or
  3. you are released.

That’s it. Players in the NLL aren’t drafted as much on their long-term potential, it’s all about next year. And this affects who gets drafted, by what team, and when.

Take the Toronto Rock for example: they have an older goalie in Brandon Miller and a younger one in Nick Rose. If they have a farm system, they might have drafted a young goalie like Doug Jamieson or Warren Hill and put him in the minors for a year or two for seasoning until Miller retires. Then they have Rose in his prime and a 22-year-old to back him up and everyone’s happy. Or if Miller plays well for a few more years and doesn’t retire, they have either Rose or a 22-year-old goalie as trade bait which nets them Curtis Dickson or Randy Staats or someone like that and still everyone’s happy. But there are no minors to put Jamieson or Hill in. They can’t pick them for the future. If there’s nowhere on the roster for one of them next season, they draft somebody else.

This is why the Rock’s choice of 18-year-old Latrell Harris at #12 is a little puzzling. I don’t know anything about the kid, but he’s only 18. Maybe he’ll be 19 when the season starts, and others like Shawn Evans and Rob Hellyer have excelled in the NLL at that age. And it’s certainly possible I’m underestimating how great a player he is; as I said, I know nothing about him. But if they decide during training camp that he’s too young or too raw, they either have to cut him or leave him out there, and trying to recover from a season where you missed the playoffs is not the best time to be using a roster spot on someone who’s not ready.

I only went to one or two CLax games in the few years it was around, and I feel kind of guilty about that now since it’s gone. But if they had partnered with the NLL, I think it could have been great. Imagine NLL teams drafting young players and sending them to CLax, or bringing up players when an injury hits, or using CLax for conditioning players returning from injury. There would have to be a western division of CLax, probably in Vancouver, and perhaps there are other factors that I don’t know about that would have made this impossible. But it seems like it would have been a good idea.

Except…

There is one exception to what I’ve said above. It is possible to draft someone and hold onto him for the future: a team can put a player on the holdout list. As long as he’s got a contract and doesn’t qualify as a free agent, he can stay there indefinitely. Teams don’t even have to pay players on that list. But the list is limited so you can’t just throw all of your draft picks that didn’t make the roster on the holdout list and keep them as long as you want. A team might use that strategy for one special player, as the Stealth have done with their 2015 draft pick Connor Brown (not the Toronto Maple Leaf). As long as he continues his hockey career, he’ll be unavailable to them but if he ever decides to play in the NLL, the Stealth will own his rights, even if that doesn’t happen for another few years.

 

Thanks a bunch to Teddy Jenner for consultation on the draft and holdout list rules.