The Blazers and the Sting: It’s drafty in here

The mid-to-late 2000’s were a tumultuous time in the NLL. Teams were popping up, moving, and vanishing all over the place. This all reached “peak weird” in about 2007-2008 and if you are new to the NLL, you might not know about all of these strange goings-on. Even if you’ve been following the league since then, some of this is still hard to believe.

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NLL team names

Recently, a Rush fan named Rob King tweeted an article suggestion:

Challenge accepted. There isn’t much of a story behind a few of them, but others are very interesting. I had a lot of fun researching this one, and I hope you enjoy these stories. I threw in a couple of “Did you knows” as I came across them.

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The NLL’s most successful franchise

It’s a cycle that almost every pro sports team goes through. If you look back over the history of most teams that have been around for a while, they’ve had periods where they’re really good, at or near the top of the league, and then other periods where they’re terrible. Think of any team that’s been successful over the last year or two: the Royals in baseball, the Clippers in basketball, the Islanders in hockey. It wasn’t that long ago that all three of those teams were terrible, near the bottom of their respective leagues.

Alternatively, think of any team that’s been terrible over the last few years: the Knicks, the Oilers, the Phillies. I can certainly remember times when those teams were at the top of their leagues.  Every team has times where they’re really great and times where they’re really bad. Even the Cubs won the NL Central three times from 2003-2008.

This has certainly happened in the NLL as well. The Edmonton Rush were arguably the best team of each of the last two years but were terrible for a decade before that. The Washington Stealth went to the Championship in three out of their four seasons, but were 4-12 and dead last in the fourth. The Wings won 6 Championships in their first 15 years, then only made the playoffs 3 times in their last 12. The Rock, Bandits, and Mammoth have each won championships and also sat near the bottom of the league during the last 10 years. The Minnesota Swarm may be a bit of an outlier here; they were never a really great team and never reached the finals, but they were a very good team for a few years, getting to the division finals twice. On the flipside, their last couple of years in Minnesota were pretty bad.

(Aside: The NLL is a little different because of the team turnover. I’m only looking at teams that have been around for ten years or more. There are a lot of teams who didn’t have a long enough existence to consider. The New Jersey / Anaheim Storm, Ottawa Rebel, and Montreal Express never stuck around long enough to get good. The Arizona Sting went to 2 Championships in 4 years but never finished above 9-7 or below 7-9.)

Knighthawks

But in the NLL, there are two oddball teams that have mostly defied the longevity rule.

The Calgary Roughnecks were terrible in their first season, when they finished 4-12. But in the 13 seasons since then, they  have only finished below .500 twice, have never missed the playoffs, and have finished with 10+ wins 7 times. Even last year when they started 0-6 and finished 7-11, they managed to get to the Western finals. Other than their debut season (when you kind of expect a team to suck) and for part of 2015, the Roughnecks have never really been terrible.

But take a look at the Rochester Knighthawks. In their twenty-one seasons, they have only finished below .500 three times, and all three times they were just below .500 at 7-9. What’s more: they won the Championship in one of those 7-9 seasons. Let me say that another way: they won the Championship in 2012 after finishing the regular season tied for the worst record in franchise history. They have only missed the playoffs twice in 21 years and as we all remember, are the only team ever to win three straight Championships. In their debut season, they went to the Championship (and lost it in OT).

If you had to pick the most successful NLL franchise during its existence, you could argue the Rock might be the best choice given the number of Championships in that time. But they had a four year stretch where they were 10 games under .500 and missed the playoffs twice. The Wings were one of the best choices for the first half of their lifetime, and one of the worst choices for the second half. The Roughnecks would also have been a very good option, but they’ve had strong regular season numbers and not so much in the playoffs.

For my money, the Rochester Knighthawks win the prize. They have never had a single terrible season, but have had some outstanding ones. I know it’s no 22 in a row, Bandits fans, but they won 16 straight games from 2007-2008. They have never finished last in their division. They have won five Championships and appeared in four more, and have seen some of the best players in the game on their benches including the Gaits, John Grant, Shawn Williams, Shawn Evans, Dan Dawson, Cody Jamieson, and Matt Vinc.

They say any NLL team can beat any other on any given night. This is mostly true for the non-Charlottes and non-Anaheims of the league. But let’s face it, there were years that this was not true for the Rock, Bandits, Mammoth, or Roughnecks. But there has never been a time when playing the Knighthawks that they didn’t have a good chance of beating you.

NLL musical selections

Many teams play music in the dressing room to get ready for games, and I imagine every team makes different choices.

Here are the favourite musical selections for each NLL team in 2015.

Buffalo Bandits

Tavares

 

Calgary Roughnecks

Superman

 

Colorado Mammoth

Mr. Jones

 

Edmonton Rush

We Are The Champions

 

Minnesota Swarm

Georgia On My Mind

 

New England Black Wolves

Casino

 

Rochester Knighthawks

Jammer

 

Toronto Rock

Mr. Crowley

 

Vancouver Stealth

Pass The Dutchie

My team lost the Championship. And I’m OK with that.

I’ve been a Toronto Rock fan since 2001, and have watched them win Championships live (2003, 2005, 2011) and on TV (2002), and have also watched them lose Championships live (2001) and on TV (2010 and now 2015). Obviously I’m disappointed in the outcome of the series, but part of me is glad the Rush won.

As much as I’d love to have seen the Rock win the Championship in memory of Terry Sanderson, I’m glad the Rush were able to win in memory of Wendy Keenan. The fact that both of these teams could have suffered such a devastating loss just before the season started and still make the finals speaks volumes to the feeling of family among them. And that Edmonton family was dealt another difficult blow when Aaron Bold’s girlfriend Michelle Fines was diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of playing the season for Wendy, now they were playing for both Wendy and Michelle.

Aaron BoldThe team obviously has a ton of talented players and one of the best coaches in the league, so their success is not a big surprise. But doesn’t it seem that the Rush players were playing with just a little extra spark or something, particularly in Game 2 of the Finals? It’s probably the 20:20 hindsight talking, and if I knew nothing about their off-floor hardships I might not have noticed anything. But perhaps that extra motivation, plus the sound of 12,000+ Rush fans, was just enough to power the Rush to the Championship.

There’s also the fact that in sports, many teams have periods where they are strong contenders and periods where they’re not. The Oilers and Islanders were great in the 80’s and won several Cups each, but ended up near the bottom of the league later on. Even the Leafs went to the conference semifinals five out of six straight years (and the conference finals twice) in the early 2000’s, but have been terrible ever since. I remember the years when the Ottawa Senators were great and made it to the Stanley Cup finals once, but never won a Cup. Their window closed before they could achieve that goal. The Rush haven’t just been a very good team over the past two seasons, they have been amazing, having put together a 29-7 regular season record. But I’m sure the players will tell you that being the best team in the regular season means nothing if you don’t win the Championship. I’m glad they were able to achieve the ultimate success in the NLL before their window closed – not that that closure is imminent. This team could be very good for many years to come.

And I’m glad they were able to win it at home. Hopefully those 12,000+ fans can be an inspiration to Rush owner Bruce Urban. Urban said only a couple of weeks ago that it’s not unlikely that the Rush will be moving during the off-season because he couldn’t get a new arena deal in Edmonton. Maybe a bunch of the fans who showed up to that game will want to come back next year and watch this team defend its Championship. Maybe the turnout at Game 2 will be enough to prove to Urban and the city and the Oilers (who own Rexall Place) that pro lacrosse can work in Edmonton, and a deal can get worked out so the Rush don’t have to move.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still sad that my team lost. And I don’t want to take anything away from the Rock, they played really well. Brandon Miller played a fantastic game, the Rock D wasn’t quite as strong as Game 2 against Rochester but still played very well, and the offense played well too. Colin Doyle looked like the Doyle of old, Rob Hellyer scored a couple of beauties, and I’m liking Kevin Crowley’s additions to the team more and more – he’s not going to pull in the points that Billings did, but he plays well off the ball as well as defensively.

But the Rush defense was as stifling as ever, and Aaron Bold was excellent, as always. Mark Matthews played like the guy the Rush hoped they’d get when they drafted him almost three years ago. Not that he’s been a disappointment up until now, far from it. But he really stepped up his game this season and went from one of the best offensive players on the team to one of the best in the league. I made the bold (pun intended) prediction on twitter that he’ll be in the top 3 of MVP voting for the next ten years.

So I’m glad the Rush won for Derek and Wendy. For Aaron and Michelle. For Bruce. And for the Rush faithful who turned out strong to watch their team achieve the goal they had been chasing for ten years. Who knows – Wendy, Michelle, the fans, and the Championship might even have saved the franchise.

My most sincere congratulations to the 2015 Edmonton Rush.

Game report: Edmonton 15 @ Toronto 9, NLL Finals Game 1

On the Addicted to Lacrosse show this week, I picked the Rock to win Saturday night’s game because of what I saw last weekend. When the Rock hosted the Knighthawks in the division finals, they came out fired up in game 2, slowed down a touch in the second half, but then came out fired up again in the tiebreaker. They got to Matt Vinc, one of the best goaltenders anywhere, scored a bunch against one of the best defenses in the league, and kept Dan Dawson off the scoreboard (i.e. 0 goals). Any team that can do that, and has the motivation that the Rock has, will be hard to beat in the finals, especially at home. So they should win game 1.

Great logic, except it didn’t happen.

I don’t know what was said in the Rock dressing room before the Rochester game that got them so fired up (presumably it was more than just “let’s win it for T!”), but it didn’t work on Saturday night. They did come out looking pretty strong, scoring the first two goals and keeping the Rush offense from getting many decent shots, but the first two goals were the only ones in the quarter for the Rock. After Mark Matthews scored on the power play, the Rush were kept off the board for another 5 minutes before scoring 3 in under two minutes to take the lead. A fifth with under a minute left gave them a 3 goal lead at the end of the first quarter. I tweeted that the Rush were leading 7-3 at the end of the first quarter last week, and they lost. But last week they stopped playing as well as they did in the first, and the Calgary D stepped up. Neither of those things happened in this one.

The Rock weren’t terrible, mostly, but certainly not as strong as we saw last week. Miller was OK but wasn’t seeing the ball well. Rose replaced him in the second and again in the fourth and was better. The Rock D in general was also OK but had some serious lapses in judgement here and there. The Rush D, on the other hand, was stifling, and Aaron Bold was great. He was stopping almost everything from way out (that didn’t get blocked by a defender), and the Rush D wouldn’t let the Rock forwards get in close, so there was basically no way to score on him.

The Rock offense had their moments, some crisp passing and nice goals, but for the most part they were shut down by the Edmonton D. Continuing the trend that Rochester started in the semifinals, the Rush blocked an awful lot of shots. Edmonton’s forwards were generally good but holy cow, Mark Matthews was outstanding. The guy was everywhere – plowing through defenders like they weren’t there, and firing bullets at Miller or Rose. Robert Church had a good night, but I thought Jarrett Davis was very good as well. Davis was the Kasey Beirnes of the Rush: getting into the middle, setting picks, and getting pounded pretty good so that the big O guys (Matthews, Church, Greer, McIntosh) could get better looks at the net.

But the difference in the game was the transition. I couldn’t count the number of times the Rock would get a transition chance that turned into a 5 second possession after a bad shot through two defenders. Basically the Rush defense got out there so fast that the “chance” wasn’t much of a chance once they got near the net. Similarly, Rock forwards got caught on defense a lot because the Rush transition was so fast that there wasn’t time to change. Crowley isn’t bad on defense for a forward, and Josh Sanderson is a better defender at 38 than he used to be, but he’s still not great. But one of the Rush goals in the second half was scored with Sanderson, Hellyer, and Leblanc as three of the defenders. That’s just not their thing.

Game 2 goes next Friday in Edmonton and if the Rock play then like they played on Saturday, this one’s over and congrats to the Rush. But if they play like they played last week, then we’ll have a series.

Other game notes:

  • Attendance was listed as 9257, or about a thousand less than last week. The difference looked and sounded like a lot more than a thousand.
  • The Rock seemed to be dropping the ball a lot on offense. Not missed passes, and not (always) Rush defenders knocking the ball out of their stick, just plain dropping the ball.
  • Kasey Beirnes’ first goal was nice but the pass was even better. Rob Hellyer was lining up to fire a shot until at the last possible moment he saw Beirnes open beside the net. He changed his shot into a pass to Beirnes who buried it. Nice unselfish play.
  • Similarly, Mark Matthews made a beautiful pass in the third to a streaking Zack Greer who put it behind Rose (or Miller, don’t remember who was in at the time). The timing of the pass had to be perfect or Greer, who was being covered by a Rock defender, wouldn’t have gotten it. But it was perfect.
  • Near the end of the game, when the comeback was still possible, the Rock kept losing their own possessions because of moving picks. C’mon guys, when every possession is that important, don’t waste them.

2015 Predictions revisited

As many sports bloggers do, I made predictions at the beginning of the season. But as many sports bloggers don’t do, I’m going to go back and see what they were and how I did. I covered some of these on last week’s Addicted to Lacrosse show. I recently had to submit my votes for the IL Indoor annual awards, so for each of the awards below, I’ve listed my pre-season prediction as well as my post-season votes.

Standings:

East

  1. Rochester
  2. Buffalo
  3. Toronto
  4. Minnesota
  5. New England

West

  1. Calgary
  2. Edmonton
  3. Colorado
  4. Vancouver

Three correct out of nine. I wasn’t nearly as optimistic with the Rock as I should have been. I was also far too optimistic with the Roughnecks, but so was everybody else.

Annual Awards

MVP

Prediction: Dan Dawson, Cody Jamieson, Ryan Benesch
Vote: Shawn Evans, Mark Matthews, Ryan Benesch

Jamieson and Dawson had very good years, but not MVP-worthy. Benesch was great, especially down the stretch. But Evans was outstanding.

Goaltender of the Year

Prediction: Aaron Bold, Matt Vinc, Mike Poulin
Vote: Matt Vinc, Aaron Bold, Frankie Scigliano

No surprises from the first two, and I really struggled to decide who got the top vote. And I got the wrong Calgary goalie.

Defensive Player of the Year

Prediction: Kyle Rubisch, Chris Corbeil, Brock Sorensen
Vote: Kyle Rubisch, Chris Corbeil, Sid Smith

I did vote Sorensen fourth.

Transition Player of the Year

Prediction: Jeremy Thompson, Geoff Snider, Karsen Leung, Jordan Hall
Vote: Joey Cupido, Karsen Leung, Jay Thorimbert

Hall didn’t play transition this year, and Thompson had another very good season but Cupido stole the show.

Ben McIntoshRookie of the Year

Prediction: Miles Thompson, Ben McIntosh, Chris Attwood
Vote: Ben McIntosh, Jeremy Noble, Miles Thompson

Attwood didn’t even make the Knighthawks, so that was totally wrong. Miles Thompson had a good rookie season but McIntosh was better. Didn’t have Noble on the list at the beginning since it seemed unlikely he’d play at all.

Les Bartley Award

Prediction: Curt Malawsky, Mike Hasen, Troy Cordingley, John Lovell
Vote: Derek Keenan, Mike Hasen, Curt Malawsky, John Lovell, Troy Cordingley

No idea how I missed Keenan at the beginning of the year.

GM of the Year

Prediction: Terry Sanderson, Curt Styres, Steve Govett, Chris Seinko
Vote: Terry Sanderson, Curt Styres, Steve Govett, Derek Keenan.

Nailed the top three on this one. I even voted Seinko fifth since I thought he did pretty well at the trade deadline. Getting Billings, one of the top two players in the league over the last few seasons, for Crowley was a good deal and grabbing Suitor from the Swarm was good too. It was just too late in the season to turn things around, and the fact that Suitor got hurt again didn’t help.

Team predictions – East

For each team, I made a “Look out for” prediction – a player who I thought would have a great season. Some of them I nailed, others I didn’t quite get right, and in one case, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Dhane Smith (Photo: Larry Palumbo)Buffalo: Dhane Smith. Nailed this one. Smith went from 59 points in 18 games last year to 107 this year.

Minnesota: Miles Thompson. Not a bad choice, though Shayne Jackson might have been a better one.

New England: Kevin Buchanan. Again, not a bad season. Pat Saunders would have been the breakout player for the Black Wolves.

Rochester: Chris Attwood. Didn’t even make the team. We’ll call that a “miss”. I don’t know who I’d pick from the Knighthawks as having had a breakout season since everyone on the team played at or near what I expected. Maybe Craig Point, since he hadn’t played 15 games in a season since 2011.

Toronto: Brock Sorensen. I thought Sorensen had a very solid year with the Rock and even put him on my list for Defender of the Year. But you might be able to make an argument for Brett Hickey here.

Team predictions – West

Calgary: Karsen Leung. I thought Leung had another solid season and I voted for him as Transition player of the year. But for a breakout season, I’d have to go with Frankie Scigliano, who grabbed the starting goalie job from the struggling Mike Poulin a few weeks into the season and never gave it back.

Colorado: Dillon Ward. Ward didn’t have a great season, but good enough to grab second in the west. Breakout player on the Mammoth would be Jeremy Noble, Eli McLaughlin, or Alex Buque.

Edmonton: Corey Small. Mostly right, except for the team. Small only lasted 2 games with the Rush before being traded to the Stealth, where he had his best season ever. For the Rush, a better choice would have been Zack Greer, who beat his career best points/game average by almost a full point.

Vancouver: Joel McCready. Nailed it. I even said the Powless experiment wouldn’t be the huge success the Stealth were hoping for. We’ll call that a 2-for-1, which offsets the Rochester failure.