Memories of my first season as an NLL fan

I grew up in southern Ontario. Other than a year and a half in Ottawa and a four month work term in Redmond, Washington, I have lived my entire life within a two-hour drive of Toronto. That area is home to about 60% of NLL players. But unlike them, my first exposure* to the sport of lacrosse came when I was twenty-one. My university roommate Steve bought himself a lacrosse stick. He didn’t know anyone else who had one, so he played a lot of wall ball. The extent of my lacrosse experience at that time consisted of tossing a ball straight up a few times, not much further than a foot or two. I usually caught it.

After that semester, lacrosse left my mind once again and stayed out until almost ten years later. On April 1, 2000, I went with some friends to a Wings/Bandits game in Buffalo. That’s the day I fell in love with lacrosse. I immediately became a Rock season ticket holder and in December of that year, I went to my first ever Toronto Rock game, a 17-7 win over the Ottawa Rebel. Here are some of my memories and impressions about the team and the league from that year.

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Watson vs Eliuk vs Vinc

For many years, the question of “best goaltender in NLL history” has had two answers: Bob “Whipper” Watson and Dallas Eliuk. Some say Dallas, some say Whipper, some can’t decide between the two. It’s rare that you hear someone other than one of those two described as the best ever. But the question of Whipper vs. Dallas as the best ever may soon become outdated. Nothing’s being clarified, however; the waters are getting even muddier.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Matt Vinc has been the best goaltender in the NLL over the past decade. The awards and numbers certainly back that up:

  • Five Goaltender of the Year awards in six years
  • Three Championships plus two other trips to the finals
  • Led the league in GAA in 2013, finished in the top three four other times
  • Holds three of the top ten spots in the “Best GAA in a Season” list (see weird aside below)
  • Has the second-lowest career GAA among starters in NLL history
  • Second in NLL history in career saves; will overtake Anthony Cosmo in game two or three next season (he’s 104 behind)
  • Second in NLL history in career minutes; will overtake Anthony Cosmo in game four or five next season (he’s 221 behind)
  • Third in NLL history in career playoff GAA
  • First in NLL history in career playoff minutes and saves, ahead of second place by over 300 minutes and 170 saves

Weird aside: Here’s an odd one for @NLLFactOfTheDay: A starting goalie has finished a season with a sub-10.00 GAA only 17 times in NLL history. Matt Vinc has done it four times. Nobody else has done it more than twice. Yet Vinc didn’t lead the league in GAA in any of those four seasons. And here’s the craziest part: in 2010, Vinc finished with a GAA of 9.51, the seventh best of all-time, but he finished fourth in GAA that season.

Photo credit: Micheline Velovulo

Vinc has won five Goaltender of the Year awards, while Watson won only two and Eliuk never won any. This is, of course, meaningless since the award didn’t exist before 2001. Eliuk’s career was more than half over by the time the award came into being and from 2002 until the end of his career, his teams were generally pretty lousy. (His 2008 LumberJax made the finals, but Eliuk was the backup goalie by then.) Having said that, Watson won the 2008 Goaltender of the Year award on a sub-.500 team that missed the playoffs.

When comparing players’ careers, I never compare the number of Championships they won. That is entirely a team statistic and has no bearing on whether one individual player was better than another. Brodie Merrill has never won an NLL title but he’s arguably better than an awful lot of players who have. But if you must know, Eliuk won six with the Wings, Watson six with the Rock, and Vinc three with the Knighthawks.

If we’re going to compare these three goalies, shouldn’t we just compare their stats directly? Let’s try. Vinc has a lifetime GAA of 10.88. Watson’s was 11.14, while Eliuk was 12.24. So Vinc’s GAA is 0.26 lower than Watson and 1.36 lower than Eliuk. Pretty clear that he’s the best of the three, right? Actually, no.

During Dallas Eliuk’s career spanning 1992-2008, the average number of goals scored in an NLL game was 25.66. During Bob Watson’s career from 1998-2011, the average dropped to 24.82, and during the Matt Vinc years from 2006-2018, the average was only 23.41. Eliuk had a higher GAA because more goals were scored in general during his career (2.25 more per game) than during Vinc’s. Thus you’d expect Eliuk’s GAA to be higher than Vinc’s. If you assign half the difference in goals scored to each goalie, Eliuk would have a sort of “handicap” of 1.13 over Vinc, so the 1.36 difference in their GAAs is really only about 0.23. Similarly, Watson’s adjusted GAA is actually lower than Vinc’s.

I don’t have numbers for shots faced before 2005, so I can’t compare their career save percentages. But from 2005-2018, Vinc has a save percentage of 78.2%, third behind Steve Dietrich and Ken Montour (and a handful of others with just a couple of games played). Watson is only three players back of Vinc at 77.4% while Eliuk is a fair ways back at 75.9%. Again though, that only covers the last three years of Eliuk’s career, not his prime.

Not that this is news, but there’s no really good way to compare players who played in different eras. Eliuk’s career and Vinc’s only overlapped by three years, but Eliuk was past his prime by then and Vinc wasn’t yet the standout goalie he would become. The game was different enough during the years before and the years after that statistics can’t be directly compared. Watson’s career overlapped both for a longer period of time but there is a twelve-year age difference between Watson and Vinc (and six years between Watson and Eliuk) so comparisons are still difficult.

So which of the three is the best ever? There’s no correct answer – arguments can be made for any of the three. Maybe we have to say Eliuk is the best of the 1990’s, Watson the best of the 2000’s, and Vinc the best of the 2010’s, and leave it at that. The only thing we can definitively say is that this is no longer a two-horse race.

 

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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Deconstructing the 2008 Minnesota Swarm

While searching for facts for @NLLFactOfTheDay, I stumbled upon a couple of crazy games by the Swarm in 2008. That made me look over the 2008 season for the Swarm in a little more detail, and I found some more fun little tidbits. The 2008 season was long enough ago that there are lots of familiar names involved in these games but not always on the teams you might expect. But it was also recent enough that I remember some of these things happening.

So here’s a summary of the 2008 Swarm season. If you like this idea, maybe I’ll deconstruct some other memorable seasons, perhaps the 2007 Knighthawks or 2005 Rock. But like the ’08 Swarm, it doesn’t have to be Championship teams; it might also be fun to look at the 1-15 2006 Rush. Send in your suggestions! But note that I only have detailed information going back to 2005. Before that I can only talk about wins/losses, final scores, attendance, and season scoring stats.

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Five players you didn’t know played somewhere else

Everyone knows that John Tavares played his entire career with the Bandits. Similarly, Blaine Manning played with nobody but the Rock, Andrew McBride with the Roughnecks, and there are a few others.

And then there are a number of other players who you might think are in the same boat because they’ve played so long with one team that you can’t think of them playing anywhere else. But they did. If you’re a long-time fan of the league, you may know all of these but I’d guess that for many of you, at least one of these will be a surprise. The first one was for me and led me to look around for more.

These are in no particular order.

Jeff Shattler

Can you imagine Shattler in any jersey other than the Roughnecks? How about Bandit orange? Shattler played a single game with the Buffalo Bandits in 2006, where he picked up one assist and three loose balls. He was then traded to the Roughnecks along with a second round draft pick for Kevin Dostie. Shattler’s now in his eleventh season with Calgary, having played over 190 games and amassed over 700 points. He also won the Transition Player of the Year and MVP awards in 2011. Dostie picked up 157 points in 53 games over four seasons in Buffalo so it’s not like the Bandits got nothing back, but I’m going to call Calgary the winner on that one.

Incidentally, that second round pick that Calgary also picked up? They used it to draft Jamie Lincoln, who never played for Calgary but did see time with the Mammoth, Stealth, and Black Wolves.

Jeff Shattler

Mark Steenhuis

Steenhuis has been a Bandit his whole life, right? Wrong. He actually played a full season with the Columbus Landsharks in 2002, picking up 30 points in 12 games. He’s since played 233 games as a Bandit.

Bob Watson

Watson actually played for two different teams before the Rock, but one was the Ontario Raiders (who turned into the Rock after one season in Hamilton) so that doesn’t really count. But Whipper also played 268 minutes for the Baltimore Thunder in 1996, where he had a very un-Whipper-like 17.24 GAA. He took 1997 off entirely and returned to the NLL with the Raiders in 1998 and then played 13 seasons with the Rock, where he only had two seasons with a GAA above 12 (and one of them was 12.04). Oh, and two Goaltender of the Year awards, two NLL Championship Game MVP awards, six championships, and a Hall of Fame induction.

Jimmy Quinlan

Quinlan became the face of the Edmonton Rush from 2006-2013, playing over 125 games, many of them as captain. He then became an assistant coach with the team, where he remains. Many Rush fans can’t imagine the team without Jimmy Quinlan. But Quinlan picked up 10 points in 8 games, and a Championship ring, with the Toronto Rock in 2005.

Scott Ranger

Ranger was drafted by the San Jose Stealth and actually played parts of two seasons (11 points in 9 games in 2004 and 2005) there before heading to Calgary where he picked up more than 450 points in 137 regular season and playoff games over 8 years.

Six degrees of Bob Watson

I realized the other day that a large number of goaltenders in the NLL have played with Anthony Cosmo. This is not surprising seeing as how he’s been around so long. Then I realized that both he and Mike Poulin are the only goaltenders left in the league who played alongside the great Bob Watson, so it turned into a little game – how many steps is each goalie from Bob Watson?

I’ve gone through the current goaltenders in the league and assigned them a “Whipper number”, defined thusly:

  • Bob Watson has a Whipper number of 0.
  • Anyone else has a Whipper number one greater than the lowest Whipper number of anyone they played with.

GOATSo if you played on a team at the same time as Watson, your Whipper number is 1. If you didn’t but played with someone with a Whipper number of 1, your Whipper number is 2, and so on. If you are familiar the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game or Erdős numbers in mathematics, it’s the same idea.

I decided to limit it to just goaltenders, so Tyler Richards playing with Colin Doyle who played with Whipper doesn’t count.

1

Anthony Cosmo played with Whipper on the Rock 2001-2004, and Mike Poulin did from 2007-2008.

2

Christian Del Bianco played with Mike Poulin in 2016, while Frank Scigliano did from 2012-2016. Davide DiRuscio played with Cosmo in 2016. Brodie MacDonald plays with Poulin in Georgia now (2017). Matt Vinc played with Cosmo in San Jose in 2006. Angus Goodleaf played with Cosmo in Buffalo from 2010-2012. Aaron Bold played with Cosmo on San Jose from 2007-2008, and Brandon Miller did from 2005-2006. Nick Rose played with Cosmo on Boston in 2010-2011 and also played with Poulin in Calgary for part of 2012.

3

Tyler Carlson has played with Aaron Bold on the Rush since 2015. Tyler Richards played with Bold on the San Jose Stealth in 2009. Evan Kirk played with Brandon Miller on the Wings in 2014. Steve Fryer played with Miller on the Wings in 2012 and the Rock in 2014 and 2016.

4

Tye Belanger played with Evan Kirk on the Black Wolves in 2015-2016. Doug Jamieson plays with Kirk on the Black Wolves now (2017).

5

Dillon Ward played with Tye Belanger in Colorado in 2014.

6

Alexis Buque has played with Ward in Colorado since 2015.


So 11 of the 18 goalies in the league (61%) either played with Whipper or played with someone who did. Like I said, this isn’t really surprising, since Watson has only been retired for 5 seasons and both Cosmo and Poulin have each been around for 10+ years and have played in a number of cities.

Next project: six degrees of Mat Giles. Giles played for 12 different teams in 15 seasons and retired in 2013 so I suspect 80% of the league has a Giles number of at most 2.

Top 5 Colin Doyle memories

Last week we talked about Colin Doyle, his retirement, and how well respected he was throughout his career. This week I’ll talk about a few of my own memories of Colin over the years. Here are the top five:

5. The Shoes

In February 2011, the Calgary Roughnecks came to Toronto for a mid-season tilt. As many Calgary-Toronto games tend to be, this one was exciting and came down to the wire, finishing with the Rock on top after an Aaron Pascas winner in overtime. But during a stoppage in play in the overtime period, a ref sent Colin Doyle to the bench. I was at the game and didn’t know why at the time. I only knew that Doyle was not happy about it, vanished into the dressing room, and returned a couple of minutes later.

It turned out that Doyle was not wearing league-sponsor Rebook shoes, and the Calgary bench waited until overtime to notify the refs, who were obligated by the rules to send Doyle off the floor. He went to the dressing room, put on a pair of Reeboks (apparently belonging to the trainer, and 2½ sizes too big), and returned. Calgary’s tactic was sound, but didn’t work. Pascas’s goal was unassisted but Doyle helped set it up.

4. The Fighter

In January of 2010, Colin Doyle made his second debut with the Rock after an off-season trade brought him back from San Jose. His return to the ACC was a game against the Boston Blazers, and things got rough in the first quarter. Five minutes into his return, he got into a fight with the 6’5″ Paul Dawson, one of the better fighters in the NLL. Note that Doyle is 6’3″, so that’s only a 2 inch difference. I don’t have career numbers, but from 2005-2016, Doyle was given TWO fighting majors. In fact, in those twelve seasons he only picked up seven major penalties and no misconducts. What I remembered about this game was that despite not being as seasoned a fighter as Dawson (12 fighting majors since 2008), Doyle held his own.

Both were given facemasking and roughing penalties in addition to fighting, and four other fights broke out while the refs were sorting that one out. All of the additional fighters got game misconducts. In all, 23 penalties were handed out and eight players ejected 4:39 into the first quarter.

Oddly, that game also ended with a Rock victory in OT, this time with Garrett Billings scoring the winner. Doyle got the first assist.

3. The Speaker

The Toronto Rock held a Town Hall meeting in December 2012, where they invited season ticket holders to come out to the brand-new TRAC and talk to owner Jamie Dawick, coach Troy Cordingley, GM Terry Sanderson, and several players (Doyle, Billings, Rose). They talked about the state of the team as well as the TRAC, and answered questions from fans on various topics. One thing I remember about this meeting was that Doyle was very well-spoken. There weren’t a lot of “um” and “uh” and filler words like “well, like, ya know” (i.e. he didn’t sound like me on Addicted to Lacrosse). He used to be a teacher and so is obviously comfortable speaking in front of people. Being a pro athlete in general requires some fan interaction and tons of interviews, and being a veteran and team captain means he was used to having the attention of everyone in the Rock and Stealth dressing rooms. Thus it’s not surprising that he’s a great speaker.

2. The Cup

The Rock won their sixth Championship in May 2011. It was also Doyle’s sixth title. Similar to the NHL and other sports, after every Championship-winning game, the league commissioner (George Daniel at the time) would call up the captain of the winning team and present them with the Champion’s Cup. This was Doyle’s first (and only) Championship as team captain, but he declined this traditional honour. Instead, Doyle sent veterans Cam Woods and Kasey Beirnes up to get it. At that time, Woods had played 12 seasons in the NLL and Beirnes 10, and since this was their first Championship, Doyle decided that he would give them the honour. That’s class.

Photo credit: Carlos Osorio, Toronto Star

1. The Patriot

During the national anthems, many players bounce around from foot to foot and jump up and down. This has bugged me forever. Some say it’s because they just finished warming up and they’re trying to stay loose, but that’s a crock – right after the anthems, most of them go and sit on the bench. Nobody ever jumps around behind the bench trying to stay loose. I’ve also heard that they’re so full of adrenaline and ready to play that they can’t stand still, and I can buy that. But not everybody does this. Many years ago I noticed that Colin Doyle stands completely still during the anthems. Even better, he looks at the Canadian flag and sings along with O Canada (or at least mouths the words). Every game. Respect.

 

Honourable mentions

  • It didn’t happen in the NLL so I didn’t include it above but I can’t leave it out entirely. When Six Nations Chiefs goalies Brandon Miller and Evan Kirk were both ejected for using illegal equipment during a Mann Cup game in 2013, someone had to step up and strap on the pads. Doyle told the team’s defenders that they were all needed on the floor, so he’d do it, and he did. He played 11 minutes and made 6 saves on 9 shots. Question: This article says that Doyle had to put on his teammates’ soaking wet equipment, but wasn’t Miller’s and Kirk’s equipment illegal?
  • Doyle is known far and wide as a clutch player. Since I know a thing or two about clutch players, I took a look at his Money Baller numbers. I only have these going back to 2005, but Doyle is #10 in those 12 seasons combined (though he only played 1 game in 2015). He’s #5 in the playoffs.
  • I remember paying close attention to Doyle’s first game as a member of the Stealth. It wasn’t that I wanted him to fail, but I didn’t like the trade and so I guess I figured that if he didn’t do well in San Jose, it would somehow make the trade less bad. His first game was decent but not spectacular: a goal and three assists. His next game? Nine assists. The one after that? A goal and seven assists. He ended up with 81 points that season, 88 the next, and 111 in 2009. Safe to say he did well in San Jose. (For the record, that year I became, and remain, a big fan of Ryan Benesch, the guy the Rock received in the Doyle trade.)