Thinking inside the box Part II: Exodus

Last week I wrote about a number of significant MLL players who may be playing in the NLL this coming season. This is significant not just because NLL fans who don’t watch the MLL will be introduced to some great lacrosse players, but because this seems to reverse the trend over the last few years. But where did this trend come from, and why is it changing?

Aside: Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner talked about this a bit on the Oct 21 edition of the Stealth Classified radio show / podcast, a show that you really should be listening to if you’re a lacrosse fan – even if you’re not a Stealth fan.

Another aside: The list of MLL players signed this season has grown since that last article: New England signed both Myles Jones and Josh Hawkins to contracts. Again, it doesn’t mean they’re definitely playing but it does mean they’re interested.

The Wings and the Championships

Back in 2013, the Philadelphia Wings had a whole bunch of guys who also played in the MLL: Crowley, Westervelt, Crotty, Rabil, … actually it would be faster to list the guys who didn’t. Of the 27 non-goalies who wore a Wings jersey in a game that season, 18 of them (67%) also played in the MLL that year. In 2014, they had 25 no-goalies but only 13 of them, or 52%, were MLL players. Why the sudden drop?

In the summer of 2014, Colorado hosted the World Lacrosse Championship, the pinnacle of field lacrosse supremacy. The USA had taken home the gold medal at the event in Manchester in 2010. The World Championships hadn’t been held in the US since 1998, and Team USA wanted nothing more than to repeat their gold medal performance in front of their own fans. As a result, a number of players decided to take the winter off from the NLL to prepare for the Worlds. The Wings lost Paul Rabil, Ned Crotty, Kyle Hartzell, Pat Heim, Brendan Mundorf, and Jeff Reynolds – six players totaling 79 games, 86 points, about a third of their transition, and 71% of their face-offs.

I imagine the Wings brass were less than impressed with this exodus. The intentions of the players were honourable, I suppose – they wanted to represent their country to the best of their ability. But it didn’t help the Wings any, and they dropped from 7-9 in 2013 to 6-12. I can’t be sure about this but I remember hearing at the time that the players who left were not welcomed back by the Wings, meaning that they were not invited to camp for the 2015 season – and other than Heim, they were not released either. Right after training camp at the end of 2014, the Wings added Rabil to their protected player list, Mundorf to the PUP list, and buried Hartzell, Crotty, Reynolds, and Max Seibald (who played for them from 2010-12 and also played for Team USA) on the restricted free agent list. As far as I can tell, they’re all still there, and none of them has played in the NLL since (though it’s possible that none of them have been interested in returning). To add insult to injury, Team USA lost the gold medal match to Canada.

Kyle Hartzell with the WingsAlso interesting to note is the fact that both Kevin Buchanan and Garrett Thul found the time to play for both the Wings and Team USA in 2014. I don’t remember hearing of a single player on the Canadian or Iroquois teams who took the season off to prepare.

The number of MLL players in the NLL has continued to drop. In 2015, the Wings became the Black Wolves and only had six players who played in the MLL that same year. In 2016 it was only four. Of course it’s not just the Black Wolves that are involved; there were MLL players who played in the NLL for other teams, guys like Joe Walters and Mark Matthews, but the overlap seemed to keep declining. And overlap is one of the reasons why.

Us and them

As I said before, we know the NLL and MLL seasons overlap and players who want to play in both will miss games in one league or the other. It’s also true that just as the NLL is a “mostly-Canadians” league, the MLL is a “mostly-Americans” league. These guys grew up playing field lacrosse, not box, so the MLL is more important to them. Some of them think of the MLL as the “real” league and the NLL is a fun league to play in during the winter to keep in shape. I assume there are NLL players who think of the MLL the same way.

It’s also been said that some MLL players have publicly expressed interest in playing in the NLL purely as a bargaining strategy with their MLL team, i.e. “I’ll play with them and skip the beginning of the season if you don’t sign me to a long term contract / pay me more / whatever.” The person who stated this said he knows for a fact that this is happening, though he didn’t say who this was referring to nor was there any evidence given, so take that claim with a grain of salt.

NLL teams won’t be happy if players play the whole season and then leave when the playoffs arrive, while MLL teams won’t be happy if players don’t start playing for a month after the season starts. To my knowledge, the former has never happened while the latter definitely has. From that perspective, it certainly seems that the MLL is getting the worse of this situation. But are there MLL players who don’t play in the NLL at all because they don’t want to leave the team when the MLL starts? It’s likely that both leagues are losing out.

So there are a lot of reasons why a whole slew of MLL players suddenly signing with NLL teams is surprising. Maybe these guys want to stir up some controversy to get the leagues to talk and eventually co-operate. Based on the history of these two leagues, I will say with all the sarcasm I can muster: Good luck with that.

Then again, the NLL has a new commissioner who may not care about the history. If it makes sense for the league to have a partnership with the MLL, he may be more willing than previous commissioners to go to them and say “Hey, let’s forget all of that old animosity. If we start over and work together, we both benefit.” If that’s the case, I will say without a trace of sarcasm: Good luck with that.

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.

MLL game review: Boston 15 @ Hamilton 13

I’ve seen a fair number of NLL games since my first game in 2000 – every Rock home game (other than most of the 2010 season and one game in 2002) plus a couple of games in Rochester and a bunch in Buffalo. But when it comes to non-NLL lacrosse games, I’m a relative neophyte. I saw the Heritage Cup game in 2002, a couple of games during the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in 2003, and one MLS game in Brampton during the Mann Cup in the mid 2000’s. As for the field game, I have now seen all of two outdoor lacrosse games. The first was the Toronto Nationals first-ever home game back in 2009, and the second was this past Saturday, as the Hamilton Nationals lost to the Boston Cannons.

If you’re looking for a review of the game by someone who knows what they’re talking about, you may want to venture on over to InLacrosseWeTrust.com. But if you’re interested in how field lacrosse looks to a box lacrosse fan, then read on.

My impression of field lacrosse over the last few years was that it was obviously similar to box, but with a much bigger field, the pace is slower. I’ve even joked that field lacrosse combines the strategy of indoor lacrosse with the blazing speed and excitement of soccer. But there doesn’t have to be blazing speed and things happening all the time for a game to be exciting – if you know what’s going on and can understand the strategies. Many people describe baseball as the most boring sport ever but I love it, because I do know what’s going on and I do understand the strategies.

I found the same thing at this game. I don’t pretend to be a lacrosse expert, knowing every play and strategy inside out and backwards. But I’ve watched enough to be relatively knowledgeable, and the much bigger field allows you to watch plays develop a little more than in the box game. If you watch the game assuming the strategy is “pass the ball around randomly until someone gets a good shot” then yes, it looks boring. But if you see what they’re trying to do and watch the plays develop, it can be pretty exciting. Is it slower than box? Sure, but only because the field is so much bigger, so it takes more time to run between the goals and even to pass the ball from one side of the field to the other. Play in the Boston end

The long sticks add an interesting element to the game as well. In my review of the other MLL game I saw, I mentioned that “It didn’t really seem to me that the long sticks were much of an advantage” because there weren’t that many long passes, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Firstly, there were there a number of long passes that were amazing to watch as well as one impossibly long shot. With less than a second remaining in the first half, the ball was shot behind the Hamilton net. Brodie Merrill picked it up and immediately launched it toward the other net, where it landed maybe a foot or two wide. Had the goal line been extended out beyond the posts, the ball would have landed on it. But not only were the long sticks good for passing, they were deadly for getting the ball away from the attackers and hacking at them from five feet away. Defenders in the NLL were disappointed that they can no longer use 48″ sticks; imagine how effective they could be with one six feet long.

The other huge difference between the field and box games is the goalies. Field goalies always look awkward to me. They don’t have a “stance” like box goalies do; it looks like they’re just standing up holding the stick. But then a shot comes in and they spin that stick around at lightning speed and make far more saves than they really have any right to. Scott Rodgers and Brett Queener were very good in net for the Nats, but I thought Jordan Burke was ever better in the Boston net. Queener was pretty entertaining though, not only did he never shut up (because there’s no music during play, you can hear the players and coaches shouting to one another quite clearly), but on many of his saves, he’d run the ball up the field himself. And I’m not talking about a goalie running twenty or thirty feet away from the net before passing it, or Pat Campbell running to the other side of the centre line – Queener once made it almost to the 2-point line around the Cannons’ net before passing it, which would be a good 60 or 70 yards away.

And they’re not padded! Or at least not noticeably more than any other player. Yet they face the same 100+mph shots with the same hard-as-a-rock rubber ball on a net that’s twice the size of an NLL net. It’s amazing to me that (a) there are players willing to play goalie without NLL-type padding, and (b) the scores aren’t 40-35 every game.

There is no penalty box, so players who are penalized just sit in one of two chairs a few feet away from each team’s “bench” area. I pointed this out to my son (“There’s no penalty box, just a couple of penalty chairs”), and he responded by chanting the way Bandits fans do: “To the chair! To the chair! To the chair chair chair!”

The best part of this game? My ticket cost $10, my older son’s was $5, and my ten-year-old was free. $15 for three tickets. My Rock season tickets are $45 each. The other best part? The 10 minute drive home.

So there are some field-newbie thoughts on the game. As for this particular matchup, I just have a few game notes:

  • Both Brett Queener and his brother Brice Queener play for the Nats – Brett’s jersey just says “Queener” on it, while Brice’s says “B. Queener”. Not helpful. Then again, even “Br. Queener” wouldn’t have been helpful. One’s a goalie but as I said, you can’t tell unless he’s holding the stick so it was impossible to tell who was who. I can’t remember what the Evans brothers did when they both played on Rochester – did they have “Sc. Evans” and “Sh. Evans” on their jerseys?
  • How long are MLL timeouts? In the NLL they’re 30 seconds, but they seemed to be two or three minutes at this game.
  • The stadium announcer mispronounced Paul Rabil’s name a couple of times. He said “Rabble” on each of Rabil’s first two or three points, and then said it properly after that. Paul Rabil has been described as “the best lacrosse player in the world”. If you know anything about the MLL or NLL in the past few years, you’ve seen him or heard his name. Mispronouncing his name is akin to a hockey announcer talking about Sidney Corsby.
  • I may be new to the game, but I still know a really dumb play when I see it. With less than two minutes left in the game, the Nationals needed a goal to tie the game. Dan Burns decided that elbowing an opponent in the face right in front of the ref was a good strategy in such a situation. He may want to rethink that since it led to a Cannons PP goal and ended Hamilton’s hopes for a last-second comeback.
  • Three years ago, I wrote that the Nationals looked like an NLL all-star team: “Gait, Iannucci, Dawson, Doyle, Zywicki, Williams, Grant, [Merrick] Thomson, Snider, Prout, Brodie Merrill, Point, [Delby] Powless, Vyse, Patrick Merrill, Jordan Hall, Matt Vinc, Ken Montour“. Of those superstars, only Snider, Hall, and Brodie Merrill are still on the team. But the team still looks like an NLL all-star team: Billings, Casey Powell, Keogh, Jamieson, Merrill, Hall, Crowley, Bucktooth, Snider, Rubisch, Jeremy Thompson, and Walters. Six of these guys (CP, Hall, Bucktooth, Snider, Rubisch, Thompson) didn’t play.