The GOAT

The Calgary Roughnecks signed Dane Dobbie to a multi-year contract last week. Considering Dobbie had a career year in 2019 and was deservedly named both season MVP and Championship MVP, it’s hard to argue against this, regardless of the term or money he was asking for. But when the NLL tweeted about it, they used a goat icon and I had to roll my eyes.

GOAT stands for Greatest Of All Time and it’s become a term that, in my opinion, is thrown around far too easily in the sports world. By definition, there can be only one GOAT in each sport. There may be controversy as to who it is, but there aren’t lots of them. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that Dane Dobbie is not the greatest player in NLL history (despite his teammates saying he is). The hot take might be: he’s not even in the top ten. But that’s an article for another time.

Of course you can add your own qualifiers, and a player may be the GOAT of a certain subset of players. As Jake Elliott pointed out, the NLL probably meant that Dobbie is the Roughnecks GOAT, not the GOAT. That’s totally fair and Jake is quite likely right.

But that got me thinking: what about the other teams? Who is their GOAT? Some are obvious – Buffalo comes to mind – while others are more contentious.

One question we have to answer first is what do we mean by this? Is it the best player to ever wear that uniform, or is it the best player to ever have an impact in that uniform? For example, you could argue that the second Dan Dawson takes the floor as a member of the Toronto Rock this coming season, before he’s even touched the ball, he’s among the top three players ever to wear the Rock jersey. But is that meaningful?

For this article, I’m going to say that it’s not good enough to simply have worn a team’s jersey, you have to have played there for a significant amount of time. However I’m not going to define “significant” with specific guidelines (e.g. you have to have played x games or x seasons or have won some sort of major award). Just going with my gut here.

I’m going to skip the expansion Knighthawks 2.0 and Riptide for obvious reasons and also the Wings 2.0 and Seals since they have only played a single season.

Buffalo – Tough one, but I’m going to go with someone who many consider to be the GOAT of the league, if not the entire sport of box lacrosse. Of course it’s John Tavares.

Dane Dobbie (Photo credit: Greg Southam)Calgary – My “tough one” for the Bandits was obviously in jest but this really is a tough one. If you go with the “just wearing the jersey” rule, I’d put Josh Sanderson and Shawn Evans at the top of that list. Sanderson played two full seasons and part of a third and while they were outstanding seasons and included a championship, he’s more associated with the Rock. Evans is a tougher call because he played four seasons including two with 110+ points and one MVP trophy. The guy who started this whole conversation, Dane Dobbie, has played 12 seasons (all with Calgary), won two Championships, and is the incumbent MVP. Jeff Shattler was an MVP and played eleven great seasons in Calgary so he has to be considered. Kaleb Toth was never an MVP but was the quintessential Roughneck for years. What about Tracey Kelusky? Higher point averages than Shattler or Toth, and team captain for their 2009 title.

Given his longevity, I’m going with Dobbie.

Colorado – Is it John Grant or Gary Gait? Gait only played three years with the Mammoth while Grant played seven (well, six plus two games in the seventh). Interestingly, their points-per-game numbers are almost identical: Grant averaged 5.632 points per game over 98 games while Gait averaged 5.625 in 48 games. If Gait had played 98 games with the Mammoth like Grant did, he’d have 551 points. Grant has 552. Both won an MVP award with the Mammoth and neither won a Championship (Gait did as a coach), so basically, they were the same guy. Grant played twice as long in Colorado as Gait did so I’m going with Grant.

Georgia (including Minnesota) – If you just consider the four seasons in Georgia, I think the obvious choice would be Lyle Thompson. But if you include the Minnesota years, Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch jump into the mix. They each had slightly higher points-per-game numbers than Thompson, but even at their peak, I don’t think either of them were as good overall as Thompson is.

Halifax – (as the Rochester Knighthawks) John Grant is the obvious choice because he’s one of the best players in the history of the league. But Matt Vinc has to be considered here. Grant won one Championship and an MVP award in his ten seasons with the Knighthawks. Vinc won three titles and about a hundred Goaltender of the Year awards. Grant’s dominance with the Knighthawks cannot be overlooked (he had an eight-year stretch with seven 90+ point seasons and only played five games in the eighth) but Vinc is probably the best goaltender of the last decade and definitely top three all-time. I honestly cannot decide so I’m taking the easy way out and calling it a tie.

New England* – Again Shawn Evans jumps out. He only played 2½ years in New England but averaged over six points per game in the two full seasons. Another candidate would be Kevin Crowley, who played most of four seasons with the Black Wolves. He wasn’t quite as dominant with the numbers but Crowley is great off-ball and defensively as well so his numbers don’t show how good he is. I’m going to go with Evans here.

Saskatchewan (including Edmonton) – Mark Matthews was my first thought but Kyle Rubisch is probably the better choice. Matthews has been a top-10 offensive player for his entire career (top 5 for most of it) but there was a four year period where Rubisch was hands down the best defensive player in the league, and he remains in the top three now.

Toronto – I’m going with Colin Doyle not only because he was an outstanding player (#4 in career scoring) but a great captain as well. Like Matt Vinc in Rochester, Bob Watson also needs to be considered. Josh Sanderson is right up there too, and Jim Veltman and Brodie Merrill were also great players and great captains.

Vancouver (including the entire franchise history) – I wondered about Lewis Ratcliff, Gary Rosyski, Colin Doyle, and even Josh Sanderson from the Albany Attack days. But in the end, it’s got to be Rhys Duch. Duch averaged about 5.4 points per game over ten seasons with the San Jose, Washington, and Vancouver Stealths. He led the team in goals, assists, and points in four straight seasons and was either first or second in those categories in three more. He was the face of the Stealth for a decade which is why it was so surprising that they unceremoniously released him before last season. Hey, can someone remind me who scored the OT goal that gave Calgary the 2019 Championship? I forget.

* Maybe others don’t have this problem, but I find it hard to think of the Black Wolves as a continuation of the old Philadelphia Wings. As a result, I didn’t consider Wings players for the Black Wolves GOAT, even though I did consider previous teams in the Vancouver and Georgia franchises. But the Wings were around for 28 years, so they shouldn’t be just tossed aside. For the Wings, I’d have to choose between Tom Marechek (12 years, four Championships, 773 points) and Dallas Eliuk (again, top 3 goalie of all time). Gary Gait only played five seasons in Philly but was named MVP in three of them (in a row), so he’s got to be up there too. I’m going to go with Eliuk.

The Raptors and the Rock, part II

Yesterday I talked about the Raptors winning the NBA Championship and how the reaction of the City of Toronto (and much of Canada, actually) made me sad for the state of the NLL. It’s not because the NLL isn’t at the same level of popularity as the NBA, it’s because I’m not confident it’ll ever get there.

I tried to imagine how the NLL can go from what we have now to a league where people who don’t follow lacrosse and don’t know anything about the game are caught up in the hype of a Championship and start watching. Lots of changes are necessary but first and foremost, it would require that many if not all games (and definitely all playoff games) are available on network TV, not through some paid streaming service. I had no problems with BR Live this past season (though I know others did) and I thought 40 bucks to watch every game all season was a pretty good deal. But I’m a die-hard who is willing to pay to watch lacrosse games. The vast majority of people are not. We’re just not going to gain new fans by making them pay to watch.

Of course the league is constantly trying to get on TV but let’s face it: despite the fact that the NLL has been around for thirty years and has been on TV in the past, it’s still unproven and the TV execs don’t have the confidence that televising lacrosse will make them money. Perhaps the league needs to pay them for a year or two to build up the audience. They don’t need to get NBA-type viewing numbers but if the numbers are good enough, then maybe the networks will start paying the league rather than the other way around.

That said, the Toronto Rock did pay for their games to be televised on Sportsnet in Canada for several years. They don’t do that anymore. I don’t know the reasoning behind why they stopped, but I think it’s fair to say that if televising the game drove up attendance (at least enough to cover the cost of TV), they’d still be paying for it. Clearly it didn’t.

Bob Watson hoists the Champions Cup

The PLL made its debut a couple of weeks ago and some of their games are televised on NBC. I haven’t seen any actual numbers but the word is that they’re pretty good. If the PLL can introduce enough people to field lacrosse and get decent numbers, maybe the Rabil boys can help a brother out and start pushing NBC to talk to Nick Sakiewicz about the NLL.

A lot of lacrosse fans have been playing and watching their whole lives so interest in lacrosse has just always been there. Much of the rest of the lacrosse world, myself included, were introduced later and fell in love with the sport. But many people watch and just aren’t interested. The old adage about bringing someone to a lacrosse game and they’ll be a fan for life just isn’t true in general. We dream about getting the NLL on TV and millions of people watching and wondering why nobody told them about this amazing sport and suddenly the players are full-time lacrosse players making big bucks. Yes, that’s the goal but it’s been the goal for a couple of decades and I’m not sure we’re any closer.

The NBA is huge in terms of popularity. Think of the celebrities you routinely see attending NBA games. Drake is always behind the bench in Toronto. Jack Nicholson has been going to Lakers games for many years. During the finals we saw President Obama, Beyonce and Jay-Z, various NFL players, golfers, hockey players, and lots of former NBA players. It’s likely that these people were given free tickets but it’s also not unlikely that many of them went looking for the tickets. They didn’t have the league or hosting team contact them and ask if they wanted tickets, or pay them to attend.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. After originally being sad, I’ve regained my optimism about the NLL. The fact that celebrities are not spotted at NLL games should not be a reason for pessimism. There are many levels of success between where the NLL is now and the NBA. We may not be able to #GrowTheGame to the same level as the NBA, NHL, or NFL, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be more popular than it is, and it’s certainly no reason to stop trying.

The Raptors and the Rock

The 2018-19 NBA season ended this past Thursday with my hometown Toronto Raptors winning their first-ever NBA Championship. I will admit that I’m mostly a fairweather NBA fan. I don’t watch very many games, but I keep an eye on the Raptors, and have even made my way to the ACC for a few games. I generally jump on the Raptors bandwagon when they hit the playoffs, and this year is no exception.

I remember watching Vince Carter miss the buzzer-beater in game seven of the Conference semi-finals against Philadelphia in 2001 so I understand the multi-level significance of Kawhi Leonard making the buzzer-beater in game seven of the Conference semi-finals against Philadelphia this year.

So congratulations to the Raptors. I’m thrilled that they were able to win it all, and I’m happy for my city. But during the Finals I tried to relate the whole Finals experience to the NLL and it kind of made me sad.

Continue reading

Various musings lacking statistical correlation

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. I’ve been writing weekly for IL Indoor and one article for Lacrosse Flash, podcasting every week, and active on twitter, so I guess my thoughts have been dispersed enough in other venues that I didn’t think to write about them here. That ends now.

Congrats

First off, congratulations to the 2019 NLL Champion Calgary Roughnecks. Their season didn’t start they way they wanted it to, with Curtis Dickson and Wes Berg holding out and Jesse King injuring his knee during the preseason. But Dane Dobbie grabbed the team by the lapels and said “Let’s go out and win this f**king thing”, or words to that effect. A month later they had Dickson back and while Berg never returned at all (and likely never will; any bargaining power he might have had vanished as soon as Duch’s shot hit the back of the net), King was able to return for the last two games of the regular season, just as the team was peaking.

Getting hot heading into the playoffs is never a bad thing, and that momentum led the Roughnecks all the way to the title. They weren’t most people’s favourites to win the west, and in fact they finished third. But at the same time, given the strength of the team and particularly Dobbie and Christian Del Bianco, nobody’s really surprised.

Curtis Dickson

I’m sure it doesn’t mean much but I offer my congratulations to the Bandits as well on their amazing season. After missing the playoffs two straight years, the Bandits were many people’s favourites to win the East, myself included. Obviously the biggest addition was Matt Vinc, who had an outstanding season and will probably win his eleventy millionth Goalie of the Year award, but the additions of Corey Small, the emergence of Thomas Hoggarth as a serious scoring threat, and a crop of amazing rookies in Ian MacKay, Chris Cloutier, and Matt Gilray were also instrumental in the Bandits’ success.

MVP

Until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t a big fan of Dane Dobbie. There was no question that he was a great lacrosse player, but I thought he was a bit of a hothead and a little too arrogant for my taste. Not really a team guy.

DEAD. WRONG.

After paying a little more attention, I started to see some of the unselfish plays he would make and it became obvious that his main goal was not to pad his numbers but to help his team win. I had always appreciated the heart and effort he gave game in and game out. The celebrations that I interpreted as “I scored another goal, I’m so awesome” started to look more like “we scored another goal”. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was a Dobbie fan.

Then came the 2019 season. As good as Dobbie was before, he got better. He managed to tack on an extra 25 points to his best season total. He played with more heart and intensity and carried the Roughnecks through their challenges in the early part of the season. And it wasn’t just until Curtis Dickson returned; Dobbie kept up that intensity the rest of the season and throughout the playoffs. And if that wasn’t enough, in a post-Championship interview, the Finals MVP basically deflected all the credit to his teammates and coaches. Yes, he plays with passion but he’s clearly not a hothead, not arrogant in the least, and there’s no bigger team guy in the NLL. Congratulations to Dane Dobbie on an MVP-worthy season and post-season, and a Championship.

Awards

This afternoon, the NLL announced the nominees for the annual awards. Not a lot of surprises but I found it interesting that some categories are near or perfect clones of last year while others are entirely different. None of the players nominated for MVP in 2018 (Matthews, Church, Crowley) were nominated in 2019. Similarly, none of last year’s Les Bartley award nominees were nominated this year. On the other hand, the Transition Player of the Year list contains two players (Zach Currier and Challen Rogers) who were nominated last year, which means that at least one of the two will lose it two years in a row. Defender of the Year also has two (Graeme Hossack and Kyle Rubisch – Hossack won last year), and the third is Steve Priolo who’s been nominated in five of the last six years. The 2019 Goaltender of the Year nominees are Vinc, Del Bianco, and Ward: exactly the same as last year.

I’ve worked with two of the three nominees for the Tom Borrelli award: Bob Chavez is my editor at IL Indoor and has been amazingly supportive of my lacrosse writing for eight years. I wrote an article for Tyson Geick’s Lacrosse Flash website this past season, and may be doing more there in the future. They are both deserving but since Chavez has won it before, my vote (though I don’t have one) would go to Tyson. I know very little about Barstool Jordie but I find it difficult to believe that his impact as a member of the NLL media was as big as Teddy Jenner, Jake Elliott, Evan Schemenauer, Stephen Stamp, Pat Gregoire, and others. I’m not a fan of Barstool Sports in general, so I’m pretty sure I saw “Barstool” in his name and thought “Oh, those guys” and ignored him throughout the season. Maybe he’s done an excellent job and I’ve just missed it all.

Expansion

The second expansion draft in as many years is a little over a month away, and I’m excited about it. I’m hoping that they do it in one of two ways: either say in advance “Here are the players that the two GMs decided to choose” or conduct an actual live draft. Last year it seemed that they actually did the former but announced it as if it were the latter. It was obvious that the picks had been made in advance, and the whole thing was over in about ten minutes. It doesn’t need to be a whole three-hour event with Stephen Stamp and Andy McNamara doing analysis after each and every pick, though I’m sure those guys would be happy to do it, but don’t just zip through the picks like a new episode of Game of Thrones is about to start.

Last year, I posted an article where I predicted who would be chosen from each team. However I did that before the teams announced who they were protecting, so my guesses were mainly wrong. This year, I’ll wait until the protected lists are out.

The Crawford suspension: dangerous

You probably haven’t heard much about this issue – it’s kind of flown under the radar. Well, other than being talked about by just about every lacrosse writer and fan (and many players) on social media. Of course I’m talking about Callum Crawford’s suspension.

In case you missed it, Black Wolves forward and potential MVP candidate Crawford was given a major penalty for a high hit on Toronto’s Brad Kri back on February 24. The week after the game, the penalty was upgraded to a match penalty by the league, which gives Crawford an automatic one-game suspension. He appealed, allowing him to play in New England’s next game against Colorado (in which he scored four goals and added seven assists), but the match penalty was upheld the week after that, and he sat out last weekend’s game.

Rule 41.4 in the NLL rule book is called “Repeat Offender” and states: “Any player who is assessed a second match penalty, a second Dangerous Contact to the Head penalty (Rule 77), or a combination thereof within a two year period shall be assessed an additional five (5) game suspension.

Very clear and unambiguous. This matters because in January of 2018, Crawford was given a match penalty for a similar hit on a Roughnecks player. That’s two match penalties within two years, so Crawford gets an automatic five games, right? Not this time. The same arbitrator who was brought in to decide on the match penalty announced that he was not ruling on the extra five games until later, though nobody could figure out why. Then on Friday, the answer came down: Crawford will sit out one game rather than five.

Photo credit: Garrett James

The PLPA released a statement from the arbitrator on why, but the statement is puzzling. The arbitrator, Andrew Brandt, mentions a similar situation two years ago when Calgary’s Greg Harnett received his second match penalty in two years, and was given a five game suspension by that arbitrator, a Mr. McGuire. Brandt says “Mr. McGuire correctly concluded that the league had no other choice than to impose an additional five game penalty. However as the rule was unilaterally adopted by the league and not a part of the CBA, it was not binding on an arbitration officer.

Why would rules in the rule book not be binding on an arbitration officer? I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that by agreeing to play games (more than half the season so far) with this rule book, the PLPA has implicitly agreed to all of the rules in the rule book. This is not a rule that was added mid-season without the PLPA’s knowledge or consent. If there are rules in there that they don’t agree with, that should have been ironed out long before the season started. And yes, I do remember that they were busy trying to make sure there was a CBA so that the season could happen, but I have not heard any complaints from the PLPA since then (before this incident) that this rule was unfair and should be changed.

Mr. Brandt also states “And in his testimony for the league, Mr. Lemon [Brian Lemon, NLL VP] explained how he did not believe the foul should result in a two-game penalty, one reserved for more severe infractions.” I agree, that one hit by itself does not deserve a multiple-game suspension. But the five game suspension is not for that one hit, it’s for the fact that there were two such hits within two years. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

He continues: “The decision to lessen Mr. Crawford’s additional five-game suspension in no way diminishes the league mission to eliminate reckless and endangering play, nor does it undermine the league’s authority.” In my humble opinion, wrong and wrong. The rule says that receiving two match penalties within two years will get you a suspension. It was written that way intentionally, even clarified this past off-season, to say that this behaviour will not be tolerated regardless of who the player is. The arbitrator’s decision says that this behaviour may or may not get you a suspension and thus it may or may not be tolerated, depending on… what? It’s not clear what. How long you’ve been in the league? How many points you have?

It also says that some of the rules in the rule book don’t hold if someone else decides they shouldn’t. I wonder what other rules are not in the CBA and are thus of questionable value?

The PLPA did everything they could to stand up for Callum Crawford. That’s their job, to represent the players, and I get that they did not explicitly make this decision. But who stood up for Brad Kri? Who’s out there trying to make sure that these kinds of hits don’t happen again?

I love watching Callum Crawford play lacrosse. He’s fast, skilled, dynamic, and exciting. I don’t think he’s a dirty player. But he made two bad decisions resulting in two dangerous hits. Those hits were close enough together in time to trigger rule 41.4, so he should be sitting out for five games. Yes he’s a veteran and yes he’s having an MVP-type season, but suspending him anyway would have sent the message that the NLL will not accept these types of hits regardless of who you are. Now, the message they are sending is that if you are a veteran or a great player, you can get away with stuff that other players can’t.

Not only does this make the league look unprofessional, it’s a very dangerous precedent to set.

The Knighthawks are gone; long live the Knighthawks

We all know that the NLL is expanding this coming season, with the Philadelphia Wings and San Diego Seals beginning play in a few months. Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz has said that these two were the first in a number of expansion teams planned for the next few years, and the next of these was named on Thursday, sort of. The NLL has seen its share of strange relocation situations, and here’s one more. We kind of have two new teams and one relocating team, but the total number of teams in the league only went up by one.

In two separate announcements separated by about four hours, the league announced that (I’ll need to word this carefully) current Rochester Knighthawks owner Curt Styres will be the owner of a new NLL franchise in Halifax. In addition, Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bandits, will be the owners of an expansion franchise in Rochester which will be called the Knighthawks and retain the history of the brand. Both teams will begin play in the 2019-2020 season. The current Knighthawks will continue to be owned and operated by Styres during the upcoming 2018-2019 season.

The simplest way to look at it is that Styres sold the Knighthawks to the Pegulas and is buying an expansion franchise in Halifax. But there’s one sentence in the Halifax press release that makes the situation more complicated than that: “The Halifax franchise will begin play during the 2019-20 season at Scotiabank Centre, with many of the players on the current Knighthawks’ roster.” What? Usually when you buy a sports franchise, you get the team name and brand as well as its employees and players. In this case, the Pegulas are buying a franchise and getting everything but the players. Meanwhile Styres is buying a new franchise but bringing his players with him. On the other hand (and coast), the Vancouver team was sold this summer and the players are the only thing the new owners are keeping.

The Knighthawks will be an expansion franchise and will have five Championships. Meanwhile the brand new Halifax team will be a team full of players who have been playing together for many years. This league is weird.

Dhane and Sid Smith. No relation.

I said on an Addicted to Lacrosse episode last season that I didn’t like the idea of multiple ownership because of the possibility of trades and deals that make one team better at the expense of the other – trades that would never happen if the teams were owned by different people. I gave the possibility of the Bandits, doing well at the box office, trading an exciting player like Dhane Smith to the Knighthawks, who are struggling a little more at the gate, for very little return. This could increase Rochester’s attendance more than it would decrease Buffalo’s, thus increasing the overall revenue for the two clubs. This is unfair to the Bandits but if the overall picture is better, a single owner might not care. Two separate owners would.

I’ve kind of changed my mind on that, because the league approves all trades, and so it has sufficient oversight that such an obvious move would likely not be allowed. But now we have a similar situation: an owner making deals for a team that will be his own competition a year from now. Is Styres taking Rochester’s future draft picks with him? If during the upcoming season he trades a player away for a draft pick, does he take that pick with him to Halifax, or is he leaving it for the Pegulas?

More importantly, if he trades a future draft pick away for a player, whose pick is that? In a normal world, Styres might trade the Knighthawks’ first round picks in 2020 and 2021 for, say, Corey Small. A bit expensive but not outrageous. But Styres won’t be the GM of Rochester in 2020 or 2021, and he’ll likely take Small with him to Halifax, so the Knighthawks give up two first round picks for a one season rental of Corey Small. That’s a little steep.

Styres doesn’t take control of the Halifax team until after the 2019 season ends, so would Styres – while still GM of the Knighthawks – be allowed to trade Halifax’s first round picks for Small? In that case, the Knighthawks get a full season of Corey Small for nothing, which they are probably OK with. But that would mean that Styres has two sets of draft picks to play with for a year*. Does that seem right to you? The league will have to watch any deals that Styres makes this season very carefully – not because he will make deals that are unfair (he seems to me to be a man of integrity), but the league needs to make sure that none of these deals even appears to be unfair.

* Update: I’m incorrect here. As Steve Bermel points out, any draft picks acquired or traded away by Styres move with the team to Halifax. If Styres trades away Rochester’s picks in 2020 and 2021, those move with the team so Halifax will not have picks those years while the new Rochester franchise will.

If I had to hire a GM to build me a winning NLL team from scratch, the only person I’d put ahead of Curt Styres is Derek Keenan. But perhaps Styres isn’t interested in starting over and (warning: total speculation ahead) told the league that the Halifax deal was contingent on him being able to take the roster with him. The league wants the Halifax team but doesn’t want to lose a great owner and lacrosse mind like Styres, so they allowed it. The Pegulas are famously indifferent to the comings and goings of the Bandits, so I doubt they cared.

The Halifax team is rumoured to be known as the Privateers (a trademark has been registered by the NLL). Privateers were basically pirates under another name, which makes sense since Curt Styres is stealing the Knighthawks roster and taking it with him. Another way to look at it is that Styres is taking his team to Halifax, but the Pegulas are stealing the Knighthawks name from him. What’s another name for people who steal stuff? Bandits.

 

The perfect NLL forward

If you could have the perfect box lacrosse forward, what would he be like? Would you want the small wiry guy with ankle-breaking speed and agility to get around defenders? Would you want the guy with the accurate 110 mph shot who fires the ball between defenders? Or would you want the big strong bull-in-a-china-shop type who plows through defenders? Ideally, you’d want someone who could do all of those things. Obviously a player that’s the best at all of those things doesn’t exist. So let’s create him.

Continue reading