Renaming the NLL Awards

Hot on the heels of my article last week about the Les Bartley award, a discussion opened up on twitter regarding renaming all of the NLL awards after some of the greats of the game. A bunch of names were tossed around, and the topic was mentioned on both Stealth Classified and Off the Crossebar, two of the top three lacrosse podcasts out there. Since I’m kind of the one who started it all (well, Jake Elliott actually did but it was in response to my article, so it was really me all along), I thought I’d throw out my picks.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned: there are only so many awards and there are a lot of great players that have come and gone in the NLL. So if you think Joe Laxalot was one of the best players but he’s not listed here, well, not every great player gets an award.

Annual awards

MVP: This one is easy, in my opinion. Gary Gait won the MVP award six times, far more than anyone else,so nobody deserves to have the MVP award named after him more than Gait. Did you know: only four players have won the MVP award more than once: Gait (6), John Tavares (3), John Grant (2), and Shawn Evans (2). (Spoiler: That’ll be an @NLLFactOfTheDay in 2018)

Goaltender of the Year: Just about everyone will agree that this one comes down to two legendary goalies: Bob Watson and Dallas Eliuk. But which one? Going purely by the numbers, I’d have to give it to Watson. Eliuk had a higher career GAA (12.24 to Watson’s 11.14), higher post-season GAA (11.73 to Watson’s 10.16) and only won five Championships while Whipper won six (though that’s really a team accomplishment). Whipper also won Goaltender of the Year twice while Eliuk never did, though that’s hardly fair since Eliuk played ten seasons before the award even existed. But Eliuk played in a different era and had four titles before Whipper ever played a game, so perhaps the stats can’t be compared directly. The one and only time they met in a Championship game was 2001, and Eliuk not only beat Watson, but was named Championship game MVP.

I’m going to let my Rock bias loose here and go with Bob Watson but it could go either way.

Bob Watson

Transition Player of the Year: It comes down to two players for this one in my opinion, Jim Veltman and Steve Toll. Both were quintessential transition players, with great defensive and offensive abilities. Toll had more blazing speed than Veltman so his abilities were a little flashier but Scoop was such a smart player. He had that Brodie Merrill-like ability to make his teammates better and allow them to excel (or more accurately, Merrill has that Veltman-like ability). Veltman is the only transition player in the NLL Hall of Fame and was the first non-offensive player (since joined by Steve Dietrich) to win the MVP award. Gotta go with Jim Veltman.

Defensive Player of the Year: There are only two defensive players in the Hall of Fame: Pat Coyle and Rich Kilgour. I’m not a great judge of defensive ability – especially from memory, since neither of these guys have played in almost ten years – so I will defer to Messrs. Jenner, Elliott, and Challoner, all of whom picked Pat Coyle.

GM of the Year: He only won the award once, in 2015 after his Toronto Rock finished 14-4 and made the finals a year after a 9-9 season, but Terry Sanderson also built the 2011 and 2005 Champion Rock. Maybe it’s my Rock bias coming through again but he’s my pick. However, Johnny Mouradian built the 1999-2003 Rock, who won four titles in five years, so he’s also worthy. The Philadelphia Wings went to nine Championship games in 13 years from 1989-2001, winning five of them. I have no idea if they had a single GM over that span or five of them, but if all that was the work of one guy, that guy deserves credit. I feel bad for whoever ran the team during that time since he clearly deserves recognition for doing an amazing job but I don’t even know who it is.

Executive of the Year: Tough one. I don’t think there’s been one single executive that’s stood out as head and shoulders above the rest. I thought George Daniel did a good job of stabilizing the league over his tenure as commissioner, but was it worthy of renaming this award? Prior to the MILL morphing into the NLL in 1998, all of the teams were owned and run by the league, so there were far fewer executives to choose from. Nobody has won the Executive of the Year award more than once. Maybe we don’t rename this one at all.

Teammate of the Year: You’d have to ask the players about this one; without spending time in the dressing rooms and travelling with the teams, there’s no way to have any significant insight on this. I think Teddy Jenner suggested Casey Powell but maybe this one remains unnamed as well.

Shawn WilliamsSportsmanship Award: Only two players have won the Sportsmanship award more than once – Garrett Billings, who’s still active, and Gary Gait, who has the MVP award. My vote goes to Shawn Williams. In seventeen seasons, he only had five where he hit double digits in penalty minutes, and in 24 playoff games he totalled only 10. He was captain of the Knighthawks for several years, and an alternate captain in both Buffalo and Edmonton. It’s only fitting that the Sportsmanship Award be named for one of the most well-respected players in league history.

Rookie of the Year: Another tough one since by definition, you can’t be good at being a rookie more than once. During the conversation on twitter, my Addicted to Lacrosse co-host Tyler suggested picking someone who won the award and then went on to have an outstanding career. While there are a number of RoY winners who qualify under that criterion (including names like Duch, Kelusky, Manning, Marechek, Merrill, and Benesch) (oh, and Gary Gait again), two of those not still active stand out: Colin Doyle and John Grant. Both have been very active in coaching kids as well, so naming a rookie award after them seems to make sense. I’ll get back to Doyle later, so my vote for this one goes to John Grant.

Other awards

Scoring leader: There is currently no award for this accomplishment, but when there’s such an obvious candidate, we need to create one. Gary Gait and John Tavares each led the league in scoring seven times (though they tied each other in both 2000 and 2004), and nobody else ever did it more than twice. Gait, again, has the MVP award but no listing of legendary NLL players would be complete without John Tavares. He really must appear in this list somewhere and I see no better place than here.

Championship Game MVP: Colin Doyle is the only player to have been named Championship game MVP three times, and similar to Grant and Tavares, I can’t imagine a list such as this without Doyle’s name on it. Doyle was known as a clutch player his entire career, so the Colin Doyle award being given to the Championship Game (or Series now) MVP makes total sense.

Champion’s Cup: IMHO, the ultimate trophy in the National Lacrosse League has a boring name. It’s boring because the Stanley Cup, the Mann Cup, and the Steinfeld Cup are all “Champion’s Cups” in that they are awarded to the Champions of their respective leagues. My first thought was to rename it after the founder of the league but in the NLL’s case, there are two. I can’t say I’m thrilled with “the Cline-Fritz Cup”, and “the Fritz-Cline Cup” will have people in thirty years asking who Fritz Cline was. The CLax trophy was called the Creator’s Cup which was a great name, but I don’t think the NLL should use it even though that league no longer exists.

Another option is to name it after the late Jim Jennings, who was commissioner of the league for nine years (2000-2009). Though Jennings ran the league for a long time, many people have problems with how he ran it – a whole lotta cities had NLL teams fail on his watch. Still, “the Jim Jennings Trophy” has a nice ring to it. If I had to pick a name right now, that’s probably what I’d go with but I’m not stuck on it, so I’d probably elect to leave it for now as well. You really don’t want to get this one wrong.


Having come up with my nominees for the renaming of these awards, it’s important to realize that once they’re named, that’s it. You can’t just go renaming these awards every ten years. Are the names we picked really worthy of that kind of immortality? Terry Sanderson was a great GM, but will we wonder in thirty years why Derek Keenan didn’t get that honour instead? Perhaps we rename MVP, goalie, transition, and defense and leave the rest for now. We can revisit in five years and see if we want to rename some more.

The Les Bartley Award

In 2004, the NLL renamed its Head Coach of the Year Award to The Les Bartley Award. It’s still called that, but the name isn’t really used all that often.  Case in point: the video produced by the NLL announcing this year’s award nominees and winner didn’t include the words “Les Bartley” at all, nor does the page on NLL.com that includes the video.

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The Eastern bias

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few days about the NLL Award finalists and winners, and how there must be an Eastern bias since many Western players who had great seasons have not been nominated. Some of the awards nominations have been quite surprising: Justin Salt and Matt Beers won the IL Indoor* Transition Player and Defender of the Year awards respectively but neither was even a finalist in the NLL awards. Even more interesting is where the finalists come from: of the fifteen finalists for the five awards so far, thirteen of them come from Eastern teams and all fifteen are Eastern-born players.

Clearly this is an Eastern conspiracy, right? Or if not an outright conspiracy, at least evidence of Eastern bias, right?

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The saga of Garrett Billings

Garrett Billings and Stephen Leblanc both exploded into the league in 2010. Leblanc beat out Billings for the Rookie of the Year award, and each beat the other by one point over their first two seasons. But in 2012, Billings took a giant leap forward, recording 114 points and leaving Leblanc’s 65 in the dust. He finished second in league scoring in both 2012 and 2013, and third in 2014, and was an also a top MVP candidate in all of those seasons. Near the end of 2014, however, he injured his knee (in a game in Vancouver, ironically enough) and missed the rest of the season and the playoffs. Nobody knew at the time that it was the last game for Billings in a Rock uniform.

This bummed me out, since I’ve been a big Billings fan since 2010. I have a Rock shirt with his name on it, and I even used a picture of him as the icon for this blog on Facebook.

But once he was healthy again, he didn’t return to the Rock lineup. It soon became clear that he and the Rock were involved in contract negotiations that weren’t going well. I won’t go over all the details here, mainly since we don’t know them all, but during the 2015 season Billings was traded to New England for Kevin Crowley (who was later flipped back to New England for Dan Lintner). He picked up 36 points in 8 games for the Black Wolves and was later dealt to the Stealth in what ended up being a three-way deal that sent Tyler Digby to Calgary and Shawn Evans to New England.

As a Langley native, Billings playing for Vancouver sounds like a dream for both him and the team. He played in 11 games with the Stealth in 2016 and picked up 60 points, a pace that would have netted him 98 over 18 games. But something happened between Billings and the Stealth in the offseason or early 2017, and nobody knows what it was, or at least I don’t. Billings started the season on the IR but once healthy, only played in four games. He was a healthy scratch for six games and once he was added to the holdout list at the end of March, the Garrett Billings era in Vancouver came to a premature end.

Garrett Billings

It’s odd that one of the best players in the league from 2010 through 2014 is on the Stealth roster but doesn’t figure in to their plans. It’s unlikely he’ll suit up for the Stealth again and I hope he’s amenable to travelling since home games for him will be somewhere else next year. I’ve read comments that he’s actually Athan Iannucci’d himself right out of the league – clearly nobody was breaking down Doug Locker’s door last season to get him. I hope that’s not true but we’ll see what the post-season brings.

Where to?

Trade speculation is always a crapshoot but just for fun, let’s have a look at where Billings might end up if he’s traded. We’ll just think about two-team trades that only involve Billings, otherwise there are just too many possibilities.

I imagine the bridges have been burned with respect to the Rock, and with Hickey, Schreiber, Lintner, Beirnes, and Hellyer, they’re packed with righties anyway. Could he fit in on the right side with the Bandits? That would allow them to put Mark Steenhuis back on transition, though they’re not hurting in the transition department anyway so that’s not really filling a need. Rochester is a possibility, particularly considering their offensive woes this season. They have three first-round draft picks this fall and still have their first round picks in 2018 and 2019, so that’s a possibility for what heads west. Billings may not be what he once was (though his 2016 numbers indicate that he could be) but assuming he’s not still injured in some way, I think he’s still worth a first-round pick.

Georgia? Their offense is just fine, thanks. The Black Wolves have Evans, Crowley, and Kyle Buchanan on the right side so I’m not sure adding Billings to that list makes sense but replacing one of those guys might. Kevin Crowley is also from BC so that’s a possibility (could we have a second “Billings to New England for Crowley” deal?) but (a) I believe Crowley lives on the east coast now, and (b) the Stealth don’t need Billings on the right side, so they likely don’t need Crowley on the right side either. Call that a probably not.

The Rush and Mammoth are fine on the right side so the only possibility left is Calgary. They only used three righties in 2017: Dickson, Berg, and Digby. The Roughnecks missed the playoffs in 2017; could they use a guy like Billings to shake things up? Sure they could. If the Roughnecks don’t want to give up a player, they have one first round draft pick this year, plus two in each of 2018 and 2019.

There are always factors involved in trades that we don’t know about. But if I had to guess, I’d say the Roughnecks sounds like the most likely target. Interesting that he and Digby, who were once traded for each other, would end up as teammates in that scenario.

It’s unfortunate that things didn’t work out in Vancouver, but I hope Billings returns to the NLL in 2018 as effective as ever. Maybe I’m biased as a Billings fan as well as a Rock fan who watched him make significant contributions over the years, including helping to bring the 2011 Championship to Toronto, but similar to Cody Jamieson, I think the league is better with Garrett Billings in it.

2017 NLL awards

I don’t have an official vote for the NLL awards, but I do vote for the IL Indoor staff awards and for Addicted to Lacrosse as well. Here are my top 5 picks (top 3 for the Bartley and GM awards) for each award for 2017. I didn’t give descriptions here for why I chose who I chose but you will see those next week on the IL Indoor article. As always, I also revisited my pre-season predictions to see how I did.

Final standings: In the east I had New England first, followed by Buffalo, Georgia, Toronto, and Rochester. Oh-for-five. In the west, Saskatchewan, then Colorado, Calgary, and Vancouver. I got the Rush right and that’s it.

MVP

Original pick: Mark Matthews. Always a good choice, but once again for Matthews, second place.

1. Lyle Thompson
2. Mark Matthews
3. Corey Small
4. Callum Crawford
5. Tye Belanger

Goaltender of the Year

Original pick: Aaron Bold.

1. Dillon Ward
2. Nick Rose
3. Tye Belanger
4. Mike Poulin
5. Aaron Bold

Defensive Player of the Year

Original pick: Robert Hope.

1. Dan Coates
2. Matt Beers
3. Kyle Rubisch
4. Ryan Dilks
5. Steve Priolo

Dan Coates

Transition Player of the Year

Original pick: Karsen Leung. Leung didn’t even play in 2017, so that’d be a no.

1. Justin Salt
2. Joey Cupido
3. Craig England
4. Jordan MacIntosh
5. Jeff Cornwall

Rookie of the Year

Original pick: Ryan Keenan. Not a bad debut season for Keenan but less than what I would have expected from a first-overall pick. Of course, I could have said that about Lyle Thompson last year. Schreiber is a no-brainer but I had a tough time picking the rest of the top 5. The number of strong rookie candidates this year is staggering: Keenan, Kyle Jackson, Latrell Harris, Bryan Cole, Josh Currier, Reid Reinholdt, Chad Cummings, Dan Lomas, Mike Messenger, Jacob Ruest, Kieran McArdle, Challen Rogers, Holden Cattoni, James Rahe, Jordan Magnuson, …

1. Tom Schreiber
2. Kyle Jackson
3. Mike Messenger
4. Jacob Ruest
5. Josh Currier

Les Bartley Award

Original pick: Troy Cordingley.

1. Ed Comeau
2. Jamie Batley
3. Derek Keenan

GM of the Year

Original pick: Jamie Dawick or Steve Dietrich.

1. John Arlotta
2. Jamie Dawick
3. Doug Locker

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.