Examining the 2019-2020 NLL schedule

Winter is coming.

And this is good, because winter is NLL season! The 2019-2020 NLL season begins on November 29, which is only eleven weeks from now. In fact by the time you read this, it will be less than eleven weeks from now. The league released the schedule for the upcoming season this week, just ahead of next week’s entry draft. Of course the timing is done by design since now that the summer championships (President’s Cup, Minto, Mann, etc.) are done, there ain’t much happening in the box lacrosse world right now.

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2019 Expansion draft

I imagine the last few weeks have been a nightmare for NLL GMs, and the next couple won’t be much better. The second expansion draft in two years is coming up in a couple of weeks so each GM had to go through their roster and choose eleven players to protect, knowing they could lose anyone not on that list. Then you need to call more than half of your players and tell them they’re not protected. Then you will lose two of them and need to adjust your team afterwards. Luckily they have five months or so before the season starts to do that. Just like last year’s draft, some GMs will have some big holes to fill after the draft, others might barely notice the difference.

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2019 NLL Awards

This is the time when we look back over the season and pick the players who were the best of 2019. It’s also fun to see how close my random guesses predictions from the beginning of the season were. Every year, I pick a player for each team who I think will have an exceptional year, so let’s take a look at my “Look out for…” picks from the East and West previews as well.

MVP

Dane Dobbie (Photo credit: Greg Southam)Original pick: Tom Schreiber

  1. Dane Dobbie
  2. Matt Vinc
  3. Callum Crawford
  4. Mark Matthews
  5. Dan Dawson

I don’t always like picking the guy with the highest point total as the MVP. It seems too easy and since I’m known to be a stats guy, it looks like I just went with the big numbers and ignored everything else. But this year, Dane Dobbie epitomized “most valuable” in every way. Not only did he lead the league in points (and finished second in goals, assists, and power-play goals), but he blew away his previous career high by 25 points. Most importantly, he carried the Roughnecks at the beginning of the season when Curtis Dickson, Wes Berg, and Jesse King were all out.

Goaltender of the Year

Original pick: Dillon Ward

  1. Matt Vinc
  2. Mike Poulin
  3. Frank Scigliano
  4. Christian Del Bianco
  5. Dillon Ward

Vinc led the league in GAA and save percentage among starters. He kept his opponents to single-digits seven times – and three of those were five or fewer. But most importantly he turned the Bandits struggling defense from last year into the stingiest in the league. Of course, he didn’t do it by himself but his play and the confidence he inspires in the rest of the defenders was obviously a huge part of that transformation.

Transition Player of the Year

Original pick: Challen Rogers

  1. Challen Rogers
  2. Steve Priolo
  3. Kiel Matisz
  4. Zach Currier
  5. Tyler Pace

Rogers plays excellent defense, is almost always the first guy up the floor in transition, and took many shifts on offense. He played on the man-up and man-down, and when watching the Rock play, it seems that he’s just always on the floor. He does it all, does it all well, and always looks like he’s having fun while doing it.

Defensive Player of the Year

Original pick: Graeme Hossack

  1. Graeme Hossack
  2. Kyle Rubisch
  3. Brad Kri
  4. David Brock
  5. Mike Messenger

Hossack and Rubisch are both masters of the stick check. They don’t just make it difficult for offensive players to get to or even see the net, leaving them with a bad shot or no shot at all, though they’re great at that too. These guys prefer to simply strip them of the ball and toss it to one of their teammates in transition. It’s clean, it’s quick, it gives your team a chance to score, and if you watch these guys do it, you might think it’s easy. It’s not.

Rookie of the Year

Austin StaatsOriginal pick: Austin Staats

  1. Austin Staats
  2. Steph Charbonneau
  3. Kyle Killen
  4. Trevor Baptiste
  5. Ian MacKay

Before he got injured, Staats was on pace for 78 points which was 17 short of the rookie record (held by his big brother). Other rookies have scored more goals and picked up more loosies, but few have had the overall impact that Austin Staats had this season. His goal-scoring, energy, and obvious love for the game was the talk of the league all season. In a non-traditional lacrosse market, having a young, exciting, dynamic player like Staats had to be a huge help in trying to build their brand and fanbase. Hopefully he is fully recovered from his ACL surgery by next season because his career will be an amazing one to watch.

Unsung Hero

  1. Casey Jackson
  2. Matt Hossack
  3. Bryan Cole
  4. Greg Downing
  5. Keegan Bal

When you think of the Seals offense, you think Staats, Dawson, Billings, Buchanan, but Casey Jackson doesn’t jump to mind. But Jackson led the Seals in goals and after playing all of four games in his career before this season, fit in very nicely among the rookie phenom and veteran scorers.

Comeback Player of the Year

  1. Garrett Billings
  2. Jordan McBride
  3. Tyler Digby
  4. Dan Coates
  5. Cam Holding

Billings missed all of 2018 and only played four games in 2017. Between work commitments and injuries, it seemed that his NLL career might be over. But Billings matched the points total from his 2010 rookie season and looked a lot like the old Billings, which was likely a little scary for Seals opponents. He certainly scored some beautiful goals but as we’ve come to expect, in every game he played he had more assists than goals, sometimes many more.

Les Bartley Award

Original pick: Pat Coyle

  1. Patrick Merrill
  2. Matt Sawyer
  3. John Tavares/Rich Kilgour

As a GM, Merrill put together a great bunch of players. As a coach, he turned them into a great team. Of course having vets like Dawson, Billings, and Buchanan on his team really helped too, but clearly the Seals players bought (and dove) in early in the season and that teamwork was obvious all year.

GM of the Year

Original pick: Steve Dietrich

  1. Patrick Merrill
  2. Steve Dietrich
  3. John Arlotta

When you look at an expansion team’s roster, you usually hope that the team might be pretty good in a couple of years. The Seals looked very good from the beginning and didn’t disappoint. Even after the season started, Merrill wasn’t done. He brought in Paul Dawson to give the defense even more toughness and leadership. He took chances on Garrett Billings and Kyle Hartzell and they paid off. When he lost Austin Staats, he brought in Joe Walters. He put together a great mix of leaders who could still produce on the floor and a solid young group that can be the core of this team for years.

Final standings

East: My picks were Buffalo, Georgia, Toronto, New England, Rochester, Philadelphia. In that order. Nailed it.

West: My picks were Saskatchewan, Calgary, Colorado, San Diego, Vancouver. Move San Diego to second and I nailed the west too, but I really only got two right: first and last.

Look out for…

I got some of the above picks right, and missed on others. But of the eleven below, I’d say I nailed five (Duch, Buchanan, Staats, Digby, Lintner) and got four more pretty close. Only two were really wrong.

Calgary: Rhys Duch. Calling that a win. He didn’t get back into the 90’s in points, but then he wasn’t expected to be the guy on the Roughnecks like he was on the Stealth. He helped set up the guy (Dobbie) and the other guy (Dickson) and had a great year.

Colorado: Tim Edwards. 53.5% at the dot this year, fourth among face-off guys. Not a bad season at all.

San Diego: Kyle Buchanan. 67 points, 28 goals, a veteran presence and lots of hustle – exactly as expected from Buchanan.

Saskatchewan: Travis Cornwall. We all thought he was brought in to basically replace his brother Jeff on the transition but he played more of a defensive role for the Rush. As such, the numbers don’t tell us much but the fact that Cornwall played all 18 games for the first time in his career tells you what the Rush coaching staff thought of his play.

Vancouver: Colton and Zack Porter. More defenders so the numbers don’t tell you much but these guys were tough on opposing forwards. Not big guys (each is 5’8″) but tenacious. The Warriors players voted Zack as their rookie of the year.

Buffalo: Shawn Evans. 94 points, which is excellent for most but only very good for Evans. Like Duch, he had to get used to not being the guy on the Bandits offense but his presence helped make them one of the strongest in the league.

Georgia: Randy Staats. 96 points makes this the best year of his career, narrowly eclipsing his 95 in his rookie year.

New England: Tyler Digby. 72 points in 17 games, almost back to his 74 in 18 back in 2015. In fact, he had a higher points-per-game average so I’d call that a career year.

Philadelphia: Brett Hickey. Would have been a career year for Hickey, I’m sure, if he didn’t get injured after only three games.

Rochester: Pat Saunders. Only played four games.

Toronto: Dan Lintner. Played in all eighteen games and set career highs in goals, assists, points, loose balls, and CTOs.

Could happen…

I love doing this every year. There are only a few weeks left in the season, so it’s time to look at the possible-but-unlikely playoff scenarios. In most cases below, I’ve listed a single way that the specified outcome can happen, but there may be more than one.

Just for clarification, “win out” means a team wins all of the rest of their games (also known as “runs the table”), while “lose out” means that a team loses all the rest of their games (also known as “defecating in one’s sleeping apparatus”).

Swarm and Bandits tie for first

Swarm win out, and the Bandits win out except they lose to Toronto. Then Georgia and Buffalo finish tied for first and tied 1-1 in the season series as well. The Swarm would end up with a 10-3 division record while the Bandits would be 9-4, so the Swarm finish first.

Rock win the east

Rock win out. Bandits lose any one game and Georgia loses any two. Then the Rock are 13-5, the Bandits are at best 13-5 (and Toronto owns the tiebreaker), and the Swarm are at best 12-6.

Photo credit: Rene Johnston

Black Wolves win the east

Black Wolves win out. Bandits lose out, Georgia loses three and Toronto loses one. Then the Bandits and Black Wolves are both 12-6, 1-1 against each other, and 8-5 in their division. The tiebreaker in this case is head-to-head goal differential. The Bandits beat the Black Wolves 15-5 in January, so the only way the Black Wolves win the division is if all those things listed above happen and they beat the Bandits by more than ten goals on April 20.

Four-way tie at 12-6 in the east

New England wins out, Buffalo loses out, Georgia wins one and loses the other two, and Toronto wins out except for a loss to New England. Then those four are all 12-6. Georgia wins the first tiebreaker, New England wins the second, and Toronto wins the third, leaving Buffalo in fourth.

Three-way tie at 8-10 in the east

Toronto loses out, Philly wins out, and New England beats Toronto but loses all the rest of their games. Then those three are tied for third at 8-10 while the Bandits and Swarm finish first and second in some order. New England wins the three-way tiebreaker and finishes third, and Toronto wins the tiebreaker against Philadelphia and takes fourth. The Wings and Knighthawks are out.

Rush finish last in the west

If the Rush lose out (including one to Vancouver) and the Warriors win two of their other three games, the Rush are last. Let me say that again: at the end of March, it’s still possible for the Saskatchewan Rush to finish last in their division. I think the Rush clinched a playoff berth in February last year.

Warriors win the west

OK, this one is complicated. Vancouver wins out. Rush lose to Philly and twice to Colorado but beat San Diego and Calgary. San Diego loses out. Calgary beats San Diego and Philly but loses to Georgia and Saskatchewan. Colorado loses to Vancouver, San Diego, and Rochester but beat Saskatchewan twice. In that case, the Warriors win the west at 9-9, while the other four teams are all 8-10. That completes the proposed scenario but we still need to find out what happens, so we need to break the four-way tie.

The first tiebreaker is each team’s record against the other teams involved in the tiebreaker, but that doesn’t help here. Colorado and Saskatchewan would be 5-4 while San Diego and Calgary would be 4-5. The second tiebreaker is each team’s record within the division, in which case Saskatchewan wins at 9-3. Thus the Rush finish second, and we go to a three-way tiebreaker.

Again, the first is not helpful as each team is 3-3 against the other two. Back to the division record where the Seals are 8-4 and so they come third. The final tiebreaker is won by Colorado with a 2-1 record over the Roughnecks. Colorado finishes fourth and Calgary is out.

Seals finish first in the league

If San Diego wins out, that would put them at 14-4 and give them a win over Buffalo, which means the best Buffalo could do is also 14-4. With that win, San Diego would own the tiebreaker, so all San Diego has to do to finish first overall is to win out. No other conditions need to be met.

Four way tie for first in the west

San Diego loses out except they beat Georgia. The Rush beat Vancouver, San Diego, and Calgary but lose to Colorado twice and Philadelphia. Calgary beats San Diego and Philly and loses to Georgia and Saskatchewan. Colorado beats Saskatchewan twice and San Diego but loses to Rochester. Then all four are 9-9 while the Warriors are at best 7-11. Interestingly, the tiebreaker scenario listed above (under “Warriors win the west”) works out exactly the same way, so we have Rush, Seals, Mammoth, Roughnecks, and Warriors.

 

Rochester’s trade frenzy

Wednesday was a bit of a crazy day in the NLL – more trades happened on that day than the rest of the season combined, and all of them involved the Rochester Knighthawks. According to sources, they’re not even done.

It began with Joe Resetarits being sent to the New England Black Wolves in exchange for a couple of draft picks – a second round pick this year and a first in 2022. Perhaps Joey Res was uninterested in playing for a Halifax-based team. Maybe they were having trouble deciding who they would protect in this summer’s expansion draft and figured they could get a couple of draft picks for him and help make the decision easier. Either way, it’s a great deal for the Knighthawks on the assumption that they are admitting defeat for this season.

The deal makes a ton of sense for the Black Wolves, who will likely be without Callum Crawford for most of the rest of the season. Crawford was on pace for another hundred-point season before his six-game suspension, so bringing in another righty who got 100 last season is logical and makes the Black Wolves that much more dangerous once Crawford returns. If Resetarits can help the Black Wolves even go .500 for the six games Crawford will be out and then they get to have Resetarits and Crawford for the playoffs, that’s easily worth a couple of draft picks.

Joe Resetarits

The next deal announced was defender Paul Dawson being sent to play with his brother Dan in San Diego. The Knighthawks get another two draft picks for Dawson, and the Seals get a big, strong, tough veteran defender to help in their playoff push. Another good deal for both teams, again assuming the Knighthawks are building for next year.

The third one was more surprising. The Knighthawks send Cory Vitarelli to the Mammoth in exchange for Ryan Benesch, one for one. No draft picks going in either direction. Another great deal for the Knighthawks, who get one of the top scorers in league history. However I’m not sure of the incentive for the Mammoth to make this trade. Vitarelli and Benesch are both lefties and they’re about the same age (Vitarelli is five months younger). Vitarelli is a very good player who can score some acrobatic goals, but he’s no Ryan Benesch. Think of it this way: Vitarelli’s best season by average was 2015 when he scored 39 points in 12 games. That’s 3.25 points per game. Benesch has only had one season in his twelve-year career as low as Vitarelli’s best, his lone season with the Edmonton Rush in 2009. His career average (4.95 points per game) is almost double Vitarelli’s (2.68).

Of course, numbers aren’t the only thing to use to compare players. Vitarelli generally serves a different purpose than to be the primary scorer, so you don’t expect 90 points from him. You expect hard picks, digging in corners, making space for the primary scorers, and scoring the occasional jaw-dropping goal, and he excels at those jobs. But they just traded away Stephen Keogh, who also excels at those jobs. It’s puzzling.

Here’s one possibility: Vitarelli is listed as 5’10” but a very solid 220 pounds. That’s an inch taller and forty pounds heavier than Benesch. If you look at the other forwards on the Mammoth, there’s a pattern: McLaughlin and Ruest are 185 pounds, Lee and Wardle are 175, Noble is 170, and Kyle Killen is only 150. Vitarelli is thirty five pounds more than biggest forward the Mammoth have. Perhaps they decided that they really needed some more size up front but if that’s the reason, I still think they overpaid. But when you’re 3-7, maybe you have to overpay.

As for the Knighthawks, was this a fire sale because they’re most likely out of the playoffs, or more of a moving sale because they’re heading to Halifax after the season? Probably a bit of both. My guess is that Matt Vinc didn’t want to move to Halifax or be a fly-in, so he opted to leave Rochester. Maybe Vitarelli and/or Resetarits were in the same boat and Rochester GM Curt Styres decided he could get something for them now rather than have them leave later.

The Knighthawks are 2-8 and the odds of them making the playoffs are not great. Trading players for picks is an odd (and likely ineffective) way to improve your team enough to rebound and make the playoffs, so it’s likely that Styres is indeed building the best team he can for next season in Halifax. If there are more Knighthawks deals coming before Monday’s trade deadline, perhaps those will help to reveal his strategy.

Top ten surprises of the NLL 2019 season

Surprising things happen every year in every sport. This is partially why we love sports, isn’t it? If all of your predictions were correct every year, it’d get pretty boring pretty quick. Here are my top ten surprises from the 2019 season so far. At least these were surprises to me, you will probably have different opinions. Feel free to leave a comment if I missed any.

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