The NLL’s most successful franchise

It’s a cycle that almost every pro sports team goes through. If you look back over the history of most teams that have been around for a while, they’ve had periods where they’re really good, at or near the top of the league, and then other periods where they’re terrible. Think of any team that’s been successful over the last year or two: the Royals in baseball, the Clippers in basketball, the Islanders in hockey. It wasn’t that long ago that all three of those teams were terrible, near the bottom of their respective leagues.

Alternatively, think of any team that’s been terrible over the last few years: the Knicks, the Oilers, the Phillies. I can certainly remember times when those teams were at the top of their leagues.  Every team has times where they’re really great and times where they’re really bad. Even the Cubs won the NL Central three times from 2003-2008.

This has certainly happened in the NLL as well. The Edmonton Rush were arguably the best team of each of the last two years but were terrible for a decade before that. The Washington Stealth went to the Championship in three out of their four seasons, but were 4-12 and dead last in the fourth. The Wings won 6 Championships in their first 15 years, then only made the playoffs 3 times in their last 12. The Rock, Bandits, and Mammoth have each won championships and also sat near the bottom of the league during the last 10 years. The Minnesota Swarm may be a bit of an outlier here; they were never a really great team and never reached the finals, but they were a very good team for a few years, getting to the division finals twice. On the flipside, their last couple of years in Minnesota were pretty bad.

(Aside: The NLL is a little different because of the team turnover. I’m only looking at teams that have been around for ten years or more. There are a lot of teams who didn’t have a long enough existence to consider. The New Jersey / Anaheim Storm, Ottawa Rebel, and Montreal Express never stuck around long enough to get good. The Arizona Sting went to 2 Championships in 4 years but never finished above 9-7 or below 7-9.)

Knighthawks

But in the NLL, there are two oddball teams that have mostly defied the longevity rule.

The Calgary Roughnecks were terrible in their first season, when they finished 4-12. But in the 13 seasons since then, they  have only finished below .500 twice, have never missed the playoffs, and have finished with 10+ wins 7 times. Even last year when they started 0-6 and finished 7-11, they managed to get to the Western finals. Other than their debut season (when you kind of expect a team to suck) and for part of 2015, the Roughnecks have never really been terrible.

But take a look at the Rochester Knighthawks. In their twenty-one seasons, they have only finished below .500 three times, and all three times they were just below .500 at 7-9. What’s more: they won the Championship in one of those 7-9 seasons. Let me say that another way: they won the Championship in 2012 after finishing the regular season tied for the worst record in franchise history. They have only missed the playoffs twice in 21 years and as we all remember, are the only team ever to win three straight Championships. In their debut season, they went to the Championship (and lost it in OT).

If you had to pick the most successful NLL franchise during its existence, you could argue the Rock might be the best choice given the number of Championships in that time. But they had a four year stretch where they were 10 games under .500 and missed the playoffs twice. The Wings were one of the best choices for the first half of their lifetime, and one of the worst choices for the second half. The Roughnecks would also have been a very good option, but they’ve had strong regular season numbers and not so much in the playoffs.

For my money, the Rochester Knighthawks win the prize. They have never had a single terrible season, but have had some outstanding ones. I know it’s no 22 in a row, Bandits fans, but they won 16 straight games from 2007-2008. They have never finished last in their division. They have won five Championships and appeared in four more, and have seen some of the best players in the game on their benches including the Gaits, John Grant, Shawn Williams, Shawn Evans, Dan Dawson, Cody Jamieson, and Matt Vinc.

They say any NLL team can beat any other on any given night. This is mostly true for the non-Charlottes and non-Anaheims of the league. But let’s face it, there were years that this was not true for the Rock, Bandits, Mammoth, or Roughnecks. But there has never been a time when playing the Knighthawks that they didn’t have a good chance of beating you.

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Gavin Prout – the Knighthawk?

Gavin Prout spent two seasons in New York and then six in Colorado, the last five as captain of the Mammoth, averaging 84 points per season. So it was a bit of a shock in Colorado, and throughout the NLL world, when he was traded in 2009 to the Edmonton Rush. He played with the Rush for the 2010 season and about half of 2011 before being traded back to the Mammoth. But something that many people, myself included until recently, don’t remember about Prout being traded from the Mammoth to the Rush was that it never happened.

What could have beenProut, along with Andrew Potter, was traded from the Mammoth to the Rochester Knighthawks in 2009 for Ilija Gajic (some draft picks were involved as well). Potter had been sent to the Mammoth from the Knighthawks the previous year in the deal that brought Gary Gait out of retirement. Interesting that a guy that played all of five games in his NLL career was involved in two such significant trades. Anyway, two weeks later, the Knighthawks sent Prout and Dean Hill to the Rush for a first round draft pick. But the fact that Prout was a Knighthawk for a couple of off-season weeks is usually forgotten.

A number of other players also spend time on teams for which they never played. Here are just a few:

After the Boston Blazers folded, Anthony Cosmo and Josh Sanderson were both selected in the dispersal draft by the Minnesota Swarm. Before the first round of the draft had even ended, Sanderson had been traded to the Rock, while Cosmo sat out half of the next season before being traded to the Bandits.

Shawn Williams is another player who, like Sanderson, can measure the amount of time he spent on the Minnesota roster with a stopwatch. In July 2012, Williams was traded from the Rush to the Swarm for two second-round draft picks. The same day, he was sent off with Brendan Doran as well as the #5 overall pick in the 2012 draft and two other 2012 draft picks to Buffalo for the #3 overall pick. That seems to me like an expensive way to move up two positions – and in fact, it really only moved the Swarm up one position since they went from having picks #2, 4, and 5 to having picks #2, 3, and 4.

Paul Rabil might be the only player to have joined two separate organizations consecutively and never play for either of them. But this story begins six months before Rabil got involved. In the summer of 2011, the Wings traded Athan Iannucci, Alex Turner, Brodie MacDonald, and three first round draft picks to the Rush for Brodie Merrill, Dean Hill, Mike McLellan, and a couple of later draft picks. Nooch never signed with the Rush, and a month into the 2012 season, he was traded to the Stealth for Paul Rabil. Rabil also refused to sign with the Rush and sat out the rest of the 2012 season.

Almost a year after the original Iannucci trade, the Rush sent Rabil to the Knighthawks for Jarrett Davis, but Rabil never reported to Rochester either. Only a couple of weeks before the 2013 season began, he was sent to Philadelphia along with Jordan Hall, Joel White, and Robbie Campbell in exchange for Dan Dawson, Paul Dawson, and a first round draft pick. Rabil is now happy in Philadelphia, and I’m pretty sure the Knighthawks were OK with what they got out of the deal.

But not every player was traded to a team they never played for. Here are some players who were drafted by teams they never played for:

  • Ilija Gajic, Rochester, 2009
  • Joel Dalgarno, Toronto, 2009
  • Craig Point, Boston, 2007
  • Ryan Benesch, San Jose, 2006
  • Blaine Manning, Calgary, 2001
  • Geoff Snider, Vancouver, 2001 (he opted to return to university and was drafted again by the Wings in 2006)
  • Tom Marechek, Buffalo, 1992
  • John Tavares, Detroit, 1991 (and not until the third round!)

I’m sure there are plenty of others. Leave a comment if I missed any!

2013 NLL season wrap-up

Well, that’s it for one of the most exciting and entertaining NLL seasons ever, thanks in part to the parity in the league. Almost every game was unpredictable, and there wasn’t a single game all year where anyone would have been honestly shocked if the losing team had won. Incidentally, that’s my excuse for finishing below .500 in my predictions.

A lot of interesting things happened in the 2013 season, some of which were expected, some of which were not. Let’s take a look at a few of each.

Five things we expected

  1. Parity. As I mentioned above, the parity in the league is unprecedented. The Bandits only won 6 games, but four of them came against the Champions, the Championship runners-up, and the Rock, who had the best record. The team with the best record was ahead of the team with the worst record by only 4 wins (10-6 vs. 6-10), the smallest that number has been since Detroit finished 6-2 and four teams were 3-5 back in 1992.
  2. The Stealth didn’t suck. Nobody expected their 2012 season to be as bad as it was, but I’m pretty sure that nobody realistically expected it to happen again.
  3. Garrett Billings cemented himself as one of the top offensive players in the NLL with his second-straight 100-point season.
  4. After one of the best offensive seasons ever, John Grant returned to earth with a pedestrian (for him) 91 points. Matt Vinc
  5. Matt Vinc won his third Goaltender of the Year award. Another few years of this type of performance, and the “best of all time” argument between Watson and Eliuk will become a three-way conversation. In fact, it’s almost there now.

Five things we didn’t expect

  1. Sophomore slump? Never heard of it. If you look at the top rookies of 2012 – Kevin Crowley, Adam Jones, Jordan MacIntosh, Tyler Carlson, Evan Kirk, Johnny Powless – only Kirk dropped off significantly from his rookie performance. Powless dropped from 50 points to 40, but he had to start sharing the ball with the likes of Dan Dawson and Casey Powell. The rest all stayed about the same or got better.
  2. Getting rid of Casey Powell won’t hurt your offense. The Knighthawks averaged 11.1 goals per game before the trade, 11.3 after. Cody Jamieson and Dan Dawson both saw their points/game averages go up to make up for the loss of Powell, Dawson from 4.2 to 5.1, and Jamieson from 5 to 6.3.
  3. Mike Poulin had a distinctly un-Poulin-esque season. His 12.70 GAA was the highest of his career, almost 2.5 points higher than 2012. The only starters who finished with higher GAAs were Evan Kirk and Anthony Cosmo. But his performance in the Roughnecks’ 12-11 OT victory over Edmonton at the end of the season was outstanding, and he played well against both the Mammoth and the Stealth in the playoffs. Shawn Evans
  4. Shawn Evans has been a very good player for years, and taking his game to the next level wasn’t wholly unexpected. But this year, Evans jumped the next level and went to the one after that. He bested his career high in points by 33 and won the scoring title by 12. His 112 points is tied for the 5th best season ever, putting Evans among the Gaits, Grants, and Tavares’.
  5. The Knighthawks started the year 0-3, were never above .500 at any point, and only two teams scored fewer goals. But they are the Champions. Actually, we should have expected it, since it’s almost what they did last year.

So there’ll be no more NLL games until at least December when training camps open. Don’t worry folks, it’s only… um… seven months. (sigh) Until then, we still have the MLL for outdoorsy types, and the MSL and WLA for people who like sweating in arenas in July. There may or may not be other American indoor leagues as well, such as NALL, PLL, MILA, and possibly others; so many of them started up so fast I kind of lost track of which ones still exist.

So enjoy your summer and fall, whether it’s filled with lacrosse or not! NLL Chatter will be more or less quiet over the summer, but we’ll publish the odd story as things unfold: the new CBA, trades, the entry draft, rule changes, the 2014 schedule, things like that. And we’ll be back next season with the usual mix of relevance and irreverence. See you then!

Championship game pick

I went .500 during both the first and second weeks of the playoffs, and all I know about the third week is that I won’t go .500.

Regular season record: 33-39 (.458)
Playoff record: 3-3 (.500)

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Comments

Pick

ROC @ WAS Neither team had their best regular season, but the regular season means zilch at this point. There are great coaches at both ends. Given the breakdown below and adding in the home-ish floor advantage, I have to go with the Stealth. Stealth4

Goaltending: Richards vs. Vinc is one of the best goaltending matchups in a Championship game in recent years. I’d call that a draw but if I had to pick one, I’d probably give Vinc a slight edge.

Offense: We have Duch, Ratcliff, Nooch, Bucktooth, Hill, and Smith on one side and Jamieson, Dawson, Powless, Vitarelli, Point, and Accursi on the other. Powerful on both sides, but I’m giving the Stealth the edge there, especially if Jamieson and Vitarelli are not at 100%.

Defense/Transition: Rochester has the Selfs, Dawson, Smith, Kirk, and McCready but the Stealth has Sorensen, Grimes, Moleski, Garrison, Snider, Henderson, and Beers. Again, both are strong, but Washington wins there.

How do we avoid moving the Championship game? And should we avoid it?

Yesterday, we talked about the 2013 NLL Championship game being held in Langley, BC because of scheduling issues at Comcast Arena. But could this have been avoided? Yes. How?

Money.

It would have been relatively easy to avoid, actually, though pricey. When the regular season schedule was being made, the NLL would have figured out when the final week of the season was going to be. Each team would then book the Saturday night of the next weekend for the Division Semi-Finals, the Saturday night of the following weekend for the Division Finals, and the Saturday night of the next weekend for the Finals. If they wanted to be really thorough, they would have booked Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday of all three weekends. Then there’s no chance that the arena would be booked for the playoffs, and everything’s good. Right?

Well, yes, except that for most teams, booking their arena for three entire weekends in a row during the NHL playoffs is completely impossible. Every NLL team except Washington and Rochester has an NHL team playing in the same arena. In every one of those cases (even the ones where the NHL team doesn’t own the building), I’ll give you one guess which team would get priority during those weekends. Hint: the answer rhymes with NOT LACROSSE.

So let’s say we decide that some playoff games are going to be Friday night, some Saturday night, and some Sunday afternoon, and the building owners all agree with the dates. Now the team owners have to pay for those dates, and I don’t imagine that paying to rent the ACC or Rexall Place is overly cheap. In fact, since there are only 8 home games (for now) and you just added three more, you’ve increased your arena costs by 37.5%. Sure, most teams will be able to cancel one or all of those dates eventually and presumably get some of their money back, but (a) you might not be able to cancel the dates until a week before, and b) there will very likely be a steep financial penalty (even more so because of the late notice). The non-hockey-team NLL owners (Toronto, Washington, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Rochester) are used to putting down their own money knowing they’re unlikely to get it all back, but they’re only so altruistic, and frankly I think it’s unfair to expect the owners to pay that out of their own pockets. The franchises or the league would have to foot the bill, and I’m pretty sure there just isn’t that much money floating around the NLL’s bank accounts.

Is every ticket-buying fan in the league interested in bumping ticket prices across the board to avoid the exceptionally slim possibility of both (a) their team making it to the finals and (b) the arena not being available? Some might, others won’t. It wasn’t the case this year with the parity we currently have, but some years it’s obvious from the start that one or more teams are just not good enough to make the finals. Would fans of those teams want an increase in ticket prices so they could book their arena for a Championship game that they have almost no chance of hosting?

I would think that if such a decision had to be made, pissing off a few fans in one city by moving the Championship game is the lesser of two evils when compared with pissing off more fans in all the NLL cities.

So yes, it could have been avoided. But the only real way to do it is by spending money that the league doesn’t have. Maybe when negotiating the TV deal for next season, the league could try and squeeze a few more bucks out of it, and then use that extra to book the arenas. But with all due respect to Stealth fans, in my opinion it really isn’t a big enough or frequent enough problem to warrant spending bucketloads of money on solving.

Langley hosts the NLL Championship

The NLL Championship game in 2013 will, for the first time, be held in a neutral site arena, kind of: the Langley Events Centre in Langley, BC. Langley is about 90 miles north of Everett and is the closest arena that the Stealth could find to host the game. Comcast Arena, the normal home of the Stealth, is booked this Saturday for a Christian music concert. The Key Arena in Seattle, a much closer alternative, is also booked with roller derby, and thanks to the CBS Sports TV contract, changing the date was not an option, so the Stealth were forced to either go to Langley or give up the game and allow the Knighthawks to host.

This would have been more than a little ironic, since a similar thing happened in 2007 when the Knighthawks were unable to host the Championship game because of a circus booked at the Blue Cross Arena. The Knighthawks had to win their first Championship in ten years in front of the fans of their opponents, the Arizona Sting.

The Langley Events Centre

There’s been a lot of talk on twitter and on the IL Indoor forums about this, most of which is negative, and phrases like “unprofessional” and even “bush league” have been thrown around. So I asked on twitter “How would you have solved the problem? Here are some of the responses:

@Amypriddy12: put the game in Rochester where they could sell out the arena…

@bradmacarthur: hold it in Rochester? ’07 games was moved to AZ when BCA wasn’t available.

@tfernaays: The same way the did in 2007: give the other team the game.

@RichCumpston: Just play it in Rochester, like they did in 2007 when Arizona couldn’t host it.

Is it just me, or is there a trend here? Yes, the option to move the game to Rochester was likely the next step if Langley was unavailable. The difference between this case and 2007 is that in Rochester’s case, there was no alternative. Presumably there are other arenas in the Rochester area, but if it’s too small, the league won’t want to hold the game there. If you think moving the final game to another arena is bush league, try televising a national championship on CBS Sports from a dinky little arena that holds 300 people. Any other arenas that might have been even close to the BCA in terms of capacity were booked, and the Board of Governors nixed an idea to hold the game in Buffalo. The only option at that point was to move it to Arizona.

In this case, there is another option available, and that’s Langley. Yes, the fans will have to drive a couple of hours north and cross the Canadian border, but if it’s either that or watch it on TV from Rochester, I imagine most Stealth fans will make the drive – or at least they’ll be happy that they have that decision to make.

I did get one other suggestion:

@GlenMcDole: I believe in the early 90s, highest attendance city held it. Denver would be a good place this year

On the surface, this seems like a decent idea – this way, you’re rewarding the city that has the most fans, and making fans happy is certainly good for the league. But first off, it means that most years, the Championship game is in a neutral site unless the team with the highest attendance also happens to make the finals. This is fine for the Super Bowl, where a city needs to prepare for a year just to host the game, but that’s not the case in the NLL.

Secondly, it would mean that the NLL would have the Championship in Colorado or Buffalo every year. Could this increase attendance in the other cities, with fans trying to get the Championship there? That seems like the goal, but I honestly doubt it would have any impact on attendance. Even if it does, it wouldn’t help the fans in small arenas (ironically, I believe Rochester and Washington are the two smallest). Buffalo’s First Niagara Centre can hold over 19,000, and the Bandits had that many out to their final game. But most of the other arenas just plain can’t hold that many people. Everyone in the entire City of Rochester could be lining up for Knighthawks tickets, but only 11k of them can fit in the arena, and so without building a new 20,000-seat arena, Rochester would have no chance of ever hosting a final. That’s unfair to them.

The league could make provisions, saying no team can host twice in a row, or that they alternate between the top three, or base it on the average percentage of capacity, but quite honestly, these schemes are starting to sound hokey to me.

Personally, I think the highest-seeded team that makes the final has earned the right to host it, and so that’s where it should be held. If that’s not possible, as is the case this year and was in 2007, the home team should be allowed to attempt to find an alternate location for the game, within reason. If the Stealth had said “Yes, the arena we used to use in San Jose is available, we’ll play there”, that’s no good since they’re well over 800 miles apart. Asking fans to travel that far is silly, though I understand the complaints about having to cross the border.

Does this suck for Stealth fans? Of course it does. But could it have been avoided? Check back tomorrow for the answer.

Division final picks

I went 2-2 in last week’s first-round games, just as I did in the first round last year. I continue to get the Stealth completely backwards – they lose when I pick them to win and vicy versy. I knew the Swarm were going to be a tough opponent for the Rock, but not that tough. The predictions only get tougher from here. Hopefully I do better than my Swarm @ Rock finals prediction from 2012.

Regular season record: 33-39 (.458)
Playoff record: 2-2 (.500)

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Comments

Pick

MIN @ ROC After watching the Swam dismantle the Rock last weekend, it’s hard to bet against them. Knowing that Cody Jamieson will be at best playing hurt (and more likely not playing at all) and they may also be without Cory Vitarelli doesn’t help the Knighthawks’ cause. But I agree with Teddy Jenner: if the Swarm don’t start Tyler Carlson after his recent performances, they’re nuts. Carlson vs. Vinc – this will be a great goalie battle. Swarm
WAS @ CAL Was this one ever tough to call. Both teams have it all. Great goaltending? Check. Lots of firepower up front? Check. Transition? Defense? Great faceoff guy named Snider? Check, check, check. The biggest difference here is coaching. Chris Hall was my second choice for the Les Bartley award and has taken the Stealth to the Championship in 2 of the last 3 years, while Curt Malawsky is a rookie. Gary Gait won the championship as a rookie coach so there’s precedent there, but I still think I’m gonna have to give this one to the Stealth. Stealth