NLL expansion and talent

With all the talk about NLL expansion over the last month or two, the same question has come up a number of times: Is there enough of a player talent pool to support the 16, 18, or even 30 teams that Commissioner Sakiewicz has talked about recently? The simple answer is no.

There are undoubtedly NLL-level lacrosse players out there who are not playing in the NLL. But if we double the size of the league, there simply aren’t enough of them to keep the overall skill level where it is now. Adding that many new players will clearly water down the talent level of the league.

But that’s OK. In my opinion, that’s the price we pay for expansion and growth of the league.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Various musings lacking statistical correlation

Today I’m going to take a page from Evan Schemenauer’s book blog. There are a number of issues relating to the NLL that I have yet to write about, so rather than post an article with a single focus, I’ll combine them all in a “random thoughts” article the way Evan does. Incidentally, if you aren’t reading Evan’s blog regularly, you really should. Now only does he have some great insights into the game itself but he frequently discusses the business aspect of the league as well. In addition to the NLL, he follows and writes about MLL, WLA, MSL, and junior lacrosse as well, which I generally don’t. And check out his story about when he helped create a lacrosse tournament in Bermuda – it’s quite long but really interesting. If you only read one lacrosse blog, read this one. But if you read two lacrosse blogs, the other one should be Evan’s.

I’m covering a number of stories here, some new and some not so new, so I’ll go in chronological order, oldest first.

John Grant retires

John Grant

Not exactly a shocker. In fact, the only way this story could really have been surprising is if it didn’t happen. The writing has been on the wall most of the season, since Grant only played in the Mammoth’s first two games, and there were very few injury updates throughout the season. I heard an interview with Steve Govett this past season where he was listing all the players he had on IR and when they might be back. He didn’t even mention Grant until the very end, almost as an afterthought. Grant announced his retirement from MSL almost a year ago and from the MLL back in April, and in both cases his reasons were that his body just couldn’t do it anymore. Given that, it was pretty much impossible that he’d return for another season in the NLL.

I can’t say I was ever a real fan of Junior’s. He’s unquestionably one of the most skilled lacrosse players in history, and I saw many games where it seemed that he could just score at will – no goalie could stop him when he was really on his game. But earlier in his career, it was sometimes possible to force him off of his game. Basically, if you pissed him off early and often enough, he’d retaliate or get flustered and that was it for him. Try that with John Tavares and he’d just score on you as revenge but Grant would take the odd dumb penalty or just lose his scoring ability to some extent. This happened less often as he matured. But Grant was either too arrogant or too aloof (or both) for my liking. While I acknowledged his skill, I didn’t really like him.

Once he got to Colorado, he started doing promotional videos for the Mammoth, and my tune changed a little. He had a bunch where he was shooting on a lacrosse net from crazy distances – the top level of the Pepsi Center, a cool rock formation in Colorado, and others; they brought to mind the “nothin’ but net” commercial with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird from back in the 90’s if you’re old enough to remember that. Another was one (couldn’t find it online) where he gave a tour of his apartment in Denver, complete with his lacrosse gear out on the balcony and his kitchen cupboard full of Kraft peanut butter “imported from Canada”. I have to say he seemed pretty likeable in those spots.

Then my opinion completely changed when I heard an interview he did with Teddy Jenner right after his retirement. He basically said that his whole life, he just wanted to play lacrosse and wasn’t interested in the spotlight at all. But he realized that given his talent, the spotlight was inevitable so he made the best of it. He came across in the interview as a down-to-earth guy, nor arrogant in the slightest, who just loves lacrosse. He also said that one of the advantages of retiring is that he can spend more time coaching kids, and how can you not like that? That interview made me want to apologize to him for not liking him in the past.

Even if you don’t like him for whatever reason, you cannot deny the skill. Like I said above, when he was on his game, nobody could dominate a game like Junior, and his behind the back (or one-hand behind-the-back underhand) shots are legendary. Mr. Grant, it was an honour to be able to watch you over the past seventeen years and I wish you all the best in your coaching career, be it with your high school team, the MLL, or possibly in the future, the NLL.

Adam Jones comes to the Rock

I honestly didn’t see this one coming though in retrospect, I should have. Jones is a teacher in Owen Sound, Ontario, a 2½ hour drive from Toronto (in good traffic/weather). Jones missed a number of Friday night games with the Mammoth and Rush because the travel was just too difficult. In the four years since the league went to 18-game seasons, Jones has yet to play in all 18 games. Playing half of his games in Toronto (and a bunch more in Buffalo and Rochester) means fewer travel hassles so fewer missed games and less stress on days where he does travel.

I wonder if some Rock fans might have bristled at the thought of giving up two first round picks for Jones, considering he’s only eclipsed 76 points once in his career. But for Jones, it’s not how many points, it’s when. Since 2014, only four players (Dickson, Dhane Smith, Shawn Evans, Dobbie) have more hat-tricks than Jones, and only Dickson has more four-goal or five-goal games. He’s tied with Dickson for the most six-goal games. Jones will have some 1-goal 2-assist nights but the first time the Rock win because he scored six goals in the third quarter, two first round picks may not seem quite as high a price.

San Diego: The new kid in town

The worst-kept secret in the NLL is finally confirmed: a multi-gazillionaire named Joseph Tsai has purchased an NLL expansion franchise that will play in San Diego beginning in the 2018-2019 season. This story was first broken back in July by Marisa Ingemi (my former “boss” at In Lacrosse We Trust – I wrote there for a couple of months in 2011). Tsai has hired former Mammoth president and GM Steve Govett to be the President (and GM?) of the new team. This is the biggest news to hit the NLL since… well, in a long time, and this is the first expansion team in the NLL since the Boston Blazers in 2009.

NLL fans have talked many times in the past about trying to get high-profile billionaires like Mark Cuban or Paul Allen to buy into the league, instantly raising its profile and, quite honestly, its legitimacy. As far as I know Mr. Tsai’s name never came up in those conversations but it could have – Tsai (who has Canadian citizenship, according to Wikipedia) played collegiate lacrosse at Yale, and is apparently quite a big lacrosse fan.

San Diego

This is huge news. Yes, the NLL has played in SoCal before, with the Anaheim Storm in 2004-2005. But their team was terrible, finishing a combined 6-26 over those two seasons. That certainly didn’t help the attendance, which hovered around 4500 per game. I know zilch about the ownership group of the Storm but suffice it to say that losing money hand over fist was likely a problem for them. The fact that Tsai is a billionaire doesn’t mean he’ll be happy to lose money forever, but it does mean that it won’t be a problem if the team doesn’t make a profit right away.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group, a huge Chinese company that runs various online stores and is one of the most profitable companies in the world. According to WIkipedia, Alibaba’s sales in 2016 added up to almost half a trillion US dollars, more than all online sales from all US companies combined. I think we’re safe in assuming that Mr. Tsai knows a thing or two about prudent investments and how to run a successful company. A proven businessman like Tsai investing in the NLL should give other potential investors some serious confidence in the stability and profitability of the league. It’s unlikely that he’s just pulled $5 million out of his couch cushions on a whim; he’s done research on the league and made the decision to invest in it.

Steve Govett had been with the Colorado Mammoth since they were the Washington Power. No fly-by-night “let’s throw $5 million at this thing and see what happens” kind of owner would likely be able to pull him away from there. I don’t imagine Govett would leave the Mammoth for anything less than an absolutely committed owner. The team doesn’t have a name or logo yet and the total number of employees is probably still in single digits, but Tsai already has a right-hand man who knows the league, the game, and the players as well as anyone. Assuming Govett will also be acting as GM, the San Diego Whatevers may not have the less-than-auspicious start that the Storm had. They could be a pretty good team within a couple of years.

Expansion rumours

The rumours started months ago when a Philadelphia reporter named John Barchard tweeted some NLL expansion plans that he credited to “Sources”. He talked about Baltimore, Long Island, and Montreal for 2018, then Philly, DC, Edmonton, and Miami for 2019, and San Francisco for 2020. There were eight other cities with “mild interest”, but San Diego was not among them. It turned out this was mostly his or someone else’s speculation, not actual plans.

The rumours I’ve heard more recently (yesterday) included teams in Philly, Halifax, Miami, and Edmonton. While both Philadelphia and Edmonton have failed in the NLL in the past, I think they could be successful with the right ownership. Both teams had success on the floor and at the gate, though in the case of Edmonton they mostly didn’t happen at the same time.

I’m not sold on Halifax. Sure, there are no other major pro sports teams within several hundred kilometers so they may be starving for pro sports out on the east coast, so that might be good for community support and thus attendance. However it means at least a two hour flight from pretty much anywhere NLL players live (and 5½ from Vancouver, and 8½ from San Diego via Toronto) for all players on both teams, unless the team convinces some players to move there. The arena in Halifax holds 10,000 so they better be filling it every night to pay for the extra travel costs.

I don’t know much about Miami but I know that both the Panthers (NHL) and Marlins (MLB) have struggled with attendance. The Florida Launch are based in Boca Raton, just north of Miami, so in a parallel universe where the NLL and MLL work together for mutual benefit, that may be a good place to start in terms of advertising and building up a fan base. In this universe, however, I’m not sure it will matter.

MLL data breach

This only tangentially affects the NLL itself but does affect a bunch of NLL players. The MLL announced that there was a data breach last week, where information on (I believe) every current and former MLL player, as well as others who registered in the player pool even if they never played, was accidentally made available on the internet. The information included innocuous things like height, weight, occupation, and date of birth, but also included Social Security numbers which, when combined with some of the innocuous stuff, could easily be used for identity theft. The players are livid and rightly so. There have been no confirmed reports of identity theft as of now, but that’s hardly the point.

The big question that many people are asking is “how could this happen?” But I’d like the details – logistically, how did this happen? The players are asking why the file was not encrypted or password-protected, which is an excellent question. But my question is why was it there at all?

The fact that the Excel spreadsheet containing the personal data was available on the internet means that it must have been copied to the machine running the league’s web site, whether that’s their own machine or one run by a hosting company (like GoDaddy, for example). Why would anyone copy the file there? You don’t copy a data file to a web server unless you want to serve it to the web.

I don’t know what happened, but here’s a likely scenario. I imagine that like many companies, the MLL has internal web sites (an “intranet”) as well as the public site. The internal ones are used by MLL employees and are only available from within the MLL corporate network. It’s possible (though not likely) that both sites are run from the same machine, in which case a badly written web page or email could easily link to the wrong file, or the file could accidentally be copied into the wrong directory. What’s more likely is that someone wanted to make the file available on the intranet (not the internet) but copied the file to the wrong server.

MLL's Chief Security Officer

But as someone who has worked for a database software company for twenty years (my job title even includes “security expert” though that’s kind of a stretch), I can tell you that any database or file that includes personal information (especially Social Security numbers) really should be encrypted and protected. If I’m an MLL employee and I don’t absolutely need to have the SSNs, there should be no way for me to get them. The people who do need to have that information must be trained on proper handling of sensitive information. If you must copy the file somewhere, you make damn sure that you’re copying it to the right place and that it’s removed from that place once it’s no longer needed.

With this breach, the league has opened themselves up to lawsuits from anyone whose data was leaked. Since that’s all of their players, this could be very bad. In the worst case, the lawsuits bankrupt the league and it folds entirely. That’s probably unlikely but even if the league does survive, it will take a very long time to regain any measure of trust from the players. It may also have long-term ramifications in the form of players who decide not to join the MLL because of this incident. The league may have lost out on a future Tom Schreiber because he’s worried about the security of his personal information.

It’s also possible that players may decide to divorce themselves from the MLL entirely, which could be good news for the NLL. Could we see the return of former NLL players like Joe Walters and Paul Rabil if they are unhappy with the MLL?

Blockbuster day in the NLL

The free agency period began with a bang today, as two of the biggest blockbuster trades we’ve seen in years both happened on the same day. In the first one, a couple of former teammates who have each played for a bunch of teams were swapped along with a goalie, and in the other the two main players were both goalies.

Deal the First

Early in the day, Teddy Jenner broke the news on twitter that a big deal was coming, and Tyson Geick confirmed that it would be announced at noon. Promptly at noon, both Jenner and the Buffalo Bandits broke the deal: the Mammoth sent Callum Crawford and Alexis Buque to the Bandits for Ryan Benesch and a conditional third round draft pick. Benesch and Crawford were both scoring stars on the Swarm for four seasons from 2010-2013; Benesch won the scoring title in 2011 with 95 points, and Crawford broke 90 in both 2010 and 2013. As good as those numbers are, both have since taken their games to another level. Each has picked up MVP votes over the past couple of years with similar numbers: Benesch grabbed 113 points with the Bandits in 2015 while Crawford picked up 115 points in his first season with the Mammoth in 2016.

Callum Crawford

Buque has been one of the top backup goalies in the league for a couple of years, and I suspected that he’d be one of the first snatched up by next year’s expansion teams. Sounds like the Bandits had other plans. Benesch and Crawford have been pretty even in the points department over the last number of years, though Crawford picks up more assists. The Bandits also announced today that they’d signed Davide DiRuscio to a contract, which leads me to believe that the Anthony Cosmo retirement announcement is imminent.

On first blush, I have to call the Bandits the winners on this one. If we call Benesch and Crawford a wash, Buque vs. a 3rd round draft pick is a no-brainer. The Bandits needed right-handed scoring and got it, though they weakened their left side to do it. But if Cosmo is indeed retiring, they’ve also shored up their goaltending for years. The Mammoth wanted to replace John Grant on the left side (though he barely played last season) and they’ve certainly done that.

Deal the Second

Aaron BoldA few hours later, Jenner broke another big trade, this one involving the Rush and the Black Wolves, and one that still has me scratching my head. The Rush sent goalie Aaron Bold, defender John Lafontaine, the 8th overall draft pick this year and a second round pick in 2018 to New England for Evan Kirk and… that’s all. Make no mistake, Evan Kirk is an excellent goaltender but this trade seems a bit perplexing. Bold and Kirk are two of the top goalies in the league, but not only would I not put the difference between them big enough to cover Lafontaine and two draft picks, but I’d have put them in the other order – if I was giving up Bold and receiving Kirk, I’d be expecting to receive another player and/or draft picks. Note that Kirk is younger than Bold, but only by two years.

Yes, Kirk won Goaltender of the year in 2016 and Bold has never won it. But Bold was a runner-up in each of the previous two years. And if you care about that sort of thing, Bold has two titles and Kirk none.

If this deal was done by anyone other than Derek Keenan, I’d say he got fleeced. But Derek Keenan doesn’t get fleeced. Usually, Derek Keenan does the fleecing.

I’m guessing there’s more to this deal than meets the eye, or it’s only part of a series of deals, the rest of which will be announced soon. Perhaps Bold requested a trade east and all the eastern GMs knew it, so Keenan had no bargaining power.

I’m not sure what the Rush hoped to accomplish with this deal. They got a little younger, but they were one of the youngest teams in the league anyway and the difference is minimal. And Lafontaine is only 27. They talked about the draft picks they got for Adam Jones being important because of the (likely) upcoming expansion drafts, and then traded two picks away for at best a wash at goaltender and they lost a defenseman too. Apparently there is more to come from the Rush, so perhaps those moves will explain their thought process.

As for the Black Wolves, they got better today and also picked up some draft picks to get better in the future. Not bad.

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Deconstructing the 2008 Minnesota Swarm

While searching for facts for @NLLFactOfTheDay, I stumbled upon a couple of crazy games by the Swarm in 2008. That made me look over the 2008 season for the Swarm in a little more detail, and I found some more fun little tidbits. The 2008 season was long enough ago that there are lots of familiar names involved in these games but not always on the teams you might expect. But it was also recent enough that I remember some of these things happening.

So here’s a summary of the 2008 Swarm season. If you like this idea, maybe I’ll deconstruct some other memorable seasons, perhaps the 2007 Knighthawks or 2005 Rock. But like the ’08 Swarm, it doesn’t have to be Championship teams; it might also be fun to look at the 1-15 2006 Rush. Send in your suggestions! But note that I only have detailed information going back to 2005. Before that I can only talk about wins/losses, final scores, attendance, and season scoring stats.

Continue reading