Week 1 of the NLL season is in the books and it was a weekend for the goalies. When suggesting plays for Versus, should it make a return this year, three of the four plays I suggested were saves and only one — Keegan Bal — was a goal, and even then it was the pass that was far more impressive than the goal.
One of the saves was made with the game well in hand, — Kevin Orleman’s highway robbery with about 90 seconds to go against Rochester — but the other two, in the same game, came at critical moments. Dillon Ward’s save on Mark Matthews while sprawling from the floor came at a point in the game that if the Rush scored again, the game was likely over. Perhaps the save was even more amazing because Matthews doesn’t miss that shot too often even with the goaltender in perfect position. But it was Evan Kirk’s save with just over a minute to go on Kyle Killen that was the best of the lot in my mind. Not only did it preserve the game, but the fact that Ryan McLean completely missed his assignment and Killen had a good 3 seconds to decide where to bury it made it even better.
Perhaps the offenses still need time to organize themselves because the goals scored per team averaged out to just nine goals this past week, and the games were almost identical. The three NLL games had combined goal totals of 17, 19 and 18.
With that said, let’s look at the games from this past week, but first, we need to go back to last week’s episode of Lacrosse Classified.
The Commish Speaks
It was rather interesting that when you look at the guests from the first four weeks of Season 1 of Lacrosse Classified and the guests so far in Season 2, there is a very repeated theme, although by accident. When Lacrosse Classified began when we taped the first episode on November 11, 2018, fans were just starting to realize the enormity of the collective bargaining agreement dispute between the PLPA and the NLL owners. Whether we would have a 2019 season was very much in doubt. We had Peter Schmitz and Dave Succamore from the PLPA on our first episode, and for 50 minutes, lacrosse fans got to finally hear the details as to what the problems were. In Episode 2, Jamie Dawick became the first owner to finally speak out and told us that the season was on life support and was deeply saddened to think of how many non-lacrosse people would be affected by a layoff. To this day I still wonder how much of an effect that interview had on getting a deal done, as soon after its release, the sides quickly went from miles apart to having struck a deal within a day.
In Episode 4, we had Nick Sakiewicz on the program and while there was relief that a deal was in place, there was still some animosity as to what had transpired and there was some healing required between the two sides.
It was very interesting to see that a year later when we had Jamie Dawick on Season 2, Episode 1 to preview the Toronto Rock almost exactly one year from his first interview. Then we had the PLPA on for Episode 2 and we began to hear positive signs that talks had already begun about a new, longer-term CBA. But it was Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz’s interview that sent people into a deep discussion. I really appreciated the NLL commissioner’s openness and honesty.
Now when I prepare for the interviews, I do create bullet points to make sure I hit on most of what we wanted to talk about, but the information Nick was willing to divulge was far greater than what was normal. I’m glad that I had those notes because when he dropped the first bomb about Vegas, we could have easily gone down that rabbit hole and dug deeper, but by sticking to the notes, there were a lot more bombs the Commissioner was about to drop. If you haven’t listened to the interview, click here to listen to it in its entirety, but here are the key items the commissioner divulged:
- A 14th NLL team will be announced shortly
- When discussing the Orleans arena as the venue for the February 1st game between the Mammoth and Seals, he stated, “we aren’t decided if that is where we are going to put the team.”
- This phase of expansion is to get to 16 teams and should be completed by 2023. However, the goal is to get to 30 or 32 or 36 teams.
- Once the league gets to 16 teams, they want to expand the schedule and begin the discussions to making players full time.
- A significant portion of the push to expand league revenues will be through corporate partnerships.
- There are no bad markets, just bad owners, bad operators or bad arenas.
- The key to future expansion is having the right owner in the right market with the right arena deal.
- There is an offer on the table for a long term CBA which makes the players 50/50 partners in the league.
The importance of what is being said is enormous. Let’s start with Vegas. I believe that the comment that the league hasn’t decided if “that is where we are going to put the team,” means two things. First off, it appears that Las Vegas is pretty much a done deal for an NLL expansion team, and the NLL is simply working out the logistics. The second thing the comment tells me is that because the arena isn’t finalized, then the 14th team about to be announced isn’t Vegas because as the Commissioner said later, they need the right arena deal, which clearly they don’t have yet. The sources I have spoken with as to whom the 14th team is all point to Dallas.
As for the phases of expansion, while this phase is to expand to 16 teams, it doesn’t appear that there would be any form of halt once the league hits 16 teams. While there would be additional steps to expand the schedule and work towards full-time players, if other offers come forward with the three keys of a good market, good owner and good arena, we shouldn’t believe that the league will stop expanding at 16 teams for any length of time. Also, while the goal is to get to 16 teams by 2023, its not a hard limit. The flipside to this is that if the right opportunities don’t present themselves, the league isn’t going to rush just to meet a self-imposed deadline.
One of the keys to moving towards full-time players is the significant increase in revenue that is needed to sustain such cost. If the league would want players to be full-time employees from November to May/June and give up the income from their day jobs, you are realistically looking at increasing salaries by $20,000 to $25,000 per player, potentially more. Therefore, linking an expanded schedule to full-time employment makes perfect sense. There would be more hiccups that the league would have to work through, though. For example, especially for veterans of the league — but not limited to them — some players would look at the prospect of full-time employment as a burden as they have created careers beyond lacrosse. For example, Chris Corbeil is a CPA, working at a hedge fund company. His day job pays considerably more than his lacrosse career. He would be taking a pay hit becoming a full-time lacrosse player. What this amounts to is that for a phase-in period, there would have to be some form of allowance for veteran players to opt to be a weekend warrior while maintaining their career, while requiring rookies to become full-time players and slowly phasing out the weekend warriors.
The other interesting part of the discussion is the potential of a new CBA and what the commissioner calls “making the players 50/50 partners.” The PLPA told us the week prior that they estimate that players’ salaries make up only 19% of league revenue. What is included in the players’ 50% is a topic for another day once we have the information, but it’s reasonable to believe that the players’ 50% would include costs other than salaries. If players are full-time, there is a significant cost saving that becomes immediately available in that teams do not have to incur the cost of flying players in and out of different markets. The impact of that cost varies. Teams such as the Rock and Warriors spend little on flying players in and out of their respective markets, whereas teams like Saskatchewan and Halifax would incur a significant expense. Putting a monetary value on it would take considerable research. To put this into simpler terms though, for a team like the Rush, where only three players live in Saskatchewan, having to pay for 22 players to fly into Saskatchewan nine times per year is a significant cost. I only considered the nine home games because for the nine road games, the team would be paying to fly players out to the game regardless. If players are full-time and the teams can redirect that cost to players’ salaries, it is a significant benefit to getting the players much closer to that 50/50 formula.
Needless to say, there is a lot to digest from our conversation with Nick Sakiewicz. Some of it is fairly direct and some of it has a lot of moving parts before we will know the impact. Regardless, the future is bright and interesting for the NLL.
I have said it twice on Lacrosse Classified and I will say it again, the introduction of Paul Bissonette, or his social media persona, BizNasty, by the Vancouver Warriors is marketing brilliance.
Bissonette was certainly a role player in the NHL. He did manage to play six seasons in the NHL. One year was with the Penguins and five were with the Coyotes. During that time, he never played in more than half of the regular-season games. He was a constant healthy scratch. When he did play — he appeared in 202 games — he scored just 7 goals and racked up 340 penalty minutes. But it’s his persona, his social media following and his podcast that are his main selling points.
I was stunned when his first tweet, which was very well measured, that stated that he thought he could make and NLL roster wasn’t viewed with more skepticism initially than it was by most people. But the marketing brilliance paid off. People fell for it hook, line and sinker, and took it incredibly personally. Biz has 1.1 million Twitter followers. Between that, and a number of other celebrities chiming in, there were over 1 million interactions of people talking about the NLL.
There are those that are angry or disappointed that the Warriors did this, but to those, I need to explain things. The NLL is in the sports entertainment business. This is different from the WLA and MSL which are really in the sports business. They focus on selling lacrosse to lacrosse people. The NLL is different in its scale that it sells lacrosse to the general public. In order to go from the 500 people most WLA games draw (except for two markets) to the 9,000 people that the NLL averages in attendance, you need to bring the entertainment factor into play.
If you think that the NLL needs to sell lacrosse to lacrosse people, you’re dead wrong. NLL attendance has nothing to do with the size of the lacrosse market. If it did, the Warriors wouldn’t be near the bottom of the average attendance in the NLL. They would likely be second in attendance. By the same token, if attendance had anything to do with the size of the lacrosse market, Saskatchewan would not come even close to leading the league in attendance. To put it simply, the NLL, which is still heavily reliant on ticket sales for the majority of its revenue, needs to do two things critically correct to sell the tickets they need. They first need to market the product to the public to get them to purchase the ticket, and then secondly, produce an entertaining enough product to get that person that buys a ticket to come back.
Lacrosse purists complain constantly about the NLL pumping the music all game long. Once again, this isn’t to please lacrosse people, its to entertain non-lacrosse people as a part of an entertainment package. Yes, the pace of a lacrosse game and the violent nature of the game are also a part of the entertainment package, but if that was enough to sell the game on its own, people would be breaking down the doors to get into a WLA or MSL game.
That’s what makes the introduction of Biz to the NLL that much more effective. Let’s put this into simple terms. If there were 1 million interactions, and just 1% of people decided to check out an NLL game because of that interaction, that is 10,000 new fans. Out of that 10,000 fans, maybe 7,000 come back and those 7,000 tell their friends to come next time.
The truth is that Vasyli had better lacrosse skills when he was three years old than Biz had at his “tryout.” But the tryout was part of the marketing plan to get people to continue following what was happening with the marketing plan to make Biz their ambassador. On top of the 1 million interactions when Biz made his initial tweet, the tryout video had another 397,000 views. There aren’t too many times the NLL can say it had that many interactions all at once. That in and of itself is the marketing brilliance behind what the Warriors did.
Kirk Saves The Day
The Saskatchewan Rush are notorious for their slow starts almost every season, so you really never knew what Rush team would show up when they beat the Mammoth, 9-8, on Friday night.
Robert Church struggled in the 2018-2019 season, in large part because of a wrist injury he sustained during the season opener. While it only kept him out of the lineup for a short period of time, such an injury lingers. Now injury-free, and with a new role as the Rush moved to a 3 lefty, 2 righty set, Church put up 3 goals and 5 assists in the victory, contributing on all but one goal.
The Rush found success getting into the middle and beating Ward from in close, but towards the end of the game, they didn’t have that same success, which enabled the Mammoth to get back into the game. It also didn’t hurt when Dillon Ward made the save on Matthews in the 3rd quarter as another goal likely would have killed any chance of a Mammoth comeback.
A lesser Rush offensive performance should be expected as it is early in the season, the Rush are still adapting to their new formation, and they are playing against one of the best defenses and one of the best goalies in the league. One performance that is a good sign for the Rush was that of Connor Robinson. Robinson was protected over Curtis Knight in the expansion draft and scored a pair of goals. The Rush transition game struggled and that will have to be kickstarted in future games to ensure success.
The other point about the Rush’s performance was that with Jeff Cornwall still on his probation with the fire department, two youngsters cracked the active roster in Ryan McLean and Justin Robinson. There was room for one of them in the lineup, and as should be no surprise, Keenan rewarded loyalty in giving McLean his chance. Unfortunately, it was McLean’s mistake with 90 seconds to go that almost cost the Rush the game. McLean completely missed his defensive assignment, to the extent that Kyle Killen was wide open by at least 10 feet and given a good 3 seconds to figure out where he was going to bury his shot, only for Kirk to save the day. I would imagine that if Cornwall can’t make the game on December 14th that Justin Robinson will get his chance. If Robinson can produce, he may stick around on the active roster once Cornwall returns.
For the Mammoth, the same issues that plagued them last season continued in the season opener. While their defense held down the fort, their offense didn’t produce. They took a lot of long-range shots that were easily visible for Kirk. They also had yet another slow start, which plagued them last year. They had just 42 shots on goal, which won’t win you a game all that often. The Rush did a good job of neutralizing Joey Cupido in transition. If there was a positive sign for the Mammoth, it was the 3 goals and 2 assists from Jacob Ruest.
Perhaps the most entertaining thing from this game came off the floor in the travel adventures of John Lintz. For those that haven’t seen it yet, check out the embedded Tweet below.
Let’s go 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/tfsP5IcSx0 pic.twitter.com/MGI42zlIz4
— John B Lintz (@JBML06) December 1, 2019
His travel this past weekend included a broken plane, an unexpected overnight stay in Vancouver, arriving in Denver just 3 hours before game time, losing his passport, not being able to board his plane because of the missing passport and another 10 hours waiting for another flight once his passport was found, which involved a few connections to get home 28 hours after he arrived at the Denver airport. I have been there and know what that’s like. It’s not fun, so I really sympathize with John.
King’s Streak Continues
We have brought this up more than once on Lacrosse Classified. Jesse King is undefeated as a member of the Calgary Roughnecks and that streak continued in a 12-7 win over the Warriors. King missed most of the 2019 regular season with an injury and returned to the lineup late in the season. Calgary then went on a run to end the regular season, grabbed four playoff wins in a row and now another regular-season win. Who knows much longer this streak will continue, but it’s fun reminding everyone each time he extends it.
The score was lopsided most of the night but doesn’t look so lopsided when you look at the stats sheet. The Warriors outshot the Roughnecks 70-49 in this game and beat the Roughnecks 97-73 in loose balls. The truth of the matter was though that the vast majority of those shots were low percentage shots. Despite that, you can’t underestimate the performance of Christian Del Bianco. Anytime you have a 0.900 save percentage in the NLL, you’ve had an amazing game. As much as Calgary didn’t have that many shots on goal, the shots they had were high-quality shots, and their transition was running Vancouver into the ground early.
The other issue was Vancouver’s inability to take advantage of the powerplay. The Warriors went 2-for-8 on the man advantage, which simply isn’t good enough and they failed to take advantage of their opportunities to get themselves back in the game. Despite this, there were some positive signs to take into their next game against New York. They weren’t out loose-balled like they were in past seasons.
It was the events of the last six minutes though that this game will be remembered for. Off of a faceoff, Tyler Burton won the faceoff, cut across the middle outside of the restraining line, threw a pass and hit the turf. Nik Bilic, who the Warriors had just acquired indirectly for Tony Malcolm, collided with Burton and both players were down. Bilic was screaming in pain and grabbing his knee. The screech was terrifying. There is no word as of yet as to how long Bilic will be out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is out for the season. Burton was down for several minutes but was able to walk off on his own.
The debate was over Burton’s actions. Vancouver was claiming that Burton tried to hit Bilic low intentionally. Calgary claimed it was an accident. I have reviewed the replay several times. What it appears to me was that Burton was a victim of the turf monster and went down trying to throw a pass off balance. Others I have talked to believe that Burton saw Bilic coming and tried to duck out of the way. Amongst the experts I have talked to, none have stated that they believe Burton was intending to hurt Bilic. It appears to be a fluke event that ended badly.
A melee ensued which I’m certain Brian Lemon will be reviewing, which involves a possible bite and fingers being shoved down a player’s mouth.
If the defense of the Warriors wasn’t hurting enough, with 90 seconds to go, Chris O’Dougherty came though with a vicious cross-check and a second melee ensued. Out of the melee, Zach Currier and Logan Schuss dropped the gloves. It might not have been the best fight, but good on those guys for stepping up. O’Dougherty was assessed a match penalty, which if upheld, is a mandatory suspension. With Bilic gone, missing two key pieces of the defense will not be good for Vancouver, although their next opponent is New York, so if there is a good time for a suspension, this might be it.
The newly rebranded Rochester Knighthawks played their first game in franchise history in a lopsided 14-4 loss to the Georgia Swarm. The size of the loss is perhaps surprising as Rochester’s offense on paper looked to be on par with any other team in the league. Had it not been for two goals surrendered late once Kevin Orleman replaced Mike Poulin, the result could have been even worse. Clearly the Knighthawk forwards need more time to get on the same page, but this was an ugly first performance.
Mike Poulin allowed just 2 goals on 38 shots, a crazy 0.947 save percentage, and the only two goals he allowed were while shorthanded. Granted the quality of the shots that Rochester threw at him in the opening half were low percentage shots, but the performance was still amazing.
In the Rochester net, Mike Hasen went with Craig Wende, who was making his first start. Wende was on Georgia’s practice roster in the past, which can be an asset or a liability. While Wende would know the Swarm shooters’ tendencies, the Swarm would also know his weaknesses, and they exploited his 5-hole in the opening half. I was surprised that the Knighthawks stuck with Wende, down 10-1 at the half and 11-1 within the first few seconds of the second half, but it worked out in the end as Wende started to get some confidence as the game went along.
If there is a concern for the Swarm, it’s the number of penalties its defense was taking. The Swarm’s defensive unit is one of the smallest in the league, and that disadvantage led them to take a number of penalties. This will be more concerning as they play better offenses, who will be better suited to take advantage of this situation.
Rochester fans were clearly disappointed by the officiating, especially with a string of penalties just before halftime that led to a Lyle Thompson penalty shot due to the fact that the Knighthawks were three men short. But what kicked this off was the third Swarm goal. A Jordan Hall goal 6 minutes in was initially waived off as Miles Thompson was laying in the crease. However, after the officials talked it over, the goal counted and confused everyone as to why.
I had to go back and read the rule book to find this one, but it appears the officials got this one right. It’s a rule that I have never seen enforced before, and the situation would mean it would rarely get enforced, but its rule 67.9. In every case where an offensive player touching the floor of the crease when the ball crosses the goal line, the goal is disallowed, except one under rule 67.9. Rule 67.9 states that if a player is illegally checked into the crease and their teammate scores, the goal counts. In reviewing the play, Miles Thompson is clearly hit from behind outside of the crease, without the ball, and the illegal check from behind sends him into the crease. Because the hit was illegal and a delayed penalty was underway, even for a split second, Thompson, in that case, could not cause a crease violation and as such, the goal counts.
For the Knighthawks, they need to drastically improve all facets of their game, offensive, defensive and goaltending quick or it’s going to be a long year. It will be interesting to see if Wende or Steve Fryer starts the next game, which doesn’t happen for about 3 weeks.
When we had our Under Review question as to what rule change should happen, one suggestion from a listener was to limit how much time an official can review a goal challenge before it becomes inconclusive. There was one review in the Saskatchewan-Colorado game and Todd Labranche spent about 90 seconds, couldn’t see any evidence to overturn the no-goal call, and back to action we go. That’s what we want to see.
However, in the Calgary-Vancouver game, Mark Gardonio had three reviews and took close to five minutes each time. The first one was quite puzzling as to why it took so long. Calgary challenged that a shot went in and out of the net. It was obvious from the first look that they were correct, and poor positioning by the low side official meant he didn’t see it. The ball was so far over the line, if you looked at the side angle and saw it, then looked at the overhead to confirm it, the only other thing he needs to do is to get the time on the clock correct and back we go. I have no idea how this took five minutes. As for the second Calgary challenge, I’m still mystified as to how the challenge to overturn a crease violation call wasn’t changed. There was clear space between the shooter’s foot and the crease line. But once again, five minutes of review. I’m hoping that when the officials have their weekly review call, that they keep it to a limited timeframe unless there is an issue with the technology.
The Week Ahead
Six more NLL teams play their season openers this Saturday in the only three games this weekend, and unfortunately, they all start within an hour of one another. The first regular-season NLL game in Halifax will take place against the Riptide, who will be playing their franchise’s first game. New England will be in Toronto and San Diego will be in Buffalo. Perhaps the biggest question will be whether Halifax can get 10,000 people, similar to what we saw in the inter-squad game for their season opener. I hope they manage to sell this one out.
In the meantime, make sure to sign up for Stampede Tack’s #WhoYaGott. Even if you missed Week 1, you can still win the season prize as well as the weekly prize. Click here to enter. It only takes one minute to win.
Until next week…
For all the latest in the world of lacrosse, follow me on Twitter @schemlax and follow the Lacrosse Classified Podcast @laxclass.