The Atlanta Blaze picked up their first crop of players during today’s Major League Lacrosse Expansion Draft and it’s actually pretty exciting to see a brand new team take shape.
What can I say, I LOVE expansion drafts. Don’t hate.
You get surprise players picked up a lot of times, some less recognized names called out a lot more, and one or two big name steals. The whole league shakes up a little, and this new franchise tries to figure out how they will make it with a team full of players left off of other team’s protected lists of players.
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It’s the beginning of an uphill battle in year one, and personally I love it. Not only do you get to ponder how this new group will work together, but you also get to consider the players others teams lost, and how they can rebound or fill holes. It creates legitimate off-season roster drama, and if it’s covered correctly, it can lead to a motivated fan base. It also opens up about 20 new jobs for players, and supporting more pro players is a good thing for the league (and the players) and maybe even the game overall. Basically, it’s exciting for the whole league, and potentially, the sport.
Let’s see who Coach Tucker and the Atlanta Blaze managed to snake away from MLL establishment!
Atlanta Blaze – Expansion Draft
#1) Adam Ghitelman – Goalie from the Boston Cannons, Ghitelman has spent time in the league, showing he can be an MLL goalie, and a good one at that. Start with a top priority position and find a tough, capable leader for your defense. With Ghitelman out in California now the trip to ATL is a bit of a hike, but overall it’s not a bad start!
#2) Brodie Merrill – Defender, also from the Boston Cannons. Merrill is an established force with a pole, and a great leader for any team looking to improve. The only problem here is that Brodie also plays NLL, so he will miss the beginning of the season. Experience later on will help, but if I were Atlanta, I’d want some up front as well.
#3) Ryan Tucker – Midfielder, also from the Boston Cannons! This is the coach’s son, and there was no doubt that he was getting picked. Tucker is big, athletic, and smart, and he has years ahead of him in MLL.
Because Boston had given up 3 players at this point, the Cannons were allowed to “pull a player back” to their protected list, and they put Mitch Belisle on the list of their protected players, meaning he could no longer be drafted by Atlanta. Coach Tucker was last in Boston so no shocker he went after Cannons players first. If Boston had not picked up Belisle, I could have seen Atlanta taking him (he’ll play for ATL in the NLL most likely), so smart move by the Cannons to keep him.
#4) Justin Turri – Midfielder, from Rochester. Athletic, good size, and can score goals. Turri can play two-way lacrosse, and he has plenty of experience playing in big games. He’s a great pick up for Atlanta.
#5) Randy Staats – Attack, also from Rochester. Staats is another great pick up from Rochester as he is a passionate guy who can not only get the job done now, but should be able to do so moving forward. He likely won’t be around early on with NLL responsibilities, but he could provide a nice push later on in the season for Atlanta.
#6) John Ranagan – Midfield, also from Rochester. Ranagan is big and fast, and he gives you a guy who can play O or D and run in between the lines. He’ll pick up GBs, take the wing, and do whatever you need him to. He might not be a true offensive threat like Paul Rabil, but he does good work for his team and will pay off immediately.
Now Rochester had lost 3 players, so they were able to add another guy onto their protected list, and they put Kyle Denhoff back on their list of protected players. Denhoff had a great year last season and I may have taken him over Staats simply because he will be more available without those NLL commitments.
#7) Henry Schoonmaker – Midfield from Chesapeake. Schoonmaker has speed and plenty of potential. In Atlanta, he could be asked to do more, and this is a great chance for him to break into a major role for this new franchise.
#8) Chris Hipps – Defender from Chesapeake. Hipps is a big body, and will help solidify the Blaze defense. He’s young and could provide a nice boost down low for seasons to come for Atlanta.
#9) CJ Costabile – LSM from Chesapeake. CJ gives Atlanta a face off option, and a good versatile longstick. He can also play down low, and is a great athlete and competitor. Hipps, Merrill, and Costabile is a solid group of poles and they’re only 9 picks in at this point.
Chesapeake then took Jeff Reynolds back to their protected list. Reynolds is a utility wrench player
#10) Justin Pennington – Midfield from Denver. He’s another do it all guy, who will help all over the field. If Atlanta wants to play transition lacrosse, they have the middies to do so right away. Settled six on six might be a different story.
#11) Mark Matthews – Attack from Rochester. I love Matthews’ game, but he will be missing a bunch of games early on due to NLL commitments. So far, both of their attackmen will play NLL lacrosse.
Rochester got to pull back another player as this was their 4th player drafted. They took Mike Poppleton, a face off specialist, and put him back on their protected roster for this draft.
#12) Jeremy Noble – Midfield from Denver. You want another all-around middie? Well, Atlanta now has 6 of them! Noble can play O or D, has a versatile skill set and seems to be a protypical player for Atlanta.
#13) Casey Ikeda – Defender from Florida. Now Atlanta has 4 longsticks, and one of them is an LSM, while all four of them are quite diverse in their skill sets and abilities. This is another younger D guy, which should balance with Merrill’s experience nicely.
#14) Dominique Alexander – Midfield from Ohio. Alexander brings great size and his game play last year improved over time. He might be more D-focused for now, but expect him to generate some O chances too. It’s more transition lacrosse for Atlanta.
#15) Ryan Walsh – Midfield/Attack from New York. Walsh played middie last year and New York tried to use him as a replacement for Rabil when PR was injured. It worked out OK, but Walsh showed he can initiate and create chances for his team, and could bear a good amount of the offensive load early on. He will certainly need better offensive support though for settled success.
Boston, Charlotte, Chesapeake, Denver, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Rochester all took back their remaining players from the available players list, so no one was released back to the player pool.
Overall, the Atlanta Blaze did a good job of picking up well-rounded midfielders. Tucker wanted to play two-way lacrosse last year with the Cannons, and at times it worked. It seems like he’s trying to replicate that now. With the selection of offensive minded poles like Costabile and Merrill (and Ikeda to a lesser extent), this notion looks to be reinforced. Heck, even Adam Ghitelman will run the ball down the field!
The Atlanta Blaze also picked up some good options for attack, but I have concerns about how many of their guys will have NLL seasons to finish before they can join the team. Walsh seems to be the current go-to guy on offense but once Matthews joins the team all that could change.
Another area of concern is face offs. CJ Costabile will do a good job out there, and has proven that in the league, but he should not be relied on to do it alone… and if CJ takes less face offs it means he’s fresher for defense and transition play. So that, to me, is an area where this team still needs a guy.
Overall, Atlanta went with mostly proven players, and they set up a nice foundation for year one, assuming the teams looks similar to how it looks above come April. It’s a long battle in year one, but the Blaze seem to be building something solid.
UPDATE: Dominique Alexander was just traded back to Ohio along with Atlanta’s 6th pick (1st round) in the collegiate draft. Ohio gave up Scott Rodgers (goalie) and Kevin Cooper (attack/mid) to Atlanta. Now the Blaze have 16 players, and two of them are goalies. Boom. Trades already.