I know, I know. I told everyone I was going to take a break and then come back once the Expansion Draft was in full swing… and then… something very special happened in Saskatoon, and it was too special not to come back from my self-imposed break early.
This Was Supposed to Be a Rebuilding Year
Last year the Saskatchewan SWAT Junior A squad was supposed to have their critical year. A lot of players were graduating at the end of the year, including Baden Boyenko. If there was to be a year, last season was to be that year. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, and now significant parts of the team had to be rebuilt.
But there was some hope on the horizon.
The Minto Cup, the Junior A Canadian championship, is being hosted this year in Calgary. It meant that the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League was getting two births in the Minto instead of their standard one. With a major discrepancy between the talent of the top three teams and the bottom two, the SWAT needed to simply win the 2 vs. 3 league semi-final and they’re in.
That’s what we thought… and then something happened.
To give you an idea of the landscape of the RMLL’s Junior A division, there are five teams, the SWAT who have typically finished third every year since they made the leap to Junior A, two Edmonton area teams in the Edmonton Blues and the St. Albert Miners, who haven’t been competitive in the last several years, and two Calgary area teams in the Calgary Mountaineers and the Okotoks Raiders.
The Mounties and the Raiders have battled it out for the RMLL title the past several years, and have started to make some headway at the Minto, but have yet to reach the final. The two Edmonton area teams have been so bad, they are typically guaranteed wins. A loss to them is highly unusual and can be a season breaker for the top three.
The SWAT started the season at home against the Miners and predictably won both games. They then went to Calgary to play two games against the Mounties and Raiders. It’s these games that normally give you a good handle on how the SWAT will do. They lost a close one to the Raiders, but got beat badly against the Mounties. Starting 0-2 against the Calgary teams wasn’t a good start for the 8 games that truly decide your season. The following weekend the Blues came to Saskatoon, and the SWAT swept them, including a shutout 11-0 win. The SWAT were 4-2, but 0-2 in the critical games. Then the next weekend, the Raiders came to Saskatoon, and the result was stunning. The SWAT won both games, 9-6 and 6-4. A bit of disbelief to this writer, but all of a sudden, maybe 2nd place and getting home floor advantage in that 2 vs. 3 semi-final was a possible reality. First place was still an afterthought. The Mounties were 5-0 at that stage and looked unstoppable.
The following week the SWAT were off to Edmonton where they earned two lopsided wins. They were now 8-2, but four critical games ahead, and four games based on history, they would be underdogs. The next weekend, they were off to Calgary for two of those critical games. And then it happened. The Mounties were beaten by the Raiders to get their first loss of the season that Friday night. But the SWAT stunned us all and beat the Mounties on the Saturday night 15-10, a first ever for them. They would lose to the Raiders the next day, but all of a sudden the RMLL became a three way race. The SWAT and Raiders had three losses, the Mounties had two. Any shot at 1st place meant that the SWAT would have to sweep the Mounties at home in two weeks.
If you wonder why first place in the regular season was so important, with two berths in the Minto Cup, the two league finalists in the playoffs are headed to the Minto. If you finish 1st, you’re playing the better of the two Edmonton area teams in the semi-finals. As of today, those two teams are a combined 0-16 against non-Edmonton teams. In a best of five semi-final series, it’s about as certain of a result as you can get. If you finish first, you are virtually assured of making the league final and the Minto.
So we went into this weekend, knowing a sweep was the only way to have any chance at first for the SWAT. It was a tough challenge, but it was possible. The SWAT held on for a 9-8 win on Saturday night. But then we had to watch our phones for the next hour. The Raiders were losing in Edmonton against the Blues. Could an upset really happen? Unfortunately for the SWAT and Mounties, the Blues couldn’t hold on and lost 14-13. Sunday afternoon was now critical. The SWAT surrendered a 2nd period lead, got it back and had a 9-7 lead with just over 4 minutes to go, but then got into penalty trouble and two quick power-play goals and the game was tied. The SWAT were outshooting the Mounties badly, but it didn’t matter. But then Zach Gould would save the day. His goal with 1:58 remaining got the SWAT the lead back, and a few empty netters and another goal with 1 second left, and a 13-9 win just put the SWAT into a new stratosphere.
Here are the basics of the situation. There are two weeks left in the year, but the SWAT have played far more games than their opponents. They lead the pack at 11-3. The Raiders are 9-3 and the Mounties are 6-4. The SWAT have two games left this weekend, both in Edmonton, and the odds of them losing either one are extremely thin. You can expect that they will finish 13-3. The Raiders have four games left, two in Edmonton and two against the Mounties. The Mounties have six games left, but four of them are in Edmonton, and two against the Raiders.
If the SWAT sweep this weekend, which they should, they can’t finish any worse than 2nd. And if the Raiders lose any of their remaining games, the SWAT finish 1st. The SWAT have a bit of business to take care of in Edmonton this weekend, but for the most part, their fate is out of their hands.
We quickly raced to find the league by-laws and emailed the commissioner to look at a potential tiebreak between the SWAT and Raiders. If they both finish on three losses, and with the head to head series at 2-2, what was the next tiebreak? It’s goals for and against in the head to head games. In that calculation, the Raiders are +1 and the SWAT -1. So the SWAT need some help from the Mounties to pull off one win against the Raiders to finish first. Oddly enough, in the head to head amongst the top three teams, the home team is 9-1. The Mounties have something to play for too, home floor advantage in the playoffs, even if it’s in the 2nd vs. 3rd semi-final.
This isn’t to say that finishing 1st is the end-all be-all for the SWAT. Even if they finish second, they’ll have home floor advantage in the RMLL semis and still have a good shot at beating the Mounties, who they are 3-1 against this year. But we would all like to have more certainty, and finishing first is that certainty.
Unfortunately tonight (Wednesday)’s game between the Mounties and Raiders won’t be webcast live as there is no internet signal at the Mounties’ home arena. So those of us core lacrosse fans in Saskatchewan will be waiting on our phones, tuning into the Twitter feeds of the Mounties (@jramountieslax) and the Raiders (@raidersjralax) to get all the latest updates, hoping junior lacrosse history in Saskatchewan can be made.
There are several layers to the SWAT’s success this year. Last season, not only did the SWAT graduate a number of players, so did their opponents, so the ground was fairly level there. It also made a significant difference that a handful of Regina players made the decision to join the Junior A ranks this season. And one thing you can’t underrate is confidence. Now that wins against the Calgary programs are coming, they become infectious. The SWAT now have the confidence they can beat these teams anytime, and Saskatchewan isn’t the guaranteed win they used to be for the Calgary area squads.
But there is one big difference this year which stunned us all, and it’s Laine Hruska. You may have heard me talk about him before, but it’s worth repeating. For most 16 year old goalies entering their first year of junior, the plan would normally be for him to spend a few years as a back-up, get some experience, and hopefully when he’s 18 he takes over the starting role. Not Laine. He’s taken the league by storm. His stat line at this stage is a 7.73 GAA with a 0.818 save percentage, and he’s likely to improve on those numbers this coming weekend. But the numbers don’t say everything. When you watch him play, he makes big save after big save, and gives the SWAT that extra 2 or 3 saves per game that you wouldn’t expect to get, especially in tight with a defensive breakdown.
His dad is still shocked to hear the praise that people like myself and Casey Guerin give Laine, but the kid is the real deal. In the past the Rush have made a 6th round selection from Saskatchewan to help encourage development in the province. Hruska is unlikely to last until the 6th round when he’s draft eligible in two years. If the SWAT make it to the Minto, it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure and how he shines on the big stage.
The trade deadline is today. I do know that the SWAT have been canvassing both BC and Ontario looking for talent willing to move out to Saskatoon for a few months, with a real shot at playing in the Minto.
Unfortunately with so many teams still in the mix in Ontario, there hasn’t been much availability to get players out. The SWAT were able to pick up Kyle Durec out of Burnaby, but without a major track record, it’s far more difficult to get players convinced that a trip to the prairies is worth it. Hopefully they will be able to make a few moves before the deadline so stay tuned. It’s too bad the deadline wasn’t one day later. If the Raiders lose to the Mounties on Wednesday and that Minto spot is virtually assured, convincing players would be that much easier.
The “Something Or Others” Are Sold
A week ago the official news came out that the Vancouver Stealth, as they were formerly known, were sold to the Canucks organization. The team will move from Langley to the Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver, will adopt a new nickname, and have already hired a new general manager and head coach. Other than inheriting the roster, and the lack of draft picks that the previous team had, this new ownership group is in search of a new identity. The move has been known about for some time by insiders, and I was actually surprised it didn’t happen last off-season, but the sale has been finalized for the good of the organization.
For the most part the lacrosse world was happy with the move as it’s the next evolution of having a sustainable lacrosse team in British Columbia in the NLL. It surprised me quite a bit to see some dissension on this move however. The dissension came from laxers, that to be honest are too comfortable with the location and fear that lacrosse people won’t go to downtown Vancouver. Here’s my simple take on this.
The Langley Events Centre that the Stealth were playing in was never a long-term solution for the Stealth. In order for Denise Watkins to just break-even on the team, she had stated several years ago that the LEC needed to be nearly sold out. At the LEC, even in a perfect situation, the team couldn’t possibly profit. The losses were limited due to an agreement with the City of Langley, but that’s not a comforting situation to be in. But give Denise credit. She injected a lot of money into this club in three cities, and she did it because she loved the game. Without Denise, there would be no NLL team on the West Coast. So you certainly cannot fault Denise. But to take the team to the next level, it needed a bigger organization with bigger connections and more resources. The Stealth would have died a slow death in Langley. Now it has a good chance to flourish.
As much as some people complained that the team was now moving away from the cities where the main lacrosse base was, the simple answer is that the NLL isn’t only in the lacrosse business, it’s in the entertainment business. In the last three cities where the NLL succeeded in a big way, Calgary, Denver and Saskatoon, there wasn’t a huge lacrosse base when the team arrived. In the case of the Rush specifically, 90% of the people that have attended a Rush game had never played a game of lacrosse in their lives when they went to their first game. If you’re focusing on marketing an NLL team to strictly lacrosse players, you’ll fail miserably. You need to attract that non-lacrosse player who is looking for both sports entertainment and entertainment in general, and give them the best product you can. The Canucks have the resources to pull that off. They also have the ability to cross market with their existing hockey fan base and to offer incentives to their hockey season ticket holders to get fans in the building for lacrosse.
One thing that is still unknown is the fate of the broadcasters, Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner. The Canucks would be completely foolish not to hire these two back as they are two of the best in the business. But the Canucks have their own people, and they’ve been doing everything possible to distance themselves from the Stealth. That could mean switching up the broadcast as well. If they do, I’m certain Jake is going to be receiving phone calls almost immediately, but let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that.
Regardless of the product off the field, the new organization will have a major challenge on its hands with the product on the field. A losing team makes it harder to sell tickets, and with the lack of draft picks, rebuilding the team won’t be an easy task. The new organization’s best hopes lie with players wanting to return home to fill the gaps temporarily until those draft picks return and a youth infusion can help steady the ship.
Bogus NLL Awards
One season ago, the NLL missed the boat completely when it did away with an awards ceremony, gave away its awards over several small internet segments with pre-recorded acceptance speeches, and as many of us out West remember, many players playing on Western Division teams were bypassed for nominations and awards. We were hoping for something better. Unfortunately the ball was dropped again.
The nominations came out two days later than announced, and when they came out, it wasn’t really even nominations. It was a list of names submitted by the teams for consideration, with more than 10 names on the list in several categories. The number of nominees for coach of the year was nine, one from every team in the league. It was a pointless exercise which really confused the fans.
I fielded a number of complaints from Rush fans, mostly because there were only four Rush nominees on all of the lists, Mark Matthews for MVP, Chris Corbeil for Teammate of the Year, and Derek Keenan for both Head Coach and GM of the Year. Many other Rush players were left off. I understand the fans concern, but to be honest with you, it really didn’t phase me much and with all the on-goings in Vancouver, perhaps my mind was more focused there. After last year’s debacle, I somewhat lost interest in the year end awards expecting in the back of my mind that a similar result was possible, so perhaps that’s why it didn’t disappoint me too much.
Yes Rush fans, you can be angry, but if there’s anyone that should be angry, perhaps it’s me. I also found out that my name was left off the ballot list for the Borelli Award. And I’m not angry about it. Would it have been nice to have my name on the ballot, absolutely. But do I think I could have won it, no. There are a lot of media in the NLL that are as good or better than I am, and they’ve been at it a lot longer than I have. Somebody very deserving is going to win and I will be very happy for them. My day will come some day, but not now. Besides, I don’t write Random Thoughts every week for awards. I get a lot more satisfaction from people I’ve never met in my life pulling me aside at the SaskTel Centre and telling me they have learned so much about lacrosse from reading Random Thoughts than I ever will get satisfaction from a trophy. Educating lacrosse fans is why I started this and it continues to be my drive.
By the same token, if you asked Rush players if they would rather win the NLL Cup or an individual award, the answer is obvious. They won the award they really wanted to win already. The Rush may have fewer finalists than they might normally have with the results from this process, but at the end of the day, the four nominees the Rush have on the ballot are the four awards they realistically had a shot at winning. As for the reasons for this, I have conflicting information, so there is no sense in pouring fuel on the fire.
But let’s put it down to this. The process was flawed, it’s obvious to most everyone, and it hopefully will be fixed for next season. Let’s not focus too hard on individual awards, and focus on who is going to win the big prize next year.
And BTW… my choice for Transition Player of the Year was Joey Cupido. If you need any evidence as to how good he is, the Mammoth just signed him to a 5 year deal. There aren’t too many players that get contracts that long, especially transition players. With this type of commitment, you know just how valuable “Lightning” is to the Mammoth.
Next Monday is the deadline for teams to submit their protected rosters. We haven’t’ seen any trade activity and I doubt we will as it will be difficult to find two teams who can swap players and both have the ability to protect the new pieces. Once we know who is on those protected rosters, I’ll be back at it assessing those protected lists and looking closer at who I believe will be picked from each team. Stay tuned.
Until next time…
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