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New England Black Wolves NEBW vs GA Swarm Photo Jeff Melnik NLL 2018 week

NLL Lessons Learned – Week 3 Power Rankings

Each week of these early NLL games gives us more insight as to what’s really going on in this hyper competitive league. You can make an argument for any team in the preseason (I certainly did!) but as the results pour in the facts start to settle away from the conjecture, and all we can do is enjoy it.

Six teams were in action this past week and there were plenty of big takeaways. The main focus here will be an informal set of Power Rankings, with very little math, because sports. No final conclusions can be drawn right now, but it’s fun to look at each of the nine NLL teams to see where they fall as we look forward. A lot will change over the course of the season, so right now I’m focused less on wins and losses, and more on how a team actually looks in their games.

Does the team generate a lot of good looks and show offensive cohesion? That’s more important right now than simply how many goals they are actually scoring. Can a team play multiple styles of defense? Can they press and settle? Do they create turnovers and short clocks? I care more about that than any goals against average. How well does a team play together? How solid are they in each phase of the game? Do they have weaknesses that can be exploited?

Records will matter more and more as the season goes on, but for now, the above questions are really what fill my mind as I look at each team.

The Best Team After Week 3 Is…

It’s not ALL about records, but I do have to say that Colorado, Rochester, and Saskatchewan have all looked really good, and very well balanced. I guess it makes sense that all three teams are currently 2-0. While all three teams have looked quite impressive in their six total games, one of these teams stands above the rest, and for me it is very clearly the Saskatchewan Rush.

Now, before Rochester and Colorado fans freak out, I want to be clear that what Colorado and Rochester are doing right now is nothing short of excellent. Both of these franchises look awesome. It’s just that Saskatchewan is on a different level. Here’s why:

Face Offs – You might look at the Rush only winning 15 of 39 face offs against New England as a weak point, but I do not. New England’s Jay Thorimbert is a beast out there, and he’s going to win draws. Period. It’s really how you react to his wins that matters, and the Rush were fantastic in the following areas –

a) limiting NEBW’s offensive transition chances off the draw
b) creating turnovers and loose balls quickly when the draw was won by New England
c) dictating pace of play with pre-draw player positioning and personnel.

Any team wants to win more face offs than they lose, but if you’re going to lose the statistical battle, the above approach can turn the statistical loss into a win (or at least a draw), and the Rush showed they can do just that. Jeremy Thompson can also win more than his fair share of draws, can push it forward, and can score and dish. This is an area of strength for the Rush as they approach it as a true team concept. This will pay dividends all season long.

Diversity of Scoring Options – Mark Matthews continues to be the focal point of the Rush offense, and his 13 points last weekend back it up with some basic numbers, but this group plays unselfishly and it makes all of them so gosh darned dangerous. The Rush’s offensive group is extremely talented, but as I’ve said before, talent alone is rarely enough to get by on in the NLL. It really does take teamwork to make the dream work, and the Rush are doing this better than any other offensive group out there right now. Consistency, trust, talent, a clean two-man game, and an unquenchable thirst for loose balls has given the Rush’s offense an edge so far, and if they can keep it up they’ll be putting up 20 goals a game all season long. That’s a stat that matters. The Rush don’t force the ball, but they also don’t NOT force the ball. You have to play smart, but also push the limits. It’s a fine line, and the Rush walk it well.

Here is another interesting tidbit for you. Do you know how many of the Rush’s players scored points in their last game? EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. All of them. Every runner had at least one point. It says something! You know what else says something? The Rush had 34 assists in Saturday’s game, on 24 goals. That takes talent, but it does NOT happen without trust. CHURCH – I mean that as the player and the Snoop Dog expression. Trust is the truth. As they say in Philly, Trust The Truth-cess. That’s what they say, right?

Goaltending and Defense – The Rush D was going to be good this year, and it’s been validated through their first two games, but the big question had to be whether Evan Kirk would be a good fit, and it turns out, he is! It is not really shocking at all, but I was a little curious to see how it would play out. It certainly looks like a genius level move right now. Saskatchewan does a great job of creating short clock situations, and they have a long and athletic defensive unit on the floor. For some goalies, this could be an issue as long periods can go by without any action. For Kirk, this has been a non-issue, and whether he’s seeing a flurry of shots or one every couple minutes, he been locked and loaded and making great saves. There is an air of confidence when the Rush D is on the floor, and it brings me to my last point….

The Complete Package – The Rush are showing confidence in each other, and their team systems, early on. The goalie and D seem to have gelled already. The D trusts the O to produce and not put them in tough spots, and the O trust the D to get the ball back, or score if they can. Loose balls are the priority, and the rock moves like a lazer from player to player. Guys know their roles, but play outside them when it’s needed, never when it’s not. Balls are dumped in corners instead of taking bad shots. O guys hustle off. D guys hustle down. From top to bottom, the Rush look like a Week 10 team, and it’s still 7 weeks away.

This is how you start a season hot, and until someone else starts playing 100% complete lacrosse, the Rush seem to be in a class of their own.

Who’s Next?

While Sasky is my current top dog, I don’t think they’re running away with anything this year, because a couple of other teams are also coming into 2017-18 hot, and topping off that list right is Rochester.

You can copy and paste what I said about the Rush’s D and make it about the Knighthawks, and it would be spot on. Holy shmoly, the Rochester defense is legit. Big, tough, athletic, smart… and on top of all that, this D is putting up points in transition, and playing smart, hard-nosed lacrosse all over the floor. Only two players didn’t register a point in Rochester’s last win, and the D group did a great job of moving the ball up the floor and creating chaos all night against Buffalo. This group can play settled five on five, looks good on the penalty kill, and can rely on some individual stars to absolutely shut down opposing offensive players. I don’t think I’ll never forget Graeme Hossack slamming Mark Steenuis to the floor, dislodging the ball, picking up the loosie, and going down the floor like a transition player possessed. Rochester’s D will come after you, and it will keep opposing offenses unsettled, especially early in games.

I’ve also been incredibly impressed by Jake Withers taking face offs. He has been dominant so far winning 73% of his draw attempts, and no player who has taken more than 20 face offs has a higher winning percentage. Withers can win it to himself, or to teammates, and he notched his first NLL goal already. Withers also plays good defense, is a physical presence, and is really proving himself in his rookie season. He looks confident and calm out there so far. If he settles in even more? Watch out!

Offensively, Rochester looks very good, but not truly great. The scary thing is, I actually think they will look truly great sooner rather than later, and that should be nothing short of terrifying for other teams. How can I say the Knighthawks only look “very good” when they are averaging 19 goals per game? It’s a fair question statistically, but if you’ve been watching the games it should be pretty evident that Rochester’s offense isn’t completely in sync yet. But they do look like they are close.

Listen, I’m not explaining myself well right now. I’ll try again. Rochester’s O looks awesome out there compared to some other offenses. BUT, they can (and will) be even better as the season goes on. When Eric Fannell starts putting away some more shots, when Jammer starts pinging corners, when those Resetarits BTB to Dawson BTB to Jamieson between the legs goals start coming… hold on to your hats. This group looks really good right now, and we have certainly seen some highlight flashes, but I don’t think they’re at the peak yet. I can’t wait to see them hit it this year. It’s going to be so so so so so good, and it helps cement Rochester as #2 team right now, and will very likely keep them near the top all season long.

Colorado Coming In Hot!

I like the Mammoth for my #3 spot right now. I can see other teams stepping up to challenge, but the Mammoth have earned the respect with two good wins. Beyond just the Ws, they are playing good team lacrosse right now. There are some new faces who are working in well, Dillon Ward looks super comfortable in net (as usual), and the small things are a focal point. Colorado is getting balanced scoring from six or seven players on offense, and has a good transition game and some amazing speed out of the back end. I’m not sure Colorado is going to be scoring 20+ goals per game a lot this season, but they can control the pace of games it seems, make enough stops to contain opponents defensively and put the ball away when it counts to win big games.

I don’t want to make it seem like beating Georgia in one early game means Colorado is cemented near the top, but it did show that the Mammoth can limit a supremely talented team to less than 50 shots on goal in a game. Considering the Rush dropped 64 shots on goal on Saturday, this is a good skill for any team to have! The Mammoth used a complete approach to frustrate Georgia, and it showed an excellent ability to play great team ball.

#4-9 Spots – Week 3 Quicker Hitters

#4 New England – I’ll give NEBW the benefit of the doubt over Buffalo based on NE’s win over Georgia on opening weekend. New England was a little more impressive than the Bandits were in their win over Toronto, and then both teams got beaten handily this past weekend by my #1 and #2 teams. New England has speed, plenty of talent on O and the ability to win draw after draw. This is not a team that has truly gelled yet, but they play hard and saw what level needs to be maintained in their loss to Sasky. Averaging 12 goals a game won’t get it done though, the Black Wolves O need to produce more and find a way to get on the same page. This is an offensive group capable of putting up insane numbers on their right side alone. When it comes together, New England could challenge.

#5 Buffalo – The Bandits have looked good at times, and a little disjointed at others, and this inconsistency is what has them below New England right now in my book. That being said, you can see Buffalo’s offense starting to come together slowly, even though they struggled greatly at times against Rochester. Here’s the main gist, and why Buffalo is square in the middle of the pack right now – If their offense starts playing together smoothly, they have studs ALL OVER, and can put up goals with any group in the league. I love the potential they present. The only issue for me is we’ve only really seen flashes of it, and it’s not consistent enough… yet. Buffalo moves up or down based on how their settled offense continues to come together.

#6 Georgia – Yes, GA is 0-2, and yes it is concerning, but I almost put them above New England and Buffalo. WHY? Well, they are generating looks. Lots and lots of looks. These looks aren’t going in right now, but when they do (it’s not if, but when) then watch out for the Swarm. Maybe there is a lingering hangover from last year, or the shots just aren’t falling, but Georgia is generating chances right now. For a team that didn’t lose much from last year or change all that much, this should be expected. Am I counting on the Swarm to get it together and start winning? Yessir, but for now they sit in the bottom half.

#7 Toronto – The Rock are 0-2 and Calgary fans are probably furious right now as their squad has won a game while Toronto has not, but if I had to pick a winner between Toronto and Calgary right now, I’d pick Toronto, so I’m ranking them ahead of the Roughnecks… for now. Toronto’s sharp shooters haven’t been on point as much as they need to be so far, and when you’re getting little to no transition offense, you need your shooters to score. I only started to see glimpses of this from Toronto in the first half of their game against the Rush, but based on that half of lacrosse, things might be looking up. That being said, Toronto only scoring 3 second half goals is definitely eyebrow raising, and not the way you want your team to be trending.

#8 Calgary – Putting Calgary down here at #8 is giving me heart palpations because I actually like the Roughnecks a lot. They have all the right pieces to be successful, proven veterans, and they are already generating great transition looks and have nice speed coming out of the D end. On offense you have guys who LOVE to score with flash and power, but it just hasn’t come together in the way that I had hoped. If I do an updated Power Rankings in 2 weeks, I could see Calgary in a VERY different spot, but first they have to prove it. Rochester dominated Calgary in their first game, and against Vancouver I didn’t see the kind of bounce back I thought would come. My gut says Calgary will be a competitive playoff team this year, but so far the results don’t match up to that feeling.

#9 Vancouver – With the talent level and spread, you have to play inspired team lacrosse to win in the NLL, and while Vancouver is competing, I haven’t seen the fire from this team that will be required to win games, which is weird, because their roster is loaded with guys I usually equate to playing in just that manner. I’m not in their locker room, I don’t know what’s going on internally, and I don’t doubt any of their players’ heart or passion. All I can do is watch the games, and talk about the results on the floor. That is what counts towards the playoffs at the end of the season, so in a sense, it is what matters. Vancouver has the guys to play inspired team lacrosse. They have a good transition game, a tough defensive corps, and an offensive group that has been willing to put in the dirty work to get goals. If their D and goalie can settle in, and their offensive group can produce a little more consistently the Stealth can beat anyone, but the whole team needs to get on board and play Stealth lacrosse for the full 60 minutes.

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