Saskatchewan Rush Rochester Knighthawks NLL 2018 Micheline V
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Random Thoughts: Mid-Season Awards, Playoff Lock in February, Stealth Spiral

It’s hard to imagine that we’re already half way through the regular season in the NLL.

In the West you have a division that is close to being fully decided and in the East you have five teams all within 2.5 games of one another. Saskatchewan could become the first team to clinch a playoff birth in February. While in Vancouver we wait to see if the rebuilding starts and whether a shake-up is coming.

Let’s start this week off with something fun, mid-season awards.

2018 NLL Mid-Season Awards

Rookie of the Mid-Season

Winner: Josh Byrne
Nominees: Zack Currier, Jake Withers

Of any of the awards, to me this is the most obvious winner, but that’s not to say the other nominees aren’t having great rookie seasons. Currier has been a transition force in Calgary, and leads the league in loose balls. Withers has been making faceoff expert after faceoff expert look foolish. This past week, he went 19 for 29 in faceoffs. Jeremy Thompson went 7 for 23. So you can’t say these guys aren’t having amazing seasons.

Josh Byrne Buffal Bandits
Photo: Bill Whippert

But in the last three or four weeks, Byrne has showed why he is in a class above. His ability to beat defenders one on one is one of the best in the league. And the highlight goals he has scored recently are something to admire. In my mind, he will be league MVP in 4 or 5 years.

Transition Player of the Mid-Season

Winner: Adrian Sorichetti
Nominees: Joey Cupido, Jake Withers

This is the biggest crap shoot of an award to pick a winner for because you could have 10 people, with ten totally different answers, and nobody is wrong. My case for Sorichetti is that while he hasn’t scored the last few games, prior to that he was scoring over a goal per game in transition and wreaking havoc on defenses around the league.

Adrian Sorichetti Saskatchewan Rush Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018

Cupido is still one of my favorite transition players and if there’s a guy I’m afraid of when he has the ball almost every time, it’s Cupido. The fact that Withers is not only leading in faceoff percentage, but is doing so at a pace way above everyone in the league at 0.665 (next closest is Tyler Burton, 0.063 behind) puts him in the conversation here for a nomination.

Goaltender of the Mid-Season

Winner: Dillon Ward
Nominees: Christian Del Bianco, Matt Vinc

There is no clear cut front runner in this category and you could easily argue for other players. To me, if I had one choice in the league of any goalie, it’s still Ward. Considering two of his trusted defenders in front of him are out for the season, this all could have gone wrong. He is a huge part of the success of the Mammoth so far.

Dillon Ward Colorado Mammoth New England Black Wolves NLL 2018

Del Bianco is the top goalie in the league the last several weeks. If he had a larger body of work this year he could be the winner. And in fact if he keeps playing the way he has lately, he could indeed end up winning this award at year end. As for the final nominee, you have your pick between Kirk, Rose and Vinc, and for now I’ll take Vinc given his save percentages and goals against average.

Defender of the Mid-Season

Winner: Robert Hope
Nominees: Kyle Rubisch, Graeme Hossack

Robert Hope Colorado Mammoth NLL 2018

Once again, there is no clear cut winner here. Hope gets the nod in that with two teammates missing, he has elevated his game to another level. Rubisch is playing again this year like he did when he won this award four years in a row. Hossack is the centerpiece of the Knighthawks defense that is in a virtual tie for the second fewest goals allowed per game. The tough part of picking this award is that unlike the MVP award, the top defenders’ names are rarely mentioned in a broadcast because they’re doing their jobs.

Most Valuable Player of the Mid-Season

Winner: Mark Matthews
Nominees: Adam Jones, Ryan Benesch

Simply put, the Rush are the best team in the league and the guy quarterbacking their success is Mark Matthews. He’s been the bridesmaid for this award a few times and if the awards are handed out now, I think he wins it. Some people mentioned to me that Robert Church should be nominated and there’s a case for that, but in my mind there can only be one most valuable player on each team, and Matthews’ stats are skewed slightly due to how much attention is being paid to him.

Saskatchewan Rush Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018

Jones has seemingly found a near perfect fit for himself in Toronto, although without Tom Schreiber the next few months, the Rock will have to rely on him even more.

The Benesch nomination may surprise some people, especially those that just went to look at the league points leaders and noticed where Benesch is in the points race. Ignore that for a few seconds because Colorado has played just 8 games and his point total would be approximately 60 if Colorado had played 10 games. Benesch has fit in with the Mammoth offense a lot faster than anyone could have imagined and is a massive threat on the power play. He is the clear offensive leader on the team and their clear threat.

Coach of the Mid-Season

Winner: Derek Keenan
Nominees: Troy Cordingley, Pat Coyle

There shouldn’t be a surprise that the coaches of the teams with the three best records in the league are the three nominees here. One thing that I think should change when it comes to the voting for this award as well as the GM award. Far too often the award goes to the coach or GM of the team that improved the most, and not who is the best coach in the league. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Derek Keenan is simply in a class of his own when it comes to comparing head coaches. He truly has a team where egos are checked at the door and everyone plays for what’s best for the team.

Derek Keenan Saskatchewan Rush Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018

GM of the Mid-Season

Winner: Derek Keenan
Nominees: Dan Carey, Steve Dietrich

There’s no denying the vast improvement the Bandits made this offseason and the job that Carey is doing taking over from Steve Govett. Now let me make the case for Keenan, who because he has been on top for so long, will have a hard time winning this award because is so often goes to the most improved. When we look at it, the top GM in the league is Keenan, and it’s not even close. And if you evaluate what he did this year, what becomes apparent is just how good of a job he did. He got Toronto to overpay with two first round picks for Adam Jones. He replaced Jones with Jeff Shattler in free agency. But even more dramatic was the Bold/Kirk trade. I remember talking with many trusted individuals the night of that trade and we were all scratching our heads.

Keenan’s reputation was that he almost never loses a trade, he normally wins trades by a large margin. The question was why did he pay so much? Did he really lose a trade this rare time, or was there something we don’t know. If we look back on that trade now, he vastly improved his team with that trade and nobody is questioning him any longer. He took one huge gamble and it paid off.

I would gladly love to hear your feedback on these awards. Send me your feed back to my Twitter account or in the comments below.

A Playoff Team… in February?

No team that I could figure out has ever clinched a playoff spot in February since the NLL expanded to 8 teams. But it is possible this weekend with the Saskatchewan Rush. If the Rush win this weekend, because they need one additional division victory to assure themselves of a playoff spot, they will have already made the playoffs.

It took some complicated math to get to the fact that with a Rush victory, even if the Stealth win, that the best the Stealth could do is tie the Rush and they wouldn’t have the tiebreak even in a perfect scenario. The math doesn’t work out though with a Saskatchewan loss and a Vancouver loss however. I won’t get into the complexities but if you’re interested in that, send me a message and I’ll guide you through it.

Vancouver All But Eliminated

In what was a must win for the Stealth, the team underperformed badly in a 20-12 loss to Calgary on Friday night. Vancouver appeared to have exhausted the ghosts of games past when the Stealth would get burned early. Calgary wasn’t getting much in the way of chances in the opening nine minutes, and in fact Vancouver had a surprising 2-0 lead early. That’s where the wheels fell off.

Calgary would go on to score four goals in under three minutes and while Tony Malcolm would get one back to make the score 4-3, Calgary put the final nail in Vancouver’s season, going on a 9-0 run (and 13-1 counting the earlier goals) over the span of 11 minutes. By the time that Brandon Goodwin scored to end the drought, it was 13-4 Roughnecks and the game, and the Stealth’s season, was over.

Most of the goals were coming off of transition chances and Vancouver was in nearly every case failing to pick a runner up somewhere. Dane Dobbie, who is usually the first guy out the door on offense, was suspended for the game after losing his appeal earlier that day. In his place, Holden Cattoni was now the first guy out the door, and on far too many instances, the first guy Vancouver wasn’t picking up. Cattoni would end the night with a whopping five goals and six assists.

Even more impressive for the Roughnecks was once again Christian Del Bianco. It wasn’t just the saves he was making, but even more impressive was his passing ability hitting teammate after teammate at the far restraining line in transition and ended the night with three assists. He remains the only starting goalie in the league with a save percentage of above 0.800.

As for Vancouver, the odds of them making the playoffs are virtually nil at this point. They are a full three wins behind the Roughnecks now and the tiebreak is extremely difficult for the Stealth as they are already 2-0 behind in the head to head and even if they were to even that up at 2-2, the Stealth have a division record of 0-6 which doesn’t help the second tiebreak. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear news of firings in Vancouver.

These decisions will be tough, as you have an owner very loyal to her GM, and a GM very loyal to his head coach. But at this point, reality has to set in for the Stealth, and I don’t think anyone is safe. The rebuilding process should begin at this stage and if any trades can be made to replenish the stock of draft picks lost over the years, every attempt should be made. Currently the Stealth don’t have a first round pick the next two years or a second round pick in the next draft.

Vancouver Stealth Logan Schuss Mid-Season Awards NLL 2018

This past week also brought the news that Corey Small won’t play for the Victoria Shamrocks as he plans to move back east this summer. Perhaps there is an opportunity for Vancouver to get a 1st round pick for Small now. He is a UFA after one more season. The problem may lie in that the team that would benefit the most from Small is New England, and they don’t have a first round pick for three years to trade away.

Rush Stunned in Rochester

Saskatchewan Rush Rochester Knighthawks NLL 2018 Mid-Season Awards Photos: Micheline V
Photo: Micheline V

The Rush underperformed on Saturday night in a 16-11 loss in Rochester. But full marks to Rochester for this win. When I played the game tape back, one thing was abundantly clear. Of the Rush 11 goals, only three were scored on a 5 on 5 set. Three. That is astounding given the talent this Rush team has up front. Four goals were scored on transition and four goals were scored on the power play. Rochester had done their homework well in this game. They knew the Rush were playing a far side low to high pick all season long and they were ready for it. You didn’t see the far side guy open when it was 5 on 5. That was part of the key to success. Also when they were down 3-0, Rochester didn’t give up and got back to even relatively quickly.

The Saskatchewan power play continues to be on fire, with a 4 for 4 performance, upping their efficiency to 72%. It was a rare game where every power play resulted in a goal for both teams.

As for Rochester, it was a well-rounded performance on Saturday. Other than Cody Jamieson’s seven points, no other player had more than four, in a game where they scored 16. Jake Withers had another amazing night in faceoffs, going 19 for 29, with Jeremy Thompson going just 7 for 23. In situations like this, I was surprised Mike Messenger didn’t take more draws as he was 50% on the night and stopped the bleeding at the centre dot.

Comeback in Georgia

When the Swarm were down 5-0 quickly on Saturday night, and Kiel Matisz was headed to the dressing room with an injury, you had to think that the Rock were on their way to victory, even without Tom Schreiber. But Georgia would score the next four to get right back into it. By halftime the Swarm had a 9-8 lead, which is where the goal scoring slowed down quickly.

In the second half, the teams would alternate one goal leads the entire distance and nobody ever had a lead of more than one. It was simply one of those games where a small difference was going to be the difference on the night. Rob Hellyer looked to have won it with a minute to go but was stoned on the crease dive by Poulin. That opened the door for Shayne Jackson to win it four minutes into overtime.

Georgia Swarm Toronto Rock NLL 2018

The result is huge because Toronto failed to put some distance between themselves and the Swarm for a playoff spot, and with no Schreiber for 6 to 8 weeks, there may be a small struggle for the Rock to stay ahead of the pack.

The overtime winner literally resurrects Georgia’s season. While they are still in fourth place in the East Division standings, they are just a half game behind third place New England and one game behind the second place Rock.

Colorado Lights Up the Mohegan Sun

A Sunday matchup in Uncasville which normally plays to the favour of the Black Wolves, ended up in a 19-10 thumping by the Mammoth. Doug Jamieson got the start in goal for the Black Wolves. While this did surprise some people, this is a good idea in my mind. Jamieson is the likely starter in New England a year from now so you need to invest the time to get him some starts. Aaron Bold hasn’t played well lately so it is a good time. Even though the Black Wolves play in Vancouver next week, clearly an easier opponent, Jamieson will endure a long flight, whereas Bold, who lives in Edmonton, has an hour long flight, and is better rested. As weak as Vancouver is, you can never overlook a game.

The key problem for the Black Wolves was their inability to stay out of the penalty box. The Mammoth went 7 for 11 on the power play. Yes, 11 chances on the power play. The Black Wolves went 1 for 2. As much as there was complaining coming from the Black Wolves about the disparity in penalties, the fact remains that I believe the game was fairly called. There is nothing in the rule book saying both sides must have an equal number of penalties, just that both sides must have an equal chance to take one.

The penalty that generated the most discussion was a major issued to Colton Watkinson late in the first quarter. In my mind, it’s an obvious major as the hit is delivered to the head, even if not intentionally, and his opponent is in a vulnerable position after receiving a buddy pass. Yes, it was a buddy pass, but the rule changes implemented a year ago clearly outlaw the blind hit on that pass. Perhaps the funniest penalty was late in the 4th quarter when Shawn Evans took an unsportsmanlike minor, and the New England commentators stated how this shouldn’t come as a surprise. You normally don’t get that kind of honesty out of the home commentators.

New England Black Wolves Colorado Mammoth NLL 2018 Ryan Conwell (1 of 1)
Photo: Ryan Conwell for

The Mammoth got big performances from Ryan Benesch with 8 points, Zack Greer making his return with 8 points, and Stephen Keogh ensuring he won’t be the healthy scratch anytime soon with 4 goals and 3 assists. The win does keep Colorado within striking distance of the Rush, but more importantly, keeps them ahead of the Roughnecks for second place.

Attendance Update

Calgary had a below average night last week with 8,874. You would have pictured that with a game that had been circled on everyone’s calendar for several weeks, the attendance would be higher, but Friday nights never help the numbers either.

New England was slightly above average with 5,720 in the stands. It’s too bad there are so many obstructed view seats in New England that they can’t get more people in the arena. But I’m not certain there is much of anything they can do to fix the problem without building a new arena all together. But for a Sunday afternoon, the number has to have the Black Wolves smiling.
Rochester had just 6,188. A win the week before and the top team in the league failed to draw all that well. Rochester is averaging almost 3,000 fewer fans than they had three years ago, and the numbers have to be concerning.

As for Georgia, we have to ignore the number that was issued, but it’s fair to say that there was double or perhaps more than double the number of people that there was the week before against Rochester. This should be expected as this was one of the three musical guest halftime performance nights for the Swarm. It will be useful to evaluate them again when it’s not a major music artist that is drawing the crowd.

Weekly Picks

Once again I had an average week, 2-2. A Georgia comeback saved me from a losing week. I’m now 23-18 on the season and I’m not putting any distance on avoiding another losing season. Here’s what I have this week:

Buffalo over Rochester – the K-Hawks may have won their last two, but they’re playing in Buffalo with an equally hot Bandits team. I reminded myself from two weeks ago not to underestimate the Bandits again.

Saskatchewan over Calgary – The Rush have the Roughnecks number the last several years, winning 13 of the last 14. In Saskatchewan the Rush have an even more lopsided dominance. Let’s stick with history here and take the Rush.

New England over Vancouver – as badly as both teams played last week, I have the feeling that the Stealth will be in shut down and rebuilding mode at this stage. Take New England, despite the lengthy travel, in this one.

Future of the Game

One interesting thing to come out of recent interviews with Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz is that one of his goals, in the not-to-near future, is that players will become full time athletes. While certainly there would be a number of things to work out, it’s music to the ears of many to hear such sentiments. My hope is that a generation from now, players can make enough to make a good living simply off of their playing income, and that all players are indeed full time. Given that expansion is going to continue and the number of games each team will play will increase, the need for full time players will become a necessity.

But here’s where I disagree with the Commissioner on this issue. In order for the league to get to the point where full time players are even possible, and why I say it’s a generation away, is that the majority of teams in the league could not afford to pay players for full time employment. In order to draw the majority of players away from their careers for up to 8 months of the year, with training camps staring in November and games going all the way until June, you are looking at having to pay the average player around $45,000 US. Let’s extrapolate this for a second. Twenty players, earning an average of $45,000 US, plus four practice roster players earning half that amount and add one additional player as you would likely have two players on the IR for half the season. That extrapolates to an average team salary of $1,035,000. The current salary cap is $415,000.

Saskatchewan Rush 2016 NLL Champions Champion's Cup Photo: Josh Schaefer
Photo: Josh Schaefer

Now in full disclosure, I don’t have, or do I ever expect to have, access to any of the NLL teams’ financials, but the figures below are simply for illustrative purposes to give you the reader an idea of where teams would need to go in order to make full time players a reality.

Just to get players into full time players, and we are talking about bare minimum here, each team needs to pay an additional $620,000, and that figure even assumes that every team is paying the current salary cap, which is a stretch. Now players would certainly live in the markets they play in if they were a full-time player, which saves on air travel. Some teams such as Colorado and Saskatchewan would save more, and teams like Vancouver and Toronto would save less.

I have run some basic numbers, and I am assuming that the schedule at that point would expand to 24 games, so each team has an extra three home games per season to help make up the money. Based on my simple estimates, each team would have to sell an extra 27,000 tickets each year, or 9,000 tickets for each of its three additional home games to make a run at having players employed full time. The reality is, for four of the teams, Saskatchewan, Colorado, Buffalo and Calgary, this shouldn’t be a problem. Toronto is borderline. New England doesn’t have the arena to pull this off, but there is a different business model in play for them. Rochester certainly couldn’t make it work with the attendance drop they’ve experienced the last few years. Vancouver would certainly have to switch arenas to make this a reality. Georgia wouldn’t have a hope of pulling this off. Any future expansion team would have the increased expenses factored into the due diligence before they were awarded a franchise. In order for this to work, it would mean that if some markets couldn’t turn their situations around, they would be left behind and likely have to be relocated anyways.

While I appreciate the Commissioner’s vision, and it’s the proper vision to look forward to if the NLL is ever to become something similar to the MLS, it’s still a long ways off until the league can get into stronger markets across the board.

Until next time…

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