Random Thoughts: Big Moves, Rochester Revamp Required, Stealth Dreaming
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Random Thoughts: Big Move, ROC Revamp Required, Stealth Dreaming

Let’s go back to my opening a week ago…

“Another week in the NLL and for the first time, we have a team that clinches a playoff berth in February. We have a coaching shake-up in Vancouver. We have a red hot team all of a sudden in Rochester. We have an East Division that somehow managed to get tighter with all five teams within 1.5 games of one another. We had a game with nine power-plays, and 9 goals on the power-play. We have more questions in goal for the Buffalo Bandits than answers. We have a team with a power-play efficiency rating of 75%. And we had a heart breaking loss in Vancouver. And all of this happened in just three games this weekend. It’s a league that never gets boring.”

So one week later, we now have a second team that is all but in the playoffs in the first week of March (the Mammoth need 1 win or 1 Vancouver loss to get in). The coaching shakeup in Vancouver seems to have only been effective for one week. We have an East Division that’s even tighter than last week with every team within 1 game of each other. We had Saskatchewan go 5 for 6 on the power-play (the only one they missed was a brief 30 second man-up in the 4th quarter), and somehow their power-play percentage increased to 76%.

What changed this weekend?

Colorado planted itself firmly into second place in the West and keep themselves in the hunt for first. Toronto without Tom Schreiber looks really bad. You have a coaching staff in Vancouver that somehow thinks they still have a shot at the playoffs. Another major trade happened. We received some insight from the commissioner of things to come. But most of all, one player’s perseverance over 6 seasons finally pays off, and he captures out attention in a very “deep” way.

Big Trade Out East

Just a few hours after the article came out last week, a massive trade occurred between the Black Wolves and Bandits. The Black Wolves sent former captain Shawn Evans and a 4th round pick in 2019 to Buffalo in exchange for Callum Crawford and a 2nd round pick in 2019.

The totality of this trade is very murky, but let’s deal with basics. Neither player was overly happy with their current team, despite that Shawn Evans had recently signed an extension that would keep him in New England until the end of the 2020 season. He had his captaincy removed from him several weeks ago and that contributed to the final decision to make a move.

New England Black Wolves NEBW vs GA Swarm Photo Jeff Melnik NLL 2018
Photo: Jeff Melnik / Conquest Photos

For the Bandits, the move is a good one for the most part. If Bandits fans can get over their displeasure of Evans, the Bandits certainly got an upgrade at righty forward. Yes Evans comes with the baggage of his temperament, but that temperament isn’t too dissimilar from that of Bandits coach Troy Cordingley. The Bandits have one of the elite players in the league and he’s locked in for another two years after this. The only other potential negative is that according to some sources, Evans is locked in at franchise salary, which is 25% above league maximum and that could pose a salary cap problem for the Bandits.

On New England’s side, this trade once again makes zero sense. One source told me that the Powless trade did cause salary issues for the Black Wolves which may have been a minor catalyst given that the Black Wolves had two franchise salaries (the other one being Aaron Bold) on the payroll. The problem is that Crawford is an unrestricted free agent at year’s end and could be lost for nothing. If the Black Wolves can’t re-sign him, they are major losers in this trade. So in reality, they’ll have a 2nd round pick, 2 years from now, to try to fill his void.

That has to be uncomforting for Black Wolves fans.

How Does This Stat Increase???

A week ago I was writing about the shock stat that the Rush had a power-play efficiency of 75%. This is an amazing stat, but it’s one that you would picture would taper off as that level of efficiency is simply not sustainable. Yet somehow it managed to increase this week in the Rush’s 16-10 win over the Stealth. Prior to that abbreviated power-play late in the game, the Rush had gone 14 straight power-plays scoring on each of them. And there were a few oddities with the power-plays this week.

On the third power-play of the night, Dan Dawson was in the dressing room getting stitches and both Ben McIntosh and Jeff Shattler were both in the box in a situation where the Stealth received three minors and the Rush two. Down to four forwards, Jeff McComb looked to his bench. Marty Dinsdale who normally doesn’t play on the power-play was sent out. So was Adrian Sorichetti because the Rush needed another lefty on the floor. I thought this might break the streak. It didn’t. Robert Church cut through the middle 23 seconds later and the streak was intact.

On the fifth power-play of the night early in the 4th quarter, the Rush couldn’t score early and it looked like the streak was finished. Normally when the Rush are man-up with 20 seconds or less to go in the power-play, they’ll hold the ball and start their play just as the penalized player is coming out of the box.

Something may have been in their minds as uncharacteristically Robert Church once again dodged two defenders, cut inside and kept the streak intact with just 3 seconds to go in the power-play.

Saskatchewan Rush Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018

At this point, teams must know that they have to stay out of the box when they play the Rush. If they don’t, the second you take a penalty, they might as well play the goal song and you might as well line up for the faceoff that’s about to happen in about 10 seconds. According to Brian Shanahan, the best power-play percentage in a season he could find was the 2013 Roughnecks at 68%. Putting this in perspective, the Rush average 4.5 power-plays per game. Over their final six games, that is an additional 27 opportunities.

To beat the mark set by Calgary, the Rush would have to go 15 of 27 on those opportunities to break the record and 14 for 27 to tie it. It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly within their capacity to accomplish.

All these power-play goals also lead me to another question. Is the power-play too penalizing for the offending team? The point of the power-play should be to in essence benefit the non-offending team to the extent that the penalty may have cost them. Perhaps some thought should be given to whether the power-play should be shortened to 90 seconds on a minor. It’s not high on my priority list by any means, but something to consider.

Explaining the Dinsdale Goal

Marty Dinsdale may have been feeling some pressure to perform with the Dawson trade as he had four goals on the night. The goal that I received the most messages about though was the 4th goal, especially people inside the building that didn’t have the benefit of the commentary. Dinsdale scored off of a broken up pass that Brodie MacDonald was searching for, but Dinsdale scoped up the loose ball on the run, stuffed it over MacDonald’s shoulder, and after the ball crossed the line, he collided with MacDonald in the head.

The goal counted, but Dinsdale was in the box. It’s a situation you see the odd time, so here’s the basic explanation.

Matthew Dinsdale Saskatchewan Rush Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018

The rule on goalie interference in the case where the player crashes into the goalie, but the ball crosses the line first, is a case of referee’s discretion. What the referee needs to determine is whether or not the goalie moved or otherwise adjusted to brace or avoid the contact, and that movement caused him not to make the save. If the referee believes that MacDonald moved to brace or avoid contact, Dinsdale’s goal would not have counted and the penalty would have stayed. But looking at the replay, MacDonald wasn’t looking at Dinsdale, he was looking at the floor to see where the ball was. As such, because the ball crossed the line before Dinsdale made contact with MacDonald or the floor, the goal is good. But Dinsdale still is required to avoid contact with MacDonald even though the ball went in. As a result, he is still penalized for goaltender interference.

Oddly enough, Batley challenged the goal call and the only logical explanation was he challenged for goaltender interference to wipe out the goal. The signal from Ian Garrison was crystal clear to me that he was allowing the goal, but Dinsdale was going, although some of the players were confused. My understanding is that Batley cannot challenge goaltender interference as the NLL does not allow that to be challenged. This is perhaps a good thing considering the headaches the NHL has had with goaltender interference challenges this year. Batley could challenge a crease violation, but Dinsdale’s feet were not even close to the crease line.

Vancouver Not Done Yet?

The game between the Rush and Stealth was one that continued to expose the weaknesses in the Stealth’s game. Early on the Stealth had a 3-1 lead. Guys were breaking inside and the shots being fired were with pinpoint accuracy. But soon after that, the Stealth offense became terribly predictable once again. Rarely was anyone trying to break it inside. They were trying to roll high and fire from distance. Many of these plays were being broken up before they started.

When the Stealth got a shot away, many of them seemed to hit Kirk in the middle of the chest. Now give Kirk credit, he was seeing the ball well and was getting into position to stop those shots. Also the Stealth, like in many games this year, were missing far too many shots. On Saturday, 24 Stealth shots missed the target. Logan Schuss has now been held goalless in three consecutive games.

The defense was also very predictable. Matt Beers may have stunned the Rush transition a few times, coming up to meet them just beyond half, but otherwise is was a strict zone defense the whole way. If you look at Dan Dawson’s contributions on Saturday night, none would be bigger than the number of picks he set (it’s too bad there isn’t a stat kept for that), and several times, he had two Stealth defenders picked all by himself. The communication between the Stealth defenders was clearly off.

But this game simply put was won and lost by Vancouver’s inability to stay out of the box, and their inability, like most of the rest of the league, to stop the Rush power-play. The five power-play goals and the one scored man-up during a delayed penalty sealed the Stealth’s fate.

What I found astounding after the game was that Jamie Batley stated in interviews with the press post game that their season isn’t over with yet and they have a few critical games against Calgary to get back into the race. Now this is a coach trying to hold onto his job and trying to encourage his players, I get that, but at this point, admitting defeat is something the Stealth must do.

Jamie Batley Vancouver Stealth Photo: Garrett James
Photo: Garrett James

Let’s analyze Batley’s statement for just one second. Now, Batley’s comment that IF they beat Calgary twice, they’re back in the race. That’s only partly true. And it’s a huge IF. The reality for the Stealth is that they have to win 5 of their last 6 to even come close to having a chance at the playoffs. If they were to win 5 of 6, beat Calgary twice, Calgary would still have to go 2-4 against the rest of the league in their other 6 games, not including the Stealth. So the expectation is for a 1-11 team to go 5-1 the rest of the way, and hope the team above them goes 2-6 over their last 8 games. And even if all of this happens, that only gets the Stealth even with the Roughnecks. Under this scenario, the head to head would be tied, so you go to the second tiebreak, division record. Here’s the big problem once again. The Stealth are already 0-7 against the West Division. Calgary is 3-3. The odds of all of this happening are less than 1%.

But to look even further down the line, if by some miracle the Stealth were to do all of that and make the playoffs, they then go on the road in both Colorado and Saskatchewan to try to make the league final. Any chances of the Stealth making the Champions Cup final are not realistic.

The Stealth desperately need to start the selling spree and get draft picks wherever they can. Right now, there may be some opportunity if some of their players are willing to play out east. With such a tight race in the east, there is the opportunity to get those much needed draft picks if the Stealth are willing to admit defeat and start working on the rebuilding process. At this point, I’m not convinced they’ve fully come to that realization just yet.

Colorado Sweep

There isn’t a guy in the NLL that I’m happier for right now than Steve “Deep” Fryer. Fryer was drafted way back in 2011. This is his 6th year in the NLL and has spent most of those years on the practice roster. During those 6 years, he has hardly played at all. In fact the last three years, he played a combined 1 minute in the league. Many players would have likely hung it up with that little playing time, but Fryer stuck it out, and when Alex Buque was traded to Buffalo, he finally got his chance to be a bonafide number two goaltender in Colorado. Now of course this means playing behind Dillon Ward who is going to play almost every minute of every game. He would have to continue to be patient and be ready when the opportunity came. There were rumblings out of Colorado earlier this year that Fryer was likely going to get a start during one of Colorado’s back to back weekends, but nothing definitive.

Then on Saturday night, five minutes before game time in a pre-game meeting, Deep got the news he had been waiting for the last 6 years. He was finally going to get a start in the NLL. But even better, Fryer put on an amazing performance with a tired Mammoth squad in front of him, making 46 stops on 53 shots in the Mammoth’s 8-7 win over Buffalo. If there were any rumblings about Colorado needing to pick up a backup goalie at the trade deadline, they just disappeared. Fryer’s save percentage this year, 0.868. Not bad for a guy that has hardly played his entire career.

Colorado Mammoth Buffalo Bandits NLL 2018 Photo: Jack Dempsey
Photo: Jack Dempsey

It was one of those games that Colorado used its swarming defense to stifle the Bandits all night long in the hopes they could hold on long enough before the gas ran out. They almost did, but the Mammoth held on just long enough. Having an 8-4 lead with 19 minutes to go, the Mammoth wouldn’t score anymore, but held on the last 3:40 of the game up one to preserve the win.

For the Bandits, the offense looked terribly out of synch. This shouldn’t be a major surprise when you have such a major acquisition into your lineup earlier in the week with Shawn Evans. But the reality was between how much the Mammoth had him contained, with Greg Downing doing a lot of the work, and Evans not familiar with the system, you hardly heard his name being mentioned the first three quarters. By the time he picked it up early in the 4th quarter, he was now taking ill-advised shots and missing the net with most of them. I’m not overly concerned with Evans. I’m certain he will get used to the offense in the next game or two and start lighting it up again.

Troy Cordingley went back to Alex Buque in net. He didn’t have a bad game. When you only let 8 goals in, it’s never a terrible night. But given that the Colorado offense was operating on fumes, its not the test that I would evaluate Buque on.

The Colorado win on Saturday night against the Bandits came on the heels of an 11-10 win over Georgia the night before. This back and forth game had a final minute which was highly unusual. With about a minute to go, Lyle Thompson was on a breakaway, had Dillon Ward going the wrong way, had about an empty top quarter of the net to hit, and put his shot off the cross bar. Then on the final Colorado possession, which was coming to nothing, Stephen Keogh found himself with 2 on the shot clock, 7 on the game clock, on a bad angle, and off his back heel, fired a desperation shot on net. The ball somehow hit Mike Poulin, spun, and trickled past him. It’s a save you would expect Ward to make 98% of the time. At this point in the season, it was a bad goal at the wrong time.

Colorado Mammoth Buffalo Bandits NLL 2018 Photo: Jack Dempsey
Photo: Jack Dempsey

Swarm Surprise in Toronto

Luckily for the Swarm they didn’t let the loss on Friday keep them down as they stunned the Toronto Rock 12-7 Saturday night in Toronto. Toronto got out to an early 5-3 lead, four minutes into the second quarter, and then inexplicably, wouldn’t score again for the next 33 minutes, with Georgia going on a 6-0 run during that timeframe, and the Swarm never looked back. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to see more than a few minutes of this game. The consensus from the individuals who did cover the game was that the Rock offense still seems to be out of sorts with Tom Schreiber out of the lineup.

One very odd stat from this game was the power-play. As much as I spoke about the Rush power-play unit earlier on, it was the exact opposite in this game. The teams went a combined 1 for 13 on the power-play (Georgia 1 for 7, Toronto 0 for 6). Georgia is dead last in power-play efficiency at 32.6%, which is shocking given their firepower up front.

Weekly Picks

A 3-1 week for me last week. I managed to get both ends of the Mammoth sweep right, but the Rock prevented a perfect week. I’m 28-20 on the season, which I’m happy with considering how bad I was last season at this and just how unpredictable the East Division is. Here’s what I have for next week:

Rochester over Georgia – Rochester is at home which helps matters. They certainly showed last time between these two that they had the Swarm figured out. I just have a lot more faith in the K-Hawks defence stopping the Swarm than I do in the Swarm defence stopping the K-Hawks.

Colorado over Calgary – Tough call here, but the Mammoth are the second best team in the league for a reason. Calgary is coming off a bye week which may throw them off a bit.

Toronto over New England – New England will be figuring out a new offence with Callum Crawford instead of Shawn Evans in the line-up. This adjustment will take time and the Rock take advantage of this in my opinion.

Attendance Update

Colorado had the largest attendance this year in the NLL of 16,062 on Saturday night. While the number is fantastic, it doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars in the pocket as it was Colorado night for the Mammoth and for a period of time, tickets were being sold for $3.03.

Saskatchewan was hit with a winter storm over the weekend. The official attendance was 14,057, which is in line with the unsold tickets I saw on Saturday morning. There were several unused tickets for the game however given that people didn’t want to or couldn’t battle the storm.

Toronto had one of its largest crowds of the season with 10,679 on Saturday. That’s a better trend line, but still below what Jamie Dawick stated a few years ago was his break-even point.

As for Georgia, there is little point in looking at the announced attendance. Needless to say, the arena looked very empty.

Rochester Attendance

While Rochester didn’t play this weekend, I was invited to a Rochester fans’ closed Facebook group this week. I posed the question to them of why has the attendance dropped and what needs to be done to get it back to where it should be. I must have hit a nerve with many of the fans, in a good way, because there were 80 responses to the question.

Rochester Knighthawks NLL 2018 Photo: Micheline V
Photo: Micheline V

The reasons stated for the drop off were far fewer as the fans were focused on what needs to be done to fix the problem. The main reasons stated were two-fold. One reason was the poor performance on the floor of the K-Haws the past few years keeping people away. That is understandable. The other reason stated was that in the past, many free tickets were given away. In their minds, this backfired in that many people began to expect handouts, when the purpose really was to get people to a game, get them hooked, and hope they return.

Where the real passion came out was in where to fix things.

A lot of different answers were given. One common theme was the Blue Cross Arena itself. Now this is something that for the most part is outside the K-Hawks control. Any discussions of a new arena would involve a much larger picture than the K-Hawks, and given that the Amerks have close to 40 home games per season as compared to 9 for the K-Hawks, the Amerks are where the main push will have to come from.

Some of the ideas that came from the group were rather interesting. One thing to keep in mind here is that if there is a market that is anything similar to the Rush, it’s the K-Hawks. They have similar populations, similar incomes and neither has a big-4 professional sports team as competition. One thing that was made clear by several fans was that the team does a poor job of the in-game experience, comparing it to what happens in Buffalo, and they do very little to attract the 20-something year olds to the game. This is certainly something that is in the K-Hawks control.

When I look at attendances across the league, one thing that is certain is that the base of lacrosse players that one has in the city has very little effect on the number of fans in the seats. Very simply put, Saskatchewan had very few lacrosse players when the Rush moved to Saskatchewan. They average 14,000 fans. By the same token, British Columbia, who supplies approximately 40% of the players in the league, has one of the lowest attendances in the league. Certain fans were trying to make the connection of how many lacrosse players there are in the area should relate to attendance numbers, but it simply isn’t there.

Rochester Knighthawks NLL 2018 Photo: Micheline V
Photo: Micheline V

How the NLL tends to sell most of its seats is by providing a highly entertaining product to the masses, at a lower cost than the big-4 leagues. If you look at Saskatchewan, while fans are slowly becoming more educated on the game, many did not fully understand lacrosse when they shelled out money for season tickets by the thousands. They came for the entertainment factor. The old adage, come for the party, stay for the game, couldn’t ring truer than in Saskatoon.

Now I have never been to a game in Rochester, and watching the games on webcast isn’t going to get you much of an idea for the production value in the arena, but clearly if this many diehard fans are voicing this opinion, there has to be some truth to it. While some fans did claim that the 20-somethings are not as committed, the reality is they drive up ticket sales, they help create the atmosphere that brings even more people into the arena and brings sold out crowds that the K-Hawks desperately need.

The feeling I got chatting with this group is that far too much was being tailored to the long-time fans, and not to new fans. They all clearly stated that the team management has worked hard to try to draw crowds and wanted that acknowledged. But perhaps the closed group should open the doors to one group of users on this one topic, the management of the K-Hawks. There rarely is such a thing as too much information, and this information should be passed along so that the team has a basis to make any required changes to bring the crowds back.

Interview with the Commissioner

Just as I was about to release this article, the NLL released an interview done with Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz which provided a few hints of things to come. As I first believed, an interesting statistic came out that 60% of NLL fans have never played a game of lacrosse in their lives. This truly goes to show that the NLL has to focus on the entertainment value of the game. The fans that have played before will come to games because they love the sport. Those that haven’t played before will come, and will come back, for the entertainment value. He also stated that a new NLLTV format will be launched, but it wasn’t ready to announce just yet. My hope is that the league fixes its bugs with the game streaming before they launch this product. The in-house production they have for the most part correct. But if the game streaming doesn’t work again with the new format, fans will turn away from this version as well.

Perhaps the best tidbit of the interview was that the announcement of a 5th team in Canada is imminent. I believe this to be expansion into the Halifax market as Halifax was close to being ready before the deadline for the 2019 season. He further stated that he hopes to have teams in 7 or 8 Canadian markets. It was just enough to keep us intrigued, but without spilling any details.

Tis the Season

This week came with the reality check that the main lacrosse season for most players in Canada is soon approaching. I got my son enrolled for another season, got him signed up for a clinic with Derek Keenan over the Easter school break, and I signed up for another year of coaching.

For those in Saskatoon still looking to register their kids for this season, you will want to act fast as the deadlines are approaching. Registration information can be found at https://saskatoonfieldlacrosse.ca and https://stoonboxlax.com.

Until next time…

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