NLL Preview: Projecting the West

PHOTO BY JOSH SCHAEFER

Mark Matthews led the league with 73 assists last season, finishing second with 113 points.


1. SASKATCHEWAN RUSH

The Saskatchewan Rush won the NLL West at 12-6, with a three-win cushion, and crushed Colorado in the division final, but had their dream of a third straight championship snuffed out by losing two in a row to the NLL East-champion Georgia Swarm in the championship series. In the postseason review, it didn’t take long to conclude that slipping to a rank of fourth in goals against had to be corrected.

An upgrade in goaltending was deemed the priority. Aaron Bold came up big when the title was on the line in 2015 and in 2016 but, regardless, the decision was made to go after New England No. 1 Evan Kirk, the 2016 NLL goalie of the year. It got done: Bold, defenseman John LaFontaine and two draft picks for Kirk, who will be an instant fan favorite in Saskatoon if he’s just as sensational for the Rush as he was in helping the Peterborough Lakers win the Canadian summer ball Mann Cup in September.

In another big trade, the Rush looked to the future and sent veteran lefty forward Adam Jones to Toronto for first-round picks in 2018 and 2019. The roster spot was filled with the signing of veteran unrestricted free agent lefty Jeff Shattler, who had been a fixture in Calgary.

This was all daring maneuvering for a team that came so close to winning a third straight title, but it was what Rush GM-coach Derek Keenan felt was needed to keep pace with Georgia. Standing pat has never been a Keenan trait.

Lefty Rush attacker Mark Matthews, whose league-best 73 assists and a points total of 113 that was second only to Georgia’s Lyle Thompson, remains one of the most formidable athletes in the sport — and nobody came close to Robert Church’s 21 power-play goals last season. Add Ben McIntosh, Curtis Knight, Ryan Keenan, Dan Taylor and Matthew Dinsdale and you’ve got one of the best attacks in the league.

The defense includes a top four few teams can match: Chris Corbeil, Kyle Rubisch, Brett Mydske and Ryan Dilks. Look for Matthew Hossack and impressive second-year player Mike Messenger to get significant roles on the back end, too. In transition, Jeff Cornwall, Adrian Sorichetti and Jeremy Thompson provide an excellent fast-break element. Matt MacGrotty moves up from the practice squad to fill the vacancy left by LaFontaine’s departure. Vet Nik Bilic is listed as physically unable to perform.

Tyler Carlson retains his position as backup goalie.

Saskatchewan remains, without a doubt, the best team in the NLL West.

On the practice squad: Adam Shute, Nick Finlay, Tor Reinholdt and Johnny Pearson.

The season open is Dec. 16 at Toronto.

PHOTO BY JOSH SCHAEFER

Curtis Dickson led the way for the Roughnecks with 54 goals in 2017.

2. CALGARY ROUGHNECKS 

Calgary will use speedy rookies Zach Currier, Tyler Pace and Anthony Kalinich to up the tempo of its transition breakouts in its bid to get back into the NLL playoffs.

The Roughnecks, 8-10, were seventh on offense and sixth on defense last season so there was room for improvement at both ends of the floor but they were only one win away from postseason play and the changes they have made can put them back in the playoffs come May.

Calgary has the most exciting player in the NLL in Curtis Dickson, who led all goal scorers with 54 last season. Also returning up front are Dane Dobbie, Tyler Digby, Holden Cattoni, Riley Loewen and Vaughn Harris, who got off the practice roster and onto the floor for only two games last season. He starts on the active roster because the club has been unable as yet to sign potent attacker Wes Berg. Cattoni is coming off a big summer season in Peterborough and, with Jeff Shattler gone to Saskatchewan as an unrestricted free agent, can assume a bigger role. Dickson, Cattoni and Currier were all in on Peterborough’s Mann Cup triumph.

Karsen Leung has retired.

Returnees on the back end are new captain Dan MacRae, Curtis Manning, Tyson Bell, Creighton Reid, Chad Cummings, Greg Harnett, Mitch Wilde, Garrett McIntosh and Tyler Burton. Former captain Mike Carnegie is listed as being physically unable to perform. Kellen LeClair is on injured reserve. Veteran Scott Carnegie was released.

Enter the three rookies: Currier, drafted third overall, is a lefty who is so fast he can change the pace of a game by himself; and ninth pick Pace and 21st pick Kalinich, both of whom shoot from the right side and who are out of British Columbia’s Jr. A league. Kalinich played in Langley. Pace was coached by Roughnecks coach Curt Malawsky in Coquitlam and he and Berg helped Denver win an NCAA championship. He’ll be asked to do some checking.

“I know it’s a new thing that I have to adjust to,” Pace said of playing out of the back end instead of his usual attack role. “Having those familiar faces is going to be big starting off.”

Christian Del Bianco had an outstanding summer season on Canada’s West Coast and will challenge incumbent No. 1 goalie Frankie Scigliano for more starts.

On the practice roster: Bob Snider, Steph Charbonneau, Ryan Martel.

Calgary has too much talent to miss the playoffs two years in a row.

The season opener is Dec. 9 at Rochester.







3. COLORADO MAMMOTH

PHOTO BY JOSH SCHAEFER

The Colorado Mammoth's Jeremy Noble is poised to have a bigger role on the right side with Callum Crawford gone.

Dan Carey moved from player personnel director to GM when Steve Govett left to run the new team that will begin play in San Diego team in 2018-2019 and he acted quickly to make changes he felt were necessary to gain ground on Saskatchewan in the NLL West. The need for a shakeup was evident with the quick demise of the Mammoth in the division final after a 9-9 regular season and what came was an earthquake.

The retirement of John Grant Jr., second only to former Buffalo great John Tavares in all-time NLL scoring, sparked the search for a veteran stick wizard who shoots from the left side, and landing Ryan Benesch from Buffalo did the trick. It was costly to get the pure scorer teammates call ‘Benny,’ as top playmaker Callum Crawford had to be sacrificed along with backup goalie Alex Buque.

Jeremy Noble gets an enhanced role on the right side of the attack where Crawford once dominated.

“Jeremy Noble is a guy we really feel can step into that No. 1 role on the right side,” Carey said.

Having Stephen Keough for his first full season is a plus and Jacob Ruest comes off a hugely successful rookie season on the right side.

How the interaction pans out on the left side with Benesch, Zack Greer, Eli McLaughin and Chris Wardle all in the mix remains to be seen, but anything will be an improvement on last season when Colorado was eighth in goals scored. Greer (concussion) is temporarily listed as physically unable to perform. Brent Adams is out with an ankle injury.

Four rookies were on the 20-man active roster when it was submitted to the league office at the Nov. 24 deadline, including forwards Ryan Lee, Brody Eastwood and Quinn MacKay, who all played summer ball in British Columbia. Lee was Colorado’s first pick, 25th overall, in the 2017 draft and Eastwood and MacKay were free-agent signings.

The Mammoth were the NLL’s No. 1 team on defense last season in allowing a league-low 199 goals.  The 2017 goalie of the year, Dillon Ward, had a large hand in that.

“Dillon Ward, to me, is the best in the business,” Carey said.

With Ward in the nets, the Mammoth can aim high, but they will have to overcome the absences of captain Dan Coates and Cam Holding on the defense as both suffered season-erasing knee injuries during Canadian field team trials in October. Returning on the back end are Robert Hope, Greg Downing, Joey Cupido, Jordan Gilles, Brad Self, Josh Sullivan and Taylor Stuart. Cupido remains one of the best in the league in transition. Bryce Sweeting continues rehab from a neck injury suffered in summer ball. Joining this group is Rowan Kelly. The Torontonian was the 55th of 59 players selected in the 2017 draft and helped the University of Western Ontario win the Canadian universities field lacrosse championship in November.

Steve Fryer, who was with Toronto last year, replaces Buque as backup goalie.

Among players who were with the team last year but whose names were not on the roster list submitted to the league were Ilija Gajic and Zach Herreweyers.

On the practice squad: Tim Ewards, Jerrod Neumann, Scott Carnegie.

The Mammoth kick things off Dec. 8 at Vancouver.

PHOTO BY JOSH SCHAEFER

Defenseman Matt Beers takes over as Stealth captain, replacing Curtis Hodgson.

4. VANCOUVER STEALTH 

Vancouver enters the new season with a tweak on offense and a revamped defense.

The Stealth finally made it into the playoffs last spring after repeated postseason misses. An upgrade in goaltending — Tye Belanger had a league-best save percentage of .796 — was a big reason for that.

It was one and out in the playoffs though due to a first-round loss by one goal to Colorado. During the regular season, the 9-9 Stealth were ranked sixth on offense and seventh on defense among the nine league teams.

Up front, Cory Small (46 goals) and Rhys Duch (38) were the big-number scorers last season. Add Logan Schuss, Joel McCready, James Rahe, Evan Messenger and local product Tony Malcolm, who was acquired from Buffalo for Jordan Durston, and coach Jamie Batley has plenty of weapons at his disposal.

The retirements of captain Curtis Hodgson and of John Lintz and the loss of Jon Harnett, who blew out a knee at the start of training camp, opened up back-end spots and Andrew Suitor fills one of them. GM Doug Locker took mere minutes to land Suitor after he was a surprise late cut by Rochester. Brandon Goodwin, who got into just two games last season and who signed as a free agent on Sept. 1, also made the active roster, as did Vancouver’s first 2017 draft pick and 10th overall pick Ryan Fournier.

Defenseman Matt Beers takes over from Hodgson as captain. Hodgson’s No. 6 will be retired in ceremony prior to the team’s Feb. 10 game.

“Curtis has instilled the values we follow and I will do my best to continue what he achieved moving forward,” Beers said. “We have always had a tight room and strong leadership, which should make for a smooth transition. I know the boys are hungry to get back on the floor and build off last season.’’

Other returnees are Travis Cornwall, Ian Hawksbee, Pete McFetridge, Chris O’Dougherty, Justin Salt and Cliff Smith.

Brodie MacDonald will back up Belanger.

Lintz stays with the team as defensive coordinator taking over from Clay Richardson who resigned.

Head coach Jamie Batley: “We have a sour taste in our mouth from how we exited the playoffs. We have unfinished business. We want to win our division and then get to the Champion’s Cup.”

Average attendance was a league-low 3,206 last season, but the playoff berth should boost that number. Now it’s up to the players to prove Vancouver can be an upper echelon club.

Harnett, Thomas Hoggarth and Casey Jackson are on injured reserve.

The practice squad: Patrick O’Meara, Eric Penney, Tyson Roe, Cody Teichroeb.

The Stealth begin Dec. 8 at home against Colorado.

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