NLL Preview: Rush Plenty Motivated After Surprise Playoff Exit

NLL MVP candidate Mark Matthews took on more of a scoring role in 2018-19, notching 41 goals, his most since 2015.


The countdown to the NLL season has reached its end, as the season kicks off tonight. Check back to uslaxmagazine.com as we roll out our season preview — including Jack Goods’ predictions, team-by-team capsules and additional features. Next is a look at the Saskatchewan Rush.

Saskatchewan Rush

Head coach: Derek Keenan (11th season)​
2018-19 record: 11-7 (first in West Division)​
Playoff finish: Lost in West semifinals

Overview

Mainstays in the later rounds of playoffs dating back to Edmonton, it was a shock to the system to see the Saskatchewan Rush get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by a Colorado Mammoth team that struggled in the regular season.

But Saskatchewan proved in its regular season it wasn’t the near-unbeatable power it used to be, going 11-7 and only finishing in first in the West Division by one game. With the core still together, and a couple familiar faces back on the team from the franchise’s most successful days, the Rush look to get back on track this season and reclaim their role as the team to beat out West.

What’s new

The Rush defense gets a shot in the arm with two players returning after missing all of last season due to work commitments. Ryan Dilks, the 2016 NLL Defensive Player of the Year, and Travis Cornwall are both back in the fold to help the unit get some depth back.

Two of Saskatchewan’s three first-round picks both made the roster, fourth-overall pick Holden Garlent and ninth-overall pick Justin Robinson. Tanner Thompson, taken 16th, is on the practice roster.

Garlent, a 6-foot-2 defenseman, has spent the last two summers in Major Series Lacrosse with Brooklin. He was the second defenseman/transition player off the board, trailing only Rochester’s Ryland Rees.

What’s gone

Curtis Knight, who was sixth on the team in points last season with 48, was taken in the expansion draft by the Rochester Knighthawks. Jeff Cornwall was also lost via the expansion draft to New York, though he isn’t with the Riptide as the season kicks off.

A trio of additional notable defensemen are also gone as the Rush traded Nik Bilic to Vancouver, Brett Mydske moved to Vancouver for work and Scott Campbell signed with Halifax.







What’s the same

While there has been some youth added to the roster, most of the big names are familiar ones for the faithful in Saskatchewan. Mark Matthews, who notched his fifth straight 100-point plus season in 2018-19, leads the offense. He’s joined by the rest of Saskatchewan’s top five scorers, Ben McIntosh, Jeff Shattler, Robert Church and Ryan Keenan.

Four-time defensive player of the year Kyle Rubisch and captain Chris Corbeil are the returning stars on the defensive end. Evan Kirk returns to man the pipes.

What could they use

Saskatchewan could use a bit more consistency on the defensive end, even if it still allowed the fewest goals of any team in the West. The Rush allowed 12 or more goals in all seven of their losses, including an incredibly uncharacteristic 18 and 17 in two games against Calgary.

Biggest question

Can the youth step in and make a difference? In addition to this year’s draft picks, Saskatchewan also has 2018 first-round pick Connor Robinson, 2018 third-round pick Ryan McLean and 2017 fourth-round pick Austin Murphy on its final roster.

We knew expansion was going to hurt the strongest and deepest teams the most. The Rush will need to continue to bring in fresh blood if it hopes to keep up its impressive dynasty.

MVP Watch

Mark Matthews

Matthews won the award in 2018 and finished tied for third with Lyle Thompson in points last season. He took on more of a scoring role in 2018-19, notching 41 goals. That was the most he’s recorded since 2015.

Verdict

The Rush won’t be lacking in motivation after how last season ended and adding high-end youthful talent to the already proven core keeps them scary in the West. Don’t be surprised to see Saskatchewan back on top.

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