NLL Preview: Swarm Lead the East Discussion

PHOTO BY JOSH SCHAEFER

Lyle Thompson returns for the Swarm after winning the MVP in just his second season in the NLL.


1. GEORGIA SWARM

The NLL-champion Georgia Swarm have found room for rookies Zed Williams and Frank Brown.

The two First Nations athletes played high school lacrosse together in the Buffalo region and had outstanding NCAA stints, Williams with Virginia and Brown with Hobart. Williams was the fourth overall pick and Brown went 24th in the 2017 entry draft. The Swarm will use them in transition roles, offsetting the absences of Joel White and Ethan O’Connor, who won’t be available to start the new season due to weekday job obligations.

Georgia now has a league-high nine First Nations players on its 20-man active roster.

Owner-GM John Arlotta has built an awesome team. The Swarm were first overall at 13-5 and swept aside Toronto and Saskatchewan to win their first title. The 266 goals they scored and the 213 they allowed resulted in a +53 differential. No other NLL team was better than plus 19. They look on paper to be just as good today.

“We are really excited about our roster this year as we continue to bring in players that are talented, athletic and have great character,” Arlotta said.

The champs’ offense revolves around Lyle Thompson, who in only his second year in the NLL won the scoring title with 116 points and who also took home the MVP award. His pass to brother Miles Thompson for a huge goal in the championship series against Saskatchewan last June capped a season to remember.

The attack looks just as good this season with the return of Jesse King, the lefty attacker who was a 2016 Rookie of the Year finalist. King is back after missing last season rehabbing from knee surgery. It’s a timely return given that fellow lefty Jordan Hall will be unavailable to start the season due to work commitments. King, Shayne Jackson and Johnny Powless give Georgia exceptional left-side depth. Lefty Jerome Thompson is moving to the back end to further enhance the plan for swift transition from defense to offense.

Lyle and Miles Thompson, Randy Staats and Kiel Matisz represent a super-strong bevy of right-handed shooters.

The Swarm went with rookie defensemen Bryan Cole, Connor Sellars and Leo Stouros last season and the experience they gained will serve them well in this coming season. Captain Jordan MacIntosh, Alex Crepinsek, Jason Noble and John Ranagan are the other D-men returning. Chad Tutton, who hurt a leg in the playoffs last spring, is unlikely to play this season. Mitch Belisle has retired.

This group’s persona changed for the better with the signing of UFA goalie Mike Poulin in the summer of 2016 and, if the winningest goalie in the NLL last season avoids injury, the Swarm have to be favored to repeat as champions.

The Swarm have three goalies on their active roster with Warren Hill and Kevin Orleman included.

Head coach Ed Comeau’s message to his players: “It’s easy to remember winning and the celebration but what we have to remember is how hard it was to win and that it is even harder to do it again.”

All that said, the Swarm need more bums in seats, which should be achievable because this is one of the most colorful teams in the league. Last year’s average attendance was only 3,950.

On the practice squad: Isaiah Davis-Allen, Lauchlin Elder and Braydon Hill.

Georgia begins defense of its title Dec. 8 at New England.

PHOTO BY MARTIN DELAND

Rob Hellyer returns to the Toronto Rock after blowing out his knee during 2016 summer ball.

2. TORONTO ROCK

Toronto lost to Georgia in the NLL East final last spring because it could not match the potent Swarm attack. There are two reasons to believe that imbalance has been at least partially corrected: Rob Hellyer and Adam Jones.

Hellyer led the Rock in scoring in 2016 but blew out a knee in summer ball and was an innocent bystander last season when the team went 9-9 in the regular season. The elusive righty is back and rarin’ to go. The right side is looking good with Hellyer, 2017 Rookie of the Year Tom Schreiber, Brett Hickey and Dan Lintner so the retirement of Kasey (Smooth Hands) Beirnes won’t be catastrophic.

“It’ll be interchangeable,” Hellyer said when asked what role each will play on the right side. “I’m excited to play with Tom. He’s such a dynamic player. We’ll work well together. And I’ve got some good chemistry with Hickey.”

Jones, a prolific scorer throughout his NLL career, was acquired from Saskatchewan for 2018 and 2019 first-round draft picks (a good deal considering that, with two expansion teams leading off the 2018 draft, the picks are unlikely to be in the top five). The Rock finally have the proven veteran presence on the left side of the attack they dearly missed after Colin Doyle’s retirement. Stephan Leblanc, Kieran McArdle and Reid Reinholdt are the other lefties.

Lefty forward Turner Evans will miss at least the first two months rehabbing from knee surgery. Lefty forward Mikey MacDonald was released.

On the back end, Toronto was No. 2 in the league last season in allowing only one goal more (200) than No. 1 Colorado (199). Having the best goaltending tandem in the league in Nick Rose and Brandon Miller helps.

Trouble could be brewing though: veteran defenseman Jesse Gamble won’t play in 2017-18 due to weekday work commitments and second-year defenseman Challen Rogers might miss the start while rehabbing from a shoulder injury. Returnees on defense are captain Brodie Merrill, Sandy Chapman, Damon Edwards, Bill Hostrawser, Brad Kri, Brock Sorensen and Latrell Harris. Phil Caputo and Jordan Magnuson, who were depth forwards last season, will assume back-end roles. Rob Marshall and Jeff Gilbert have retired and UFA Pat Merrill was not re-signed.

The only rookie to make it onto the active roster is Brandon Slade. The 23-year-old defenseman from Orangeville, Ontario, signed as a free agent in September. He’s small at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, but fast.

On the practice roster: Riley Hutchcraft, Adam Jay, Brandon Slade and Darryl Robertson.

Toronto opens Dec. 8 at Buffalo.







3. ROCHESTER KNIGHTHAWKS

COURTESY OF THE KNIGHTHAWKS

 

First-round draft picks Jake Withers, Austin Shanks and Eric Fannell, who were Ohio State teammates, were among five new players Rochester named to its 20-man active roster.

The reinforcements are being asked to help lift the 2013 and 2014 champions back into contention after a 7-11 showing last season left them out of the playoffs. The weakest offense in the league was to blame. This was the only team that scored fewer than 200 goals, and it was 25 under that number. The Knighthawks scored 91 fewer goals than the Swarm. There was no Rochester player in the top 20 in scoring, the ‘Hawks had a league-worst goals for versus goals against differential of -34 and their power-play success rate was a league-worst 40 percent.

The ‘Hawks offense was awful mainly because star Cody Jamieson went down with a leg injury in the opener and was lost for the season, and fellow-lefty Cory Vitarelli and right-side shooter Josh Currier were hurt later on. Jamieson was still on the injured list on roster deadline day but hopes to be in uniform soon. Returnees up front besides Jamieson, Vitarelli and Currier are Dan Dawson, Joe Resetarits, Dan Lomas and Kyle Jackson, who is coming off an impressive rookie season.

“Our pace of play this year caters to the athleticism of our forwards,” Jackson said. “From the moment training camp started, there was a different vibe.”

The offense gets a heavy dose of grit with No. 5 overall draft pick Austin Shanks and No. 6 pick Eric Fannell entering the mix. Jake Withers, the No. 2 overall pick, is a faceoff specialist who will put the ball in ‘Hawks sticks more often. Dylan Evans, who had previously been the main faceoff man, returns in a back-end role.

Also on the back end, Andrew Suitor, who has worked hard to stay in the league despite surgeries on both knees, was released and immediately signed by Vancouver. Signing UFA Billy Dee Smith, the former Buffalo captain, and free agent Eric Shewell beefs up a defense that was ranked third in the league last  season. Returning is captain Sid Smith, Scott Campbell, Paul Dawson, Graeme Hossack, Ian Llord, Luc Magnan and Brad Gillies, who is relied on to spark transition breakouts.

Veteran goalie Matt Vinc is still among the best and Angus Goodleaf is a formidable backup.

Among players not returning are Jarrett Davis, Joel Matthews and Adam Bomberry.

I like the looks of this team’s reboot.

Mike Accursi and Marshall Abrams have been added to the coaching staff.

On the practice squad: Greg Longboat, Adam Perroni, Quinn Powless, Mike Triolo.

“We have fresh faces, a fresher perspective and a hunger to play well from the get-go,” coach Mike Hasen said.

The Knighthawks open the regular season at home Dec. 9 against Calgary.

PHOTO BY KHOI TON

Shawn Evans led the Black Wolves last season with 104 points.

4. NEW ENGLAND BLACK WOLVES

First-round draft picks Colton Watkinson and JP Kealey are in and veteran defenseman Bill O’Brien is out as the New England Black Wolves made big changes, which were expected given an 8-10 regular season and first-round playoff elimination.

Five of the seven new faces are on the back end. The defense was eighth in goals allowed among the league’s nine teams last season and a need to upgrade breakout capabilities via increased athleticism and stick skills was identified in postseason meetings. Drafting Watkinson No. 7 overall and acquiring Adam Bomberry from Rochester enhances transition speed.

The defense was also bolstered by the signing of unrestricted free agent Dave Brock, who left the Buffalo Bandits, and by the acquisition of John LaFontaine, who came over from Saskatchewan along with goaltender Aaron Bold. That deal cost the Black Wolves goaltender Evan Kirk, who was 2016 goalie of the year, but the Rush offered so much that GM Rich Lisk could not say no. Returnees on defense include Derek Suddons, who at 39 is the league’s oldest player, Sheldon Burns, Joel Coyle, Brett Manney and Matt Spanger. O’Brien, Dan Ball, Zac Reid and Derek Searle were not retained.

The offense was fourth in the league with Kevin Crowley a force with 45 goals and Shawn Evans piling up 104 points. Other forwards returning are Kevin Buchanan, Kyle Buchanan, Reilly O’Connor, Jay Thorimbert and Seth Oakes. Ryan Hotaling is on the injury list. Chad Culp and Brett Bucktooth retired, opening up spots for No. 10 overall pick Kealey and for Mark Cockerton, who was with the team for 13 games in 2015 and now reappears after a cameo appearance with Rochester.

“Everyone is excited to see what this group’s got,” Evans said.

With assistant coach Jim Veltman taking the year off, Clem D’Orazio moves to the bench.

On the practice roster: Nick Chaykowsky, Anthony Joaquim, Nick Mariano and Rance Vigneaux.

New England begins its season at home Dec. 8 against Georgia.

PHOTO VIA TWITTER (@NLLBANDITS)

Former Hofstra standout Josh Byrne joins a young Bandits lineup after being picked first overall in the 2017 NLL Draft.

5. BUFFALO BANDITS

Radical lineup changes have followed the last-place finish by the Buffalo Bandits, who have eight new players including three rookies on their 20-man active roster.

Injuries to key forwards Dhane Smith and Ryan Benesch and to goaltender Anthony Cosmo ruined things last season. The offense was third-best in the league, but Buffalo allowed more goals than any other team, 251, with a goals for and against differential of -25. Only Rochester’s -34 was worse. No wonder the Bandits were last overall, 6-12, and missed the playoffs.

With Cosmo retired and Billy Dee Smith gone to Rochester and Dave Brock to New England as unrestricted free agents, there were gaping back-end holes to fill. Getting a goaltender was a must and acquiring Alex Buque from Colorado filled that need. Buque and Davide DiRuscio will both want to be the starter. Cosmo stays with the club as coach of the goaltenders.

Returning defensemen are Steve Priolo, Nick Weiss, Mitch de Snoo, Matthew Bennett and Justin Martin, who moves up from the practice squad. Reid Acton, formerly with Georgia, fills one of the vacancies. Ryan Wagner, a former Vancouver draft pick, also made the active roster. Also in is Whitby, Ontario, junior grad Ethan Schott, who was the 20th pick in the 2017 draft. Veterans Mark Steenhuis and Kevin Brownell continue as Buffalo’s designated transition players.

The Buque trade cost the Bandits top scorer Ryan Benesch, but that hole was plugged by the selection with the first overall draft pick of lefty attacker Josh Byrne, who will work closely on that side with returning lefty Mitch Jones and with Jordan Durston, who was acquired from Vancouver for Tony Malcolm. The Benesch trade also landed the Bandits Callum Crawford from Colorado and it will be a treat for largest crowds in the NLL —15,148 on average — to watch the lanky playmaker spin and pass on the right side with Dhane Smith. Craig England and Pat Saunders also return, and 13th overall draft pick Chase Fraser, who played summer ball in Nanaimo, British Columbia, also made the cut.

On the practice squad: Gowah Abrams, Liam Patten and Zac Reid.

Alex Kedoh Hill, Tim Edwards, Blaze Riorden, Andrew Watt and Adam Will, who were with the team last season, were not on the roster submitted to the league office.

“We made some pretty tough decisions but we are excited and confident that we are ready to go,” GM Steve Dietrich said.

Buffalo opens the new season at home Dec. 8 against Toronto.

Most Recent

Behold the V-Hold: Learn a Pivotal Defensive Skill from PLL Pros

PLL pros drill down on what Garrett Epple calls ‘a defenseman’s greatest asset.’

NLL Announces Largest Schedule in League History

The NLL will play 135 regular season games during the 2022-23 season.

Dillon Ward Adds to Already Impressive Resume with 2nd Pro Title in 90 Days

Ward won a PLL title with the Waterdogs after winning an NLL title with Colorado.

Self Made: Waterdogs Defeat Chaos for PLL Championship

How the PLL's first expansion team captured the crown in just their third season.







Twitter Posts