Stevens: Take NLL Expansion Rumors with a Grain of Salt


Crowds like the one for the 2016 Champion's Cup in Saskatoon are not the norm for NLL arenas.

NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz presented no timeline for expansion when asked about the topic in an interview during the NLLTV presentation of the Colorado at New England game Sunday afternoon.

That was interesting given a Twitter message by a Philadelphia sports radio host last week that suggested the NLL has zeroed in on three teams to add to the nine-team league for 2018. No source was named.

Sakiewicz said expansion conversations have been held with 36 cities or ownership groups, adding “there’s a high degree of interest.” The most serious talks have been with NHL and NBA teams, he said. He did not say any bids have been received to add teams and no entity has publicly announced that it has submitted a bid for a franchise.

Sakiewicz has promoted expansion non-stop since it was announced on Jan. 7, 2016, that he was taking over as commissioner from George Daniel. It’s nothing new. Prior to the start of the 2013 season, Daniel stressed the need for expansion, adding, “The current expansion price is $3 million.”

The ongoing desire for expansion by the nine current ownership groups is understandable, since they would share any financial expansion windfall.

There are good reasons to be an NLL fan today. The 2017 season is offering Grade A indoor lacrosse. The quality of play has never been better.

Investing in a team is another matter. With no league-wide TV deal with a major supplier, teams rely heavily on gate receipts. Five of the nine teams might not be drawing big enough crowds this season to stay out of the red despite a payroll cap under $500,000 a season.

Retraction rather than expansion has been the NLL trend the last 10 years. The league went from 13 teams in 2007,to 12 in 2008 to 11 in 2010 to 10 in 2011 and to nine in 2012. In the 30 years of pro indoor lacrosse, teams have come and gone in more than 25 cities. Sure, Saskatoon is a tremendous success story, but there are too many empty seats for games in the Vancouver and Atlanta burbs, and there are more Anaheims, San Joses and Albanys than Saskatoons in league history.

Talent availability is another matter. With more than 25 players currently on injured lists, stocking one new team might be a challenge today if quality is to be maintained.

Take expansion rumors with a grain a salt.

Turning It Around

The Georgia Swarm are first overall at 7-1 after going 8-10 last season. The offseason signing of veteran goalie Mike Poulin improved things on the back end and the playmaking abilities of Lyle Thompson energized the offense. Everybody knew this team would be better, but sitting first overall atop the NLL East at the season’s midpoint is unexpected.

Ever wonder how this team got its name?

Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, also the owner of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, bought the rights to the inactive Montreal Express in 2004 and placed a team in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. There was a name-the-team contest and Swarm won out over Thrill, Rush and Bullheads. The Swarm played out of St. Paul from 2004 until 2015. In July 2008, it was announced that John Arlotta and son Andy Arlotta had purchased the team. A move to the Infinite Energy Arena in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth was announced in May 2015, and the Arlottas opted to retain the Swarm name and logo.

Mammoth Effort

Colorado improved to 5-4, strengthening its hold on second place in the NLL West, with its impressive 14-9 win at New England. Goaltender Dillon Ward was the primary reason the Mammoth won decisively despite the injury absences of forwards John Grant Jr., Jeremy Noble and Zack Greer. Shots were 55-54 in New England’s favor but, because of Ward, the outcome was never in doubt. The Mammoth’s forwards drove 2016 goalie of the year Evan Kirk to the bench in the third quarter.

“Dillon thinks every game’s important,” head coach Pat Coyle said. “But it probably is a cherry on top to beat [Kirk]. We thought Dillon should have won the award last year. Kirk’s a really good goalie, but I’m happy with who we have.”

Getting Stephen Keogh in a trade with Rochester on Feb. 16 has helped. Keogh scored one goal in his debut with the Mammoth and he got two more Sunday.

Also, practice players who have been activated have stepped up in a big way. Defenseman Taylor Stuart, appearing in his fifth NLL game, scored his first goal Sunday. It was a breakaway beauty. The 22-year-old native of Coquitlam, British Columbia, was the 35th player selected in the 2016 entry draft out of Bellarmine, where Ward played NCAA field lacrosse. Stuart twice was a Southern Conference all-conference pick as a long-stick midfielder.

Another First

Joel Coyle of the Black Wolves also scored his first NLL goal. The 21-year-old Canadian played junior lacrosse for the Orangeville Northmen, who have been a rich resource for the NLL most draft days. He scored Sunday on Dillon Ward, also a former Orangeville player.

Coyle was New England’s third pick, 24th overall, last September. He was thrilled to meet Black Wolves assistant coach and NLL Hall of Fame member Jim Veltman, who was his idle growing up. Coyle’s parents drove to Connecticut to watch him play his first pro game.

Evans Hurt

The Black Wolves, who have displayed little bite in 2017, are the league’s most disappointing team at the midpoint of the schedule. They are 3-6 after going 10-6 last season and getting to the division final. They now have to play the 5-3 Rock.

“It’s on us to be better Friday night in Toronto,” forward Reilly O’Connor said after the home loss to Colorado.

After that, there’s a home game against the Swarm. It’s going to be a struggle to make the playoffs now. Head coach Glenn Clark shook things up Sunday by making Pat Saunders a healthy scratch. New England then traded Saunders to Buffalo.

“We had a lot of looks, a lot of chances, a lot of 1-on-1 chances at the goalie but just didn’t capitalize,” Clark said. “We’re hovering on the outside looking in for the playoffs. That’s not where we anticipated we’d be or wanted to be.”

To make matters worse, the availability of leading scorer and captain Shawn Evans is in doubt. He left in the second quarter Sunday after twisting is left ankle on the Mohegan Sun Arena’s green carpet.

Hottest Team

The Saskatchewan Rush, 6-2, are hottest in the NLL on the floor and at the box office.

Goaltender Aaron Bold was outstanding and lefty Adam Jones scored 1:16 into overtime for a sixth straight victory, 12-11 over Calgary on Saturday.

“My go-to shot is usually five hole but that hadn’t worked all night, so I decided to go far corner and it squeaked in,” Jones said.

A capacity Saskatoon crowd of 15,045 kept the Rush atop the league attendance chart.

The 2015 and 2016 champions stretched their winning streak over their regional rivals to 10 games. The Rush are 4-0 at home this year. They have not lost in the SaskTel Centre in more than a year.

Bandits Move Up

Buffalo’s 15-12 home win over Toronto on Saturday, coupled with New England’s loss, moved the Bandits (3-5) past the Black Wolves (3-6) and into third place in the NLL East. Coach Troy Cordingley can thank a trio of lefty shooters and goalie Anthony Cosmo. With star lefty Ryan Benesch out with a concussion, the other lefties used on the attack stepped up with nine goals: Mitch Jones (4), Brad Self (3) and Blaze Riorden (2). Toronto outshot Buffalo 60-42 and Cosmo came through with his best game of the season. One more win and Cordingley will have 93 to tie the late Les Bartley for third place in all-time regular-season coaching wins. Darris Kilgour is first with 121 and Derek Keenan is second with 117.

Tremendous Comeback

Rochester trailed 4-1 after one quarter and won 12-8 at Vancouver. What?

“We found a second gear and just kept pushing,” head coach Mike Hasen said.

The Knighthawks won it by outscoring the Stealth 6-1 in the fourth quarter. It was 8-8 with three minutes remaining. Brad Gillies scored at 12:27, Josh Currier at 13:19, and Adam Bomberry and Dylan Evans added empty-net goals in the last 37 seconds. Goaltender Matt Vinc allowed only two balls to get past him in the second half.

“We refused to lose this game,” Currier said.

Need A Win

Calgary, 3-5, has lost four in a row, and four of its next five are on the road. This weekend is a make-or-break scenario as the Roughnecks are in Denver on Friday and at home Saturday against Georgia. If the Roughnecks don’t win at least one of the two, they’ll finish below .500.

Winless at Home

Vancouver, 3-6, fell to 0-4 at home. Announced attendance was 2,651 at the Langley Events Centre.

Time Travel

March 11, 1995: Philadelphia breaks the league’s attendance record as 17,380 fans watch the Wings defeat the Baltimore Thunder in the closing game of the regular season.

(The largest crowd to date: 19,432 on May 14, 2005, in Air Canada Centre to watch the Toronto Rock defeat the visiting Arizona Sting 19-13 and win the championship.)

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