(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert/Buffalo Bandits)
Teams don’t report to training camp for another few weeks, but after another exciting summer, there is much to discuss coming into the 2019-20 NLL season- which will see the league move to three divisions: North, East, West.
The North Division will include the Buffalo Bandits, Halifax Thunderbirds, Rochester Knighthawks, and the Toronto Rock.
As training camp inches closer over the next few weeks and teams look to make their final adjustments and improvements heading into the season, here is one question from each team in the North Division heading into the 2019-20 season.
2019: 14-4; NLL Finals
What will their offensive production look like?
Pegged as favorites to at least win the East from the day they signed veteran goalie Matt Vinc in free agency last summer, Buffalo lived up to the hype last season. They won the East, secured the first overall seed in the playoffs, and made it to the NLL finals where they lost to the Calgary Roughnecks.
While a much improved defense was a main focus of the Bandits last season and should see similar production this coming season, it’s the how the Bandits will look out the front door that will be a a major question coming into this season. Their offense especially took a big hit this off-season when forwards Shawn Evans and Jordan Durston were left unprotected and picked up in the NLL Expansion draft over the summer.
Losing Evans has a bigger impact on the Bandits offense than losing Durston due to Evans’ ability to be a primary feeder, but between the two, Buffalo still loses 141 points. That’s not easy to replace even with players like Dhane Smith, Corey Small, Josh Byrne, and Thomas Hoggarth all returning. No to mention that Hoggarth had a breakout season after playing out the back door for a few years and Byrne missed a good portion of the season due to injury. But there are questions whether Hoggarth will be healthy for the start of the season after sustaining an injury at the WILC.
Update: It has been announced that Thomas Hoggarth and Ethan O’Connor will be out for the season with injuries.
That’s not to say that neither Byrne won’t still be a very strong contributor nor that Hoggarth can’t sustain the same success he enjoyed last season. But, with the minor adjustments that will have to happen there is always a chance that things don’t click as well as everyone had hoped. If someone is not clicking in a certain role that can spell bad new for the entire offense, no matter what caliber of players are on the floor.
The good news for Buffalo is that even if there are some pains at the beginning of the year they have the depth to deal with it more than maybe any other team in the league. With the returning guys and rookies this offense should be set, but they will certainly want to get this newish look on offense in check early in camp.
2019: 6-12; Missed Playoffs
How successful will this group be and how soon?
After moving from Rochester this franchise has had one heck of a summer, rebranding to the Thunderbirds from the Knighthawks, putting a new coaching staff in place, releasing new uniforms, and everything else that comes with moving a franchise. They aren’t an expansion franchise but they may as well be one with all the changes that have taken place.
While their last season in Rochester was anything but pleasant in terms of play on the floor, they did make some trades in what was viewed as Curt Styres wheeling and dealing to get the guys he wanted to bring to Halifax and start this new era of the franchise. Two players Halifax got via trade was forward’s Chris Boushy and Steph Keogh, adding to their mix of young and veteran talent.
That balance of young players like Boushy, Kyle Jackson, and Jake Withers mixed with veterans like Keogh, Ryan Benesch, Cody Jamieson, and Graeme Hossack makes for a good balance that can help this squad on both ends of the floor this season. The question is how successful can they be and how soon will the results from all this building over the past year be seen.
Success may come quicker on the offensive end sooner than defensive end just due to the quality and balance this squad showed to end the season last year. While Benesch, Keogh, and Jamieson will likely draw the most attention, and rightfully so, some of the younger guys like Austin Shanks and Chris Boushy showed flashes of stardom last season that just can’t be overlooked. Also, Kyle Jackson may be the most important player on this offense as a player that can set hard picks and do all the gritty things that often get overlooked, but make an offense work and rookie Clarke Petterson has high expectations surrounding him, as well.
Halifax’s defense does have a Graeme Hossack to lead the way, but they were the weaker unit last season opposed to the success that the offense was able to find late in the season. Nonetheless, this is a balanced squad that should be able to have success and hopefully garner goo fan attraction in year one in Halifax.
2019 Season: N/A
Can Steve Fryer ready to be the face of this franchise?
While the name is still the same, it’s a new era in Rochester as the Knighthawks had a busy summer building a new expansion franchise in Rochester. The Knighthawks used the expansion draft, entry draft, and free agency to build this team into what general manager Dan Carey and head coach Mike Hasen want it to be.
Rochester has a very strong offense with Shawn Evans and Holden Cattoni leading the way. But where the most interest will be this season will be in goal as Steve fryer will step in between the pipes as a starting goaltender for the first time in his career.
A backup in Colorado for the past two seasons, Fryer looked like a seasoned starter last season in Colorado when he had to step in and take over in a few games. Also, being behind Dillon Ward can only help one learn how to step in and be a full-time starter in the NLL.
Fryer has only started four games in his career but has proven that he is ready to be a starter in this league. With a franchise that is coming into its first year and may be more built on the offensive end than the defensive end, Fryer’s leadership will be key in their success this season.
2019 Season: 9-9; Divisional Final
Can Dan Dawson repeat his success from a season ago?
Even with losing Dan Litner and Kieran McArdle in the expansion draft, the Rock- who will likely be pegged as sleepers in their division again- are still looking very strong on the offensive end with Tom Schreiber, Rob Hellyer, and others returning. However, they added a big addition in free agency with the signing of veteran forward Dan Dawson.
Dawson comes over to Toronto after having a bounce-back season with San Diego last season, tallying 88 points (29G/59A). The veteran now sits second all-time in games played (287), fifth in goals (509) and third in assists (887) after his performance last season.
Paired with Schreiber and Hellyer on that right side, Dawson adds both depth and superstar talent at the forward position for Toronto. Dawson is expected to make as big of a splash with the Rock as he did with the Seals a year ago.
Whether or not Dawson will be as productive as he was last season is yet to be seen. Just looking at the guys around him, Dawson will have plenty of offensive firepower to feed off of and should be a key figure in the offense. Is Dawson the final piece to the puzzle for the Rock? Maybe not. But Dawson is a legend in this game and his services will not go unnoticed, for sure.