(Photo: Calgary Roughnecks)
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 West Division is the only one that will stay the same as last year, including the Calgary Roughnecks, Colorado Mammoth, San Diego Seals, Saskatchewan Rush, and the Vancouver Warriors.
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 West Division heading into the 2019-20 season.
2019 Season: 10-8; NLL Champions
Can they repeat?
The NLL Cup. The NLL MVP of both the regular season and the finals in Dane Dobbie. Calgary had a lot to cheer for and celebrate last season. Now they are faced with the task of repeating in 2020.
This is a club that remains much of their core from last season, despite losing their captain in defenseman Dan MacRae in the expansion draft. That loss hurts on the defensive end and the uncertainty around the injuries to Jesse King (thumb) and Rhys Duch (Achilles) will have an impact on the offensive end early in the season. King is expected to be back for the start of the season and Duch is expected to be back in January. So the reigning champs might be a little light to start the season, but they sang a similar song last year with Curtis Dickson coming in late due to contract negotiations.
This talented offense, led by Curtis Dickson and Dane Dobbie- who combined for 196 points last season- was seventh in the league last season, but when they are at full strength anyone can make an impact on any night. That depth ability to play as a unit and feed off of each other is what helped make them so effective last season.
Calgary’s biggest weakness may be on the defensive end with the loss of Dan MacRae in the expansion draft, but they retain Zach Currier, Eli Salama, Tyler Burton, and others. Calgary also just locked up goaltender Christian Del Bianco- one of the best young goaltenders in the game- for another two years which gives them a huge boost on that end of the floor.
While there may be some roster shakeups early on with injuries, this Calgary team looks built to make another championship run.
2019 Season: 6-12; Western Division Final
Can their young offense repeat last year’s success?
It was an odd year for the Colorado Mammoth in 2019. They started very slow with their defense taking a while to get going and their offense saw a lot of younger guys step up and take on bigger roles, which was a little unexpected. Ultimately, they ended the season with a loss in the West Division final against Calgary but upset Saskatchewan to get there.
With a young core coming off an energetic finish, this team looks like they could find similar success on the offensive end. Ryan Lee, Jacob Ruest, and Kyle Killen man the right side while Eli McLaughlin and Chris Wardle work the left side. This movement towards youth with some veterans mixed in seems to be working nicely in Colorado, and it especially showed on the offensive end late last season.
Colorado did have the lowest-scoring offense in the league last season with 416 points, partially due to their slow start and shuffling of players as they made a few mid-season trades, including one that brought in veteran lefty forward Cory Vitarelli for the last six games of the regular season and the playoffs.
In spite of their bad start, this offense really turned things up a notch at the end of the season and started to put up bigger numbers, especially as the defense improved so they could have more chances at putting the ball in the back of the net. The youth and veteran talent on this offense spells success and the Mammoth could see much more of it in 2020.
San Diego Seals
2019 Season: 10-8; Western Division Semifinal
Back from a torn ACL, will Austin Staats be the same?
Obviously, many believe that Austin Staats- the 2019 NLL rookie of the year- will be back at full strength after suffering a torn ACL late last season. The rookie was nothing short of the definition of a rookie sensation, putting on a show every night as he became one of San Diego’s primary contributors on offense, and did so from day one.
Coming into their second season, the Seals are looking for Staats to come back in camp fully healthy and ready to tally upwards of 60 points just as he did last season. Staats my very well do just that, but there is always an adjustment period when coming back from any injury, especially a knee injury.
Whether Staats adjust back quickly or it takes him a few games, the young star will have to also adjust to some changes on the offense with Dan Dawson having left for Toronto in free agency and the signing of Wes Berg. But with a good portion of players returning, it might not be as big of an adjustment as it has been for players coming back into a lineup from injury in the past.
San Diego has Casey Jackson, Kyle Buchanan, Wes Berg, and Garrett Billings to lean on if Staats doesn’t bounce back as quickly as hoped, and with Connor Fields being able to play a full season this year could add another option, as well. In a highly competitive Western division, San Diego surely wants a 100% healthy Austin Staats to help carry the load and be as effective as he can be and want that to come to fruition as quickly as possible.
2019 Season: 11-7; Western Division Semifinal
Is it a bounce back year…again?
The last time the Saskatchewan Rush won an NLL title was in 2018. The year prior, they lost in the finals to the Georgia Swarm. Saskatchewan came into the 2018 season with the sole mission of reclaiming the title of NLL champions and hoisting the NLL Cup once again. They accomplished that mission and it seems as if 2020 could see a similar story in Saskatchewan.
After a first-round (Western Division Semifinal) upset loss to the Colorado Mammoth last season, the Rush are ready to get back on track, and it all starts on defense. Last season, they had some guys missing on the back end which hurt them a lot, and goaltender Evan Kirk getting injured late in the season did anything but help the situation. Well, the signature Rush defense is back in 2020 and looking to make some noise once again.
Saskatchewan reacquired Jeff Cornwall- who missed all of last season- after losing him in the expansion draft and return Kyle Rubisch, Matt Hossack, and the rest of that core defensive unit. With the chemistry back and a healthy Kirk, this is a unit that is poised to make a comeback and help carry this team to a title.
Beyond their impressive defense, Saskatchewan has Mark Matthew, Ben McIntosh, and Jeff Shattler as three of their leaders on the offensive end. They did, however, lose Curtis Knight in the expansion draft but with the depth of this team, they can afford to lose one guy up front and still have success.
2019 Season: 5-13; Missed Playoffs
When will Vancouver get out of their own way?
With Canucks Sports and Entertainment taking over ownership, giving the team a new identity and new home in downtown Vancouver over the summer of 2018, there was much excitement and hope coming into the 2019 season. That hope quickly faded as it became apparent that this team was still going to disappoint, despite a very talented roster. 3
This team, no matter what their name has been, just can’t seem to get out of the shadow of despair that has haunted them for quite some time now. If they can put it all together this season and play smart lacrosse on both ends of the floor, this could very well be a playoff team. For real.
Vancouver’s defense had its struggles last season with Aaron Bold and Eric Penney rotating starts through the middle of the season before they ended with Penney as the starter. They also couldn’t stay out of the penalty box, recording 295 total penalty minutes- second highest in the league- and just weren’t a disciplined team at many times. If that get’s cleaned up and guys like Matt Beers, Ian Hawkebee, Justin Salt, and others can stay poised and play as one defensive unit, they can be a pretty good defensive team.
The Warrior’s had some surprises on offense last season with Keegan Bal and Mitch Jones providing huge sparks, tallying a combined 157 points. Also, Logan Schuss should have another good year and Joel McCready will be back after missing the majority of the season with and achilles injury.
Vancouver has the puzzle pieces, they just need to put them together and do so in an effective way, and this can be a successful team with playoff potential.