August 2, 2013

Will Denver's Season Be Considered One of the Best Ever?

by Sean Burns | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Brendan Mundorf and the Outlaws have been the class of the MLL this season. If they can win that elusive title, will they stand among the all-time teams?
©John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

As much as coaches hate to dwell on things that occur tangential to the on-field action they preside over, even Jim Stagnitta took a moment to appreciate the start his Denver Outlaws have put together so far in 2013 after improving to 11-0 on the year.

"You can't help but think about [a perfect season], sitting here at 11-0," Stagnitta told LaxMagazine.com's Phil Shore before wins over Chesapeake and New York in the past two weeks bumped Denver's record to 13-0. "You talk to players about maybe limiting some of their playing time and I keep getting the same answer: 'Coach, we want to compete.'"

With just one regular-season games remaining (against the 9-3 Nationals), it's fair time to ask the question: If Denver is able to win its first championship, where will the Outlaws stand among the best teams in Major League Lacrosse history?

Whether or not they win the final regular-season game isn't make-or-break for their case, as no team has ever finished an MLL season undefeated. Only the 2005 Bayhawks have even finished a regular season with two losses – which would require Denver to lose back-to-back games to tie them.

Going back through the league's history, there really are (in this writer's opinion, but feel free to disagree) two teams that stand out -- the 2001 Long Island Lizards and the 2005 Baltimore Bayhawks.

The 2001 Lizards featured a who's who of some of the game's biggest and most historical names. The MLL only featured six teams and since it was new, everybody wanted in on it. That Lizards team had Casey Powell and Gary Gait each score 30 goals at attack, Terry Riordan at midfield and Brian Carcaterra as the MLL Goalie of the Year. Long Island beat an equally stacked Bayhawks team in the final to cap a 12-4 season.

In his recent autobiography, Jake Steinfeld called it the best lacrosse team ever, so we'll let that opinion count.

Four years later, the Bayhawks had a similarly legendary lineup, with Gary Gait, Tom Marechek and Mikey Powell running at attack, all-time faceoff specialist Paul Cantabene winning 58 percent of his silly 356 attempts, Mark Frye bombing 11 2-point goals, Trevor Tierney winning nine games in goal and opponents trying to score on a defense that featured Brodie Merrill, Lee Zink and Shawn Nadelen.

Gait, you may notice, played on both teams.

"I would say that the Baltimore team was a little more dominant, as far as how we won games," said Gait, now the women's lacrosse coach at Syracuse. "But that first year, talent was definitely condensed. There were a lot of big names out there, and an interesting mix of guys on that Lizards team."

Which one was better, then?

"I don't know," Gait said. "I let other people decide. Before the league started, I played on some incredible Team Toyota squads, and summer tournaments were essentially all-star games, but those were two of the best teams I ever saw."

The 2001 Lizards and 2005 Bayhawks may have had the two most marquee rosters in MLL history, but Denver is in the process of making its own case for inclusion on the league's pantheon.

In addition to their 12-0 record staring you in the face, the Outlaws lead the MLL in shooting percentage (35 percent, with Boston just shy of 30 percent in second place), goals scored (197) and goals allowed (115).

Chris Bocklet leads the league in goals (35) and ranks second in points behind Boston's Paul Rabil. Brendan Mundorf (41 points), Drew Snider (40), Jeremy Sieverts (38) also stand among the MLL's top 10 scorers. Goalie Jesse Schwartzman is on pace to break his own goals against average record (9.52) and trails only Hamilton's Brett Queener in save percentage, despite playing nearly 200 more minutes.

Simply put, Denver is dominating.

With the obvious caveat that the Outlaws could only really enter the discussion once they've won the championship, we asked a few folks where they see Denver sitting in terms of league history.  Their responses are below. Feel free to chime with in your opinions in the comments section beloew or wherever (Facebook, Twitter) you choose to have your arguments.

Josh Sims, Chesapeake Bayhawks midfielder

played for Denver in 2012, member of the 2005 Bayhawks

Basically, I think the 2005 Hawks were the best. I may be a little biased, but I have been on some great teams, and that one was ridiculous. We had legends Gait, Marechek and Powell at attack. Midfield top to bottom was exceptional on both sides of the field, and our defense may be one of the best units ever. When we had everyone on the field in their spots, we knew we were unstoppable.

The reason we lost in the regular season [was] teams change every year, and [2005] was a new locker room for a lot of guys. Even before we got to know each other, we were very, very good. By the end of the season, we knew we would win it. I wouldn't be surprised if players from other teams say the same!

Phil Shore, LaxMagazine.com

Maybe it's a case of "the latest is the best," which usually overhypes the newest accomplishment while forgetting the past, but if the Outlaws win it all, it would be hard to argue they aren't the best team in league history.

It's not just that they score a lot; it's that they have multiple players that score in multiple ways. They don't just play good defense; they lock down individuals and force teams into easy shots their goalie can save. It's not just that they win a lot of faceoffs; it's that they can beat you with superior play at the X or on the wing. The team has dominated opponents at all aspects, and they do so every game.

David Gross, MLL Commissioner

It's difficult to compare teams form different eras. While one might consider 13 seasons to fall into one era, I don't believe that to be the case in the MLL. This is a very different league now than it was back in the earliest years. We didn't have the fourth long pole, the 2-point line was a little closer and the shot clock was 45 seconds. The players are more specialized than at the beginning.

That said, the 2005 Bayhawks club has generally been considered the greatest team of all time in MLL history (though they entered championship weekend as the No. 2 seed that year).

As for the current Outlaws team, we need to see how the season finishes before their place in league history is decided. If they were to win the Steinfeld Trophy, it would be very hard for them not to be considered our best team of all time with all that they would have accomplished.

Evan Washburn, CBS Commentator/LM Contributor

The 2013 Denver Outlaws are in my opinion the best team in Major League Lacrosse history. They don't have the talent to compare to the 2005 Baltimore Bayhawks, for one, but they play the best brand of team lacrosse I have ever seen. While this Outlaws team has stars like Brendan Mundorf, Lee Zink, Jesse Schwartzman and Jeremy Sieverts, it's the role players and composition of pieces that makes them special. I have never seen a group be able to go on as many explosive scoring runs. The performance against Chesapeake last week cemented my feeling that this is the best team in league history, but it really is not a statement that can be made fact until they walk away champions at the end of August.

Corey McLaughlin, LaxMagazine.com

Are the 2013 Denver Outlaws the best MLL team ever? The snarky and short answer: Check back in a couple weeks, after championship weekend.

But as for now, it depends what you mean by 'best.' If it means best players, then I would argue the 2005 Bayhawks hold that honor. If it means best team, which is, in fact, what we're asking, then the Denver Outlaws, at this moment in time, are the best MLL team ever. Their 12-0 record is the best start to a season in the 13-year history of the league.

The Outlaws are two wins away from a perfect regular season, and averaging 16.4 goals per game, nearly four more per game than second-best Chesapeake, and have beaten opponents by an average margin of 7.3 goals.

Yet who is Denver's MVP candidate? It's not clear-cut. Four of the league's top eight scorers come from the Outlaws' roster. Sure, Brendan Mundorf, the offensive centerpiece who was MVP last year, could take the award again and no one would argue. But cases could me made that midfielders Drew Snider and Jeremy Sieverts, attackman Chris Bocklet, goalie Jesse Schwartzman, defenseman Lee Zink and faceoff man Anthony Kelly play just as integral a role on the Outlaws. For all of its offensive firepower, the Denver defense is allowing just 9.6 goals per game, best in the league, and Kelly ranks third in the league among primary faceoff men with a 57.8 percentage at the stripe.

But the Denver offense has, indeed, been spectacular. The Outlaws have proven once again that the best teams play team ball. Of the 197 goals Denver has scored this year, 95 (48.2 percent) have been assisted, according to league's official scoring records.

"We're very unselfish," Denver coach Jim Stagnitta told me during an Outlaws practice earlier this year. "Our guys always talk about taking the best shot, not the first shot. A lot of our goals are assisted. If you slide to us, we're going to find the open man. If you don't, we have athletic enough guys to run by you. We've really shot the ball well. We have smart shooters. We're not just shooting the ball at the cage. We shoot to the right spots."

So the Outlaws have bought into the team concept, which has taken them to this point. But are they better than the 2005 Bayhawks, who are widely considered the class of the league to date, a team that featured Hall of Famers Gary Gait and Tom Marechek, perennial All-Stars Josh Sims, Shawn Nadelen and Paul Cantabene, Mikey Powell, 2-point ace Mark Frye and Brodie Merrill as rookie of the year? Stats and stories are easy to pick and choose and match to arguments, so I'll do it here for both sides.

Pro-2005 Bayhawks

The 2005 Bayhawks (then of Baltimore) scored 227 goals in 12 regular season games, an average of 18.9, about 2.5 more per game than what this Outlaws outfit is averaging. By that alone, a reasonable person would say the Bayhawks were better.

Also going against the Outlaws: The league in 2005 had only six teams, so talent was concentrated tightly, making many of those early MLL teams some of the best assemblages of talent of all-time. Now there are eight (plus the LXM Pro Tour), which has spread the talent around a bit more.

Pro-2013 Outlaws

In 2005, only two of the MLL's six teams finished the regular season with winning records, the Bayhawks and Boston, the latter which didn't even make the title game. As many good teams as there were back then, there were some bad ones, and the Bayhawks goals-per-game average reflects that in some cases.

Also, the MLL allowed defenses only three long poles until the 2009 season. In theory, we're in a tougher defensive era now.

With all that said, the real test, as the Outlaws know, will come championship weekend Aug. 24-25 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. Denver has looked great in the regular season before, but has yet to win an MLL title in seven straight championship weekend appearances.

If the Outlaws run the table and take the title, I think they'll have enough of an argument to be called the best team ever. If not, and they become the MLL's version of the 2009 Indianapolis Colts (who started the season 14-0 and lost Super Bowl XLIV to the New Orleans Saints), then they won't.


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