November 28, 2012

National Lacrosse League East Division: Team-by-Team Previews

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Related: West Division Preview

With National Lacrosse League training camps getting underway in earnest, it's time to preview the 2013 NLL season. Today Lacrosse Magazine's Neil Stevens provides a team-by-team breakdown of the NLL's East Division — in predicted order of finish.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com all week long for more preview content.

1. ROCHESTER KNIGHTHAWKS

Rochester defenseman Pat McCready became an unrestricted free agent Aug. 1 and is mulling over whether to return or to retire on top.
© Larry Palumbo

2012 record: 7-9

2012 recap: The Knighthawks were hard to figure out during a 7-9 regular season that included losses in four of their last six games. They were middle of the pack statistically — fifth-best on defense and sixth-best on offense among the nine NLL teams. But they got home floor advantage in the East Division semifinal with a 9-7 win over Philadelphia in their regular season finale and then survived a fourth-quarter Wings rally to eke out 14-13 home win in the playoffs. Rochester went into Toronto and upset the Rock 17-13 in the East Division final, and then overcame a 5-1 halftime deficit to defeat Edmonton 9-6 in the Champion’s Cup final at home. The Knighthawks peaked at the right time, and goaltender Matt Vinc excelled when it mattered most.

Hall returns: Rochester got it done without top transition man Jordan Hall, who tore an ACL in the 10th game of the season, because it has a deeper bench than most NLL teams. Hall is healthy now and ready to resume cutting across the middle of opponents’ zones to fire in sidearm bullets.

Hot sticks: Cody Jamieson (36 goals), Cory Vitarelli (29), Stephen Keogh (26), Johnny Powless (26) and Mike Accursi (22) set the pace up front last season.

Powell power: American lacrosse legend Casey Powell is making a comeback after a year away from the indoor game. The top U.S.-born scorer in NLL history can only make the Knighthawks’ offense better. “I’d love to see Casey in a Knighthawks uniform and playing every game,” general manager Curt Styres said.

Rabil rumblings: Jarrett Davis, whose playmaking talent out of the back end impressed last spring, was traded to Edmonton to get the rights to transition speedster Paul Rabil, who may or not play for Rochester. Rabil otherwise might be flipped to another team in the East.

Coy captain: Defenseman Pat McCready became an unrestricted free agent Aug. 1 and is mulling over whether to return or to retire on top with the Champion’s Cup memories of last spring fresh in his mind. The Knighthawks are trying to coax him into one more year.

Entry draft: Rochester did not have a pick until the third round and opted for Stony Brook All-American Robbie Campbell 26th overall and defender Cody Hawkins 29th. Both are from British Columbia, where Hawkins was his junior league’s 2012 defender of year.

Bandits castoffs: Rochester signed transition man Tom Montour and defenseman Ian Llord soon after they were released by Buffalo.

Ready for camp: Coach Mike Hasen doesn’t make bold predictions. “We’re setting ourselves up to be able to compete again,” he said. “Add our draft picks, and it looks like we’ll have a highly competitive camp.”

In-Vinc-ible: After a 2012 season of personnel juggling, a smoother road lies ahead in 2013, and that should mean more wins. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2003, but the Knighthawks have a shot at it with Matt Vinc in the net.

Schedule: Rochester opens Jan. 5 at Washington. The Knighthawks don’t play again until their Jan. 19 home opener against Buffalo.

2. TORONTO ROCK

2012 record: 9-7

Colin Doyle is one of ten Toronto starters over the age of 30.
© Toronto Rock

2012 recap: The Rock jettisoned first-string goalie Matt Roik after a three-game losing streak midseason and won five of its last six regular season games with Nick Rose in goal after acquiring him from Calgary. Rose had zero NLL wins on his resume before arriving, but he lifted Toronto to first place in the East Division. Rose blanked Buffalo in the second half of a 7-6 home win in the East Division semifinal. But his bubble burst in the East final at home, when the Knighthawks shelled him in a 17-13 loss. Injuries took a toll on the Rock.

Hot sticks: Garrett Billings (32 goals), Stephan Leblanc (28), Kasey Beirnes (28), Colin Doyle (25) and Josh Sanderson (22) were Toronto’s leading scorers.

Signing coup: Chris White in Toronto colors? Those always-bitter Bandits-Rock scraps look to get even nastier now that Buffalo’s captain has jumped ship. Add a healthy Mike Hobbins and a rehabbed Drew Petkoff, who were hampered by injuries last winter, and the defense is going to be tough to penetrate.

Reinforcements: Defenseman Nick Inch is in the fold after being a holdout last year, so look for competition for jobs on the back end to be intense. “We’ve got 19 or 20 D-guys who’ll be vying for spots,” general manager Terry Sanderson said.

Offseason: Little impact here. The Rock traded defenseman Glen Bryan, who appeared in only nine games last season, and forward Jamie Rooney, who missed a big chunk of the season and the playoffs with a groin injury, to Buffalo for 14th spot in entry draft.

Entry draft: Toronto did not have a first-round pick. The 14th overall slot that was acquired from the Bandits was used on defenseman Brad Kri from the Canadian junior champion Orangeville Northmen. Kri is only 20, and won’t be rushed into NLL.

Head cases: There had been some concern over the future of forward Dan Carey after yet another concussion late last season, but he has re-signed and is working hard to be in shape to win a spot. Defenseman Phil Sanderson and forward Rob Hellyer, the team’s other 2012 concussion victims, also are expected to resume their careers.

Codd quits: Defenseman Bruce Codd retired to become an assistant coach in Calgary.

Campbell on the bench: Backup goalie Pat Campbell retired and now is the team’s goaltending coach.

Age factor: Ten starters, including forward Colin Doyle (35), forward Josh Sanderson (35) and defenseman Cam Woods (36) are over 30. Terry Sanderson is unconcerned. “We have three guys who are over 34,” he said. “What, you think 30 is old?” The general manager obviously has faith his vets can still deliver.

Feeling good: “We felt good about things a year ago,” Terry Sanderson said. “In that final game, we had a lot of guys injured. We didn’t feel we had to adjust much [during the offseason] because we felt we had the guys to do it last year, and they’re all coming back. Our goals and expectations haven’t really changed.”

Schedule: It’s a challenging start in Alberta with a Jan. 12 season opener at Calgary and afternoon tilt Jan. 13 at Edmonton. Toronto’s home opener is Jan. 19 against Philadelphia.

3. BUFFALO BANDITS

2012 record: 7-9

Ageless wonder John Tavares (44) is back for another season.
© Buffalo Bandits

2012 recap: The Bandits won their first two games, then lost six in a row before recovering to finish the regular season 7-9. Getting veteran goalie Anthony Cosmo into the lineup helped, but the defense wasn’t as strong as in years past. Buffalo ranked fourth in the league in offense, seventh on defense. But it was the offense that let the Bandits down in their East Division semifinal in Toronto. Up 6-2 at halftime, they couldn’t get a ball behind Rock goalie Nick Rose in the second half of a 7-6 loss.

Need scoring depth: Lack of secondary scoring hurt the Bandits. Only John Tavares (41 goals), Luke Wiles (39) and Mark Steenhuis (27) surpassed the 20-goal mark.

Chug this: Former goalie and 2012 NLL Hall of Fame inductee Steve (Chugger) Dietrich took over as general manager.

Captain deserts: Less than two weeks later, captain and unrestricted free agent Chris White signed with Toronto. Ouch!

Offseason: Forward Kevin Buchanan and a third-round 2013 draft pick were sent to Philadelphia for forward Mike Hominuck and transition man David Brock. Buchanan’s output fell to 10 goals last season, while Hominuck scored 14 for the Wings, so that’s a wash. Getting the physically imposing Brock was a bonus.

The Bandits then traded the No. 3 draft pick to Minnesota for forward Shawn Williams, defenseman Brendan Doran and three 2012 picks. The Swarm got towering forward Kiel Matisz with the pick, and Dietrich might one day regret passing on a potential game-breaker like him. But Buffalo get immediate dividends with the savvy vet Williams, one of the best scorers in NLL history.

Buffalo also signed free agent Derek Suddons, a veteran defenseman who was with Edmonton last winter. The Bandits released forward Roger Vyse, transition man Tom Montour and defenseman Ian Llord to make room for newcomers.

Entry draft: Buffalo’s first selection was Ontario Junior A scoring champion and MVP Dhane Smith, who is a second cousin of Bandits defenseman Billy Dee Smith. “Dhane is the complete package,” Dietrich said. “He’s got great vision and great hands, and he’s proven in junior that he can score a lot of goals.”

The Bandits’ second pick was hard-nosed defenseman Hayden Smith of the Canadian-champion Orangeville Northmen juniors. Smith, Suddons and Doran should offset the losses on the defensive end of White, Llord and Darryl Gibson, who announced his retirement.

Mikey packs it in: With Cosmo’s reliability, the retirement of Mike Thompson is not a problem for the Bandits, who signed free agent Kurtis Wagar to compete for the 2013 backup job.

Age factor: Eight Buffalo players are over 30, including ageless all-time NLL scoring king John Tavares (44), Tracey Kelusky (37) and Mat Giles (37).

Back to basics: With Dietrich in the front office, Darris Kilgour can concentrate solely on coaching. That will be a plus for a team ready to restore its tough-as-nails reputation.

Schedule: The Bandits open Jan. 11 at Philadelphia before their home opener the next night against Minnesota.

4. PHILADELPHIA WINGS

2012 record: 7-9

Kevin Crowley, Drew Westervelt (right), Brendan Mundorf (left) and Dan Dawson came through in 2012, but the Wings didn't have enough secondary scoring.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

2012 recap: The Wings were 7-9 during the regular season, when they allowed more goals than any NLL team. Brandon Miller’s .742 save percentage was the worst in the league among goalies who played more than 200 minutes. They still made the playoffs, but a fourth-quarter rally fell short against Rochester in a 14-13 first-round loss.

Top guns: Lack of secondary scoring also was a factor in Philly. Kevin Crowley (36 goals), Drew Westervelt (36), Brendan Mundorf (28), Dan Dawson (25) came through, but there was not enough from the rest.

Offseason: In the boldest move by general manager and coach Johnny Mouradian, Philadelphia acquired Kevin Ross from Minnesota in exchange for the Wings’ first-round pick in the 2015 entry draft. Ross was second on the Swarm with 28 goals last season, including a five-goal outburst against the Wings. Ross is one of the most underrated forwards in the NLL. Philadelphia also got Kevin Buchanan from Buffalo, hoping the American forward’s output would spike upward upon being reunited with former Boston Blazers teammate Dan Dawson.

“We were 25 to 30 goals shy last year on what our left-side production needed to be,” Mouradian said. “That was one of the areas we felt we had to address. We had Ned Crotty go down with a wrist injury and Brendan Mundorf hurt an ankle. Halfway through our season, we were short bodies on the left side.”

The Wings now boast Mundorf, Crotty, Ross and Buchanan on the left side, though Mundorf might not be available until March due to offseason ankle surgery.

Back-end woes: Getting Kyle Hartzell from Washington should help Philadelphia’s maligned defense, but the Wings need to acquire a backup goalie to spell Miller.

Entry draft: A bare cupboard. Philadelphia did not have a turn until the fourth round.

Coaching changes: Defenseman Tom Hajek retired and now is defensive coordinator. Blane Harrison moved from defensive coordinator to offensive coordinator in place of Jim Milligan.

Team USA: Americans will comprise at least 75 percent of Philadelphia’s roster. If the Wings can get Rabil, whom they covet, from Rochester to speed up breakouts out of the back end and maybe even Powell, fans might as well call them the USA Wings.

Shootout: It will be full throttle on offense. Philadelphia might need 15 goals a game to overcome their defensive deficiencies.

Schedule: The Wings open Jan. 11 at home against Buffalo.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.


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