Casey Powell has returned to the team where his NLL career began as he plays in the opening day of Knighthawks training camp. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Nearly 40 players from across the US and Canada are in Rochester, NY this weekend for the opening of Knighthawks training camp. The defending National Lacrosse League champions hope to create strong competition for the team's 26 available roster spots, but one of those spots is expected to belong to newly-signed star forward Casey Powell, a former NLL MVP who sat out the 2012 season.
“I took a year off to get my life together," said Powell, who agreed to terms on a one-year contract, pending league approval. "I know time is running out on my career. It worked out that the Knighthawks picked me up. It’s great to finish my career where it started.”
Rochester originally drafted the 36-year-old with the first overall pick in the 1999 NLL Entry Draft. Powell, entering his 10th NLL season and third year with Rochester, helped the Knighthawks reach the title game twice before.
Over his illustrious career, Powell has recorded 595 points (254+341) in 119 games. The six-time NLL All-Pro became the first American-born player to win the league MVP award in 2010. Powell was named to the All-World Team at the 2011 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships after leading Team USA’s offense with 31 points (16+15) in five games. He has scored at least 80 points in each of his last five NLL seasons.
Before reaching the pros, Powell had an extraordinary college lacrosse career at Syracuse University. Considered to be one of the best players in SU history, he was named the NCAA Attackman of the Year in 1998. The four-time All-American and two-time National Player of the Year led the team to the NCAA National Championship in 1995.
Powell will try to find a niche in the Knighthawks offense alongside Cody Jamieson, Stephen Keogh, Johnny Powless and Cory Vitarelli.
“Casey is a guy that we want having the ball in his stick, but at the same time, he’s smart enough to know when to move it," said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. "To tell you the truth, I think it’s going to be a pretty seamless transition. We talk about character guys, and Casey is a character guy. All he wants to do is come in and play."
Powell's return to Rochester became official after he signed his contract and hit the turf today.
“I am excited to come here more mature and more defined as an indoor player,” he said. “I am going to try to help the Knighthawks repeat.”
For the third-year head coach Hasen, scouting all of the free agent signees and the team's five picks from the 2012 Entry Draft is one of the most difficult parts of his offseason.
“It’s going to be really tough," Hasen said. "You add a couple veterans in Tom Montour and Casey coming in, and Ian Llord as well. The rookies that were drafted are very promising, too. It’s not going to be an easy process by any means."
Although Hasen said his team could improve in all aspects of the game, it's no coincidence that nine of the newcomers are transition players and/or defensemen.
“We’re just looking for a little more depth on the back end and a little more character to be in the dressing room and on the floor for us," Hasen said. "That’s the biggest thing we’re looking for right now. Every spot is open and we're looking for a good team guy that’s going to play the system we found to be successful the last couple years."
The Knighthawks added two former Buffalo Bandits in Llord and Montour during the offseason. The 6'3" Llord is a defensive presence on the floor and according to Hasen, will "make people accountable on the opposing team." Montour has been a loose ball vacuum and adds a right-handed transition player to the lineup. Hasen expects the two players to bring “a little more grit” to the team.
With their first two picks in the 2012 draft, the Knighthawks selected Robbie Campbell and Cody Hawkins, both from Delta, British Columbia. The two rookies will compete with three other draft picks and four free agents for roster spots on defense and transition. Cody McLeod, the final pick of the entire draft, could be relevant because of past experience in Hasen's system.
Another position battle brewing at camp is the backup goaltending spot. Former Knighthawk Ben Van Every, who played in Rochester in 2009, will be vying for incumbent Jake Henhawk’s position behind All-Pro goalie Matt Vinc.
“I think there’s a good chance for Ben to push Jake here a bit," Hasen said. "I think he’s got a little bit of a hunger trying to get back and earn a spot for us again. At the same time, I know Jake isn’t going to just say ‘here you go.'"
Rochester native Joe Walters looks to build upon a strong postseason performance last year. Walters recorded a career-high six points (2+4) in the first round against the Philadelphia Wings and followed it up with a four-point (2+2) performance against the Toronto Rock in the East Division Final. Rochester posted a record of 5-0 in home games with the local favorite in the lineup. The next step for Walters is to earn a full-time spot in the lineup, which starts with a good showing at camp.
After tearing his ACL last season, Jordan Hall begins his comeback bid for the upcoming season. Before his injury, Hall was working on both the offensive and defensive roles required for a transition player.
“[Hall] is going to be doing a little bit of both," Hasen said. "We are going to work him in slowly and not going to rush him by any means. We have to make sure he's 100 percent. When he’s healthy, he’s on the floor for us no matter what role we need him in."
The main training camp goal for Hasen is to improve the team across the board. He wants everyone on the team to recognize that no one’s position is completely secure. The coach expects the free agents and rookies to challenge the veteran players as much as possible.
“Nobody is really safe," Hasen said. "Hopefully everybody is looking over their shoulder. That’s going to create competition everywhere and push us all to be better.
"One of the messages that we sent out to the guys is that we really weren’t all that good last year. We got good at the right time. It’s going to be a harder process this year. It’s going to be a much tougher road. We are going to have a sense of urgency, push these guys right from the get-go.”
The reigning NLL champs kick off the 2013 regular season on the road against the Washington Stealth on Saturday, Jan. 5 in Everett, WA.