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2022-23 Season In Review: Pt. 2

Last week we published Part I of the 2022-23 Season in Review. In this version, we will finish up on some critical thoughts from the latest season in NLL history.

The Year of the Goaltender

To many it is no surprise that the goaltender position is the most critical in box lacrosse. The final four teams in the playoffs had arguably the best four goalies in the game.

This season was highlighted by Christian Del Bianco becoming just the second goaltender winning the MVP award (Steve Dietrich, 2006) for his outstanding play. CDB and Nick Rose were the only two goalies to have a goals against average under 10 while Nick Damude was close at 10.31 for the upstart Panther City team. In Game 3 of the Finals, then 40 year old, Matt Vinc saved and incredible 47 of 51 shots (.921) to help lead the Bandits to their championship, feeling reminiscent to Dillon Ward’s 55 save performance during Game 3 of the 2022 Finals.

Four goaltenders played more than 1,000 minutes during the regular season and seven goalies had 600 or more saves. Four goalies had over 700 saves which are all in the top 10 all-time in a single season (Vinc, Higgins, Harley, Del Bianco). Dillon Ward, Aaron Bold, and Nick Rose continued to climb the all-time career records among goaltenders, trying to catch the eight-time Goaltender of the Year in Matt Vinc.

We saw some unbelievable performances including Steven Orleman with the most saves in a game with 57 on April 29 to finish the season in a win. Rylan Hartley had 55 saves in a loss on March 4 while Zach Higgins saved 55 in the same weekend against the same team in both games, the Toronto Rock. Nick Damude also held Las Vegas to just three goals in an entire game, saving 30 of 33 shots (.909 save percentage). Dillon Ward saved 20 shots alone in the fourth quarter in their 9-8 win on January 7, the Mammoth were tied heading into the final frame and he allowed just one goal.

Some young goaltenders got their chance in net too. 2022 first round pick Brett Dobson got his first real taste of NLL action and performed admirably, especially on the six-game winning streak that almost got Georgia into the playoffs. He made the All-Rookie team, finishing the season with 881 minutes played, an 8-7 record, 10.69 goals against average and a .779 save percentage.

Local Saskatchewan boy, Laine Hruska, 13th overall pick from the 2020 Entry Draft, got his first game experience. In his first start against Colorado, he got the overtime victory with 36 saves and allowing 11 goals.

Other young goaltenders got chances in net with Landon Kells taking the reins in Las Vegas, Rylan Hartley proving why he was a high draft pick and taking the next step of his career, Cameron Dunkerley getting a chance in New York, and Drew Hutchison getting his first game action in Halifax including his first career win.

Parity Party

One of the things that makes the NLL great is a team can win on any given night. The games may be high scoring but are usually close and competitive. That was proven in Week 1 when the FireWolves (who finished last in the NLL with a 3-15 record) defeated the Bandits (who would go on to have the best record in the league at 14-4). Seven teams finished between an 8-10 record and 10-8. One bounce is potentially the difference in qualifying for the playoffs or heading home for the summer. Once you’re into the playoffs, we all know anything can happen.

In analyzing the trends, 36 of the 135 regular season games were decided by one goal and 17 games were decided by just two goals. That’s almost 40% of all games being within reach in the final minute of play. Plus 16 games were decided in overtime (11.85% of all games) to add to the heart-pounding action. The Bandits held a perfect 4-0 in their overtime games.

When looking at the trends about who won and who lost a few key numbers stuck out. Teams who scored 10 goals or less were 10-94 (.096 winning percentage) on the season, proven by the fact that the average losing score was 9.4 goals. On the flip side, the average winning goal total was 13.7 and teams who scored more than 10 goals were 125-41 (.753 winning percentage). Moral of the story, 11 goals seemed to be the magic mark to deciding who would win a game this season.

Games can be won in a myriad of ways, including a high scoring affair or a defensive duel. The lowest goals scored in a win was seven by the Bandits in their 7-6 win over San Diego. The most goals in a loss was 18, when Georgia fell 19-18 to Rochester where it felt like every shot found a way to the back of the net.

The most common goals scored in a game in either a win or a loss was 11. The most common winning goal score was 14 while on the losing end was 10 goals scored.

Looking at the top scoring and top defensive teams, seven of the top eight scoring teams qualified for the playoffs (Colorado was the other at 12th) while seven of the eight best defensive teams qualified for the playoffs (Rochester was 11th). The one team in the top eight for goals scored and goals allowed that did not qualify for the playoffs was Georgia.

The NLL Arrived in Sin City

While players and staff would have liked to qualify for the playoffs and compete for a championship, it is hard to say that the first year in Las Vegas for the NLL’s newest franchise, the Desert Dogs, was anything but a success.

The previous five expansion teams (PCLC, ROC, NY, SD, PHI) in their first season (including the COVID shortened 2019-20 season were a combined 24-55 (.304 win percentage) with the outlier of the Seals going 10-8 and qualifying for the playoffs in their first season. It took teams an average of 4.8 games to win their first game (San Diego did it in game one) while Las Vegas was on par at five games.

A core of players were brought together and while it took some time to gel, the team became more competitive each week. Veteran Rob Hellyer helped lead the offense with 92 points on 71 assists. Rookie Jack Hannah turned heads this season with 33 goals, tied for the team lead and led all rookies by a wide margin.

Some lineup changes were made as the season progressed. Only six players dressed or played in all 18 games. 27 players were used through their season including a plethora of rookies or guys still in their first couple of seasons trying to get their footing.

The team averaged 5,960 fans per home game at Michelob ULTRA Arena, good for 10th in the NLL and a season high 7,914 on March 11. They were able to secure over 2,000 season ticket members prior to the season starting in a market that had minimal exposure to the NLL or high level lacrosse.

The team was able to bring in some memorable acts and personalities to their games including Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams, the Blue Man Group, UFC Bantamweight Champion Aljamain Sterling, and more

Las Vegas is not a traditionally hot spot for lacrosse but the team worked diligently within the community, donating equipment, gear and goals to local schools and organizations while introducing “The Creator’s Game” to diverse audiences throughout Las Vegas.

In July of 2022, the team held their first community clinic with over 200 kids in attendance to learn the game from the pros and team co-owner, Joe Tsai. In the fall of 2022, the franchise donated close to 40 goals to parks and community fields throughout Clark County and the City of Las Vegas.

Prior to their first game in December of 2022, the team held an open youth clinic for members of the Indigenous community at the team’s training facility. The team provided complimentary tickets and transportation for members of the Indigenous community to attend the team’s inaugural Indigenous Heritage Night on February 4, 2023.

The team got to play in the NLL’s first ever outdoor game against the San Diego Seals at Snapdragon Stadium on March 4, setting up the opportunity for the league to make this a recurring event.