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A Look at the NLL’s Updated East Division

Reflecting on the movers and shakers out East

After the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the 2019-20 season and then forced the league to cancel the 2020-21 campaign, the National Lacrosse League returns to action for the 2021-22 season with opening weekend set for December 3-4, 2021.  The NLL will have a new format with a six team West Division and an eight team East Division.

Here’s a team-by-team capsule of each club that will make up the East Division.

Albany FireWolves (8-3 as New England, 1st in East Division 2019-20)

The National Lacrosse League has returned to the Capital Region of New York with the debut of the Albany FireWolves for the 2021-22 season after the Albany Attack played from 2000-2003.  The franchise relocated from Connecticut where they were the New England Black Wolves and held the best record in the NLL at an 8-3 record before the COVID-19 pandemic prematurely ended the 2019-20 season.

Although the team has relocated, they are far from an expansion franchise and look to have the same success as they did in 2019-20. Losing leading scorer Callum Crawford is going to sting, but having Andrew Kew take the next step in his young career is not out of the question.

“The Albany FireWolves is a unique name that represents what we are going to be on and off the field,” said President George Manias.  “On the field, we will be fierce like a wolf and intimidate foes who come into our den.  Our games will be a gathering place for our fans to rally and support our team onto victory.”

Key Additions: 

Jacob Ruest, Adrian Sorichetti and Jean-Luc Chetner

Key Losses: 

Callum Crawford and Stephen Leblanc
Buffalo Bandits (7-4, 3rd in North Division 2019-20)
When the 2019-20 NLL season was halted because of the pandemic, the Buffalo Bandits were completing for a playoff spot and with a 7-4 record, they were tied with Toronto for 2nd place in the North Division just a half a game behind first place Halifax in what was the most competitive division in the NLL.

As part of their off-season moves, the Bandits acquired American forward Connor Fields from San Diego in exchange for a 1st-round pick in 2021 and a 2nd round pick in 2022.  Fields led all NLL rookies with 18 goals and 44 points during the 2019-20 season and is a northeastern boy heading to his hometown team.

The Bandits drafted Brad McCulley and Sam La Roue in 2020 and Tehoka Nanticoke in 2021 to add to what is already a dominating offense with the likes of Dhane Smith, Josh Byrne, Chase Fraser, Chris Cloutier, and Kyle Buchanan. With Matt Vinc in net every game will be closely contested, can they repeat the 2018-19 success where they finished 14-4?

Key Additions:  

Brad McCulley, Sam La Roue, Connor Fields and Kyle Buchanan

Key Losses:  

Mitch de Snoo, Dan Lintner, Corey Small
Georgia Swarm (7-5, 2nd in East Division 2019-20)
The Georgia Swarm was contending for a playoff spot during the 2019-20 NLL season.  They were 7-5 and sitting a game and a half behind the first place New England Black Wolves (now Albany FireWolves) but the season came to a premature end because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the extended off-season, the Swarm was able to sign forward and 2020 NLL Most Valuable Player Shayne Jackson to a contract extension and more recently 2017 MVP Lyle Thompson.

“We were very happy to be able to re-sign Shayne,” said Swarm Head Coach Ed Comeau.  “He is one of our key leaders on the Swarm.”

Unfortunately, though, the Georgia offseason was not as ideal as Swarm fans would have liked. The team traded Zed Williams to Colorado in exchange for team captain Dan Coates who then signed in Rochester as a free agent. Randy Staats was first feared to be out for the season with a knee injury but was then traded to Panther City. The good news for the Swarm is they held nine first and second round draft picks in the last two Entry Drafts which should help fill the gaps of some of their former players.

Key Additions:  

Laine Hruska, Craig Wende, Ethan Walker, Robert Hudson, and Jeff Henrick

Key Losses:  

Randy Staats, Zed Williams, Dan Coates (acquired in Zed Williams trade and lost in free agency), Jason Noble, Kevin Orleman and Connor Sellars.
Halifax Thunderbirds (8-4, 1st in North Division 2019-20)
The Halifax Thunderbirds were one of the favorites to win the NLL title during the 2019-20 season after what was a tough final season before their relocation in 2018-19.  They were atop the North Division with an 8-4 record trying to hold off Toronto and Buffalo when the season came to an end because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three-time NLL Defensive Player of the Year Graeme Hossack is locked up long-term with a five-year contract extension.

“To be able to have Graeme signed for the next five years shows his commitment to the organization,” said Thunderbirds Head Coach Mike Accursi.

Also, defenseman Jake Withers inked a five-year extension, so the T-Birds are ready to roll this coming season. Compared to other teams in the division, the Thunderbirds had a quite offseason but were strategic in their pickups with Tyson Bell and Stephen Leblanc. Losing a top-10 scorer of all-time in Ryan Benesch is never easy but the Nest should be a great place to watch great lacrosse this season.

Key Additions:  

Stephen Leblanc, Tyson Bell, Ethan Riggs, and Ryan Terefenko

Key Losses:  

Ryan Benesch

New York Riptide (1-12, 4th in East Division 2019-20)

The New York Riptide’s inaugural season in 2019-20 did not go according to plan as they went 1-12 before the season was cut short because of the pandemic.  The franchise has a fresh new look for this season with new General Manager Jim Veltman along with new Head Coach Dan Ladouceur.

“We had a vision of the kind of person, leader and communicator we wanted in a General Manager and (Head) Coach we were looking for,” said GF Sports Executive Vice-President Rich Lisk.  “After talking with Jim and Dan, it was apparent they were the perfect fit for our organization.”

2019 first overall draft pick Tyson Gibson is joined this season by Jeff Teat, the first overall pick in the 2020 NLL Entry Draft. The Riptide is likely to be the most improved team this offseason after acquiring 2019-20 leading scorer Callum Crawford as well as veterans Damon Edwards, Connor Kearnan, Dereck Downs and Jay Thorimbert. Losing a player of Andrew Suitors caliber and leadership will be tough, but this is a new look Riptide team trying to turn some heads early in the season. The key question for New York is how their goaltending will perform, while Gowah Abrams is in the incumbent starter, it would not be a surprise to see the likes of Nolan Clayton and Steven Orlemann get some reps early on at training camp.

Key Additions: 

Callum Crawford, Jeff Teat, Damon Edwards, Connor Kearnan, Dereck Downs, Mathieu Boissonneault, and Jay Thorimbert

Key Losses:

John Ranagan and Andrew Suitor

Philadelphia Wings (8-6, 3rd in East Division 2019-20)

After their expansion season in the 2018-19 season, the Philadelphia Wings had a much more successful 2019-20 campaign as they compiled a record of 8-6 before the season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  During this off-season, they were able to retain their biggest offseason move after they traded for forward Ben McIntosh and signed him to a three-year contract.

“I am beyond excited to be a part of the Wings organization,” said McIntosh.  “Philadelphia has a special place in my heart since my college days at Drexel.”

Matt Rambo took a big leap forward in his second season in the NLL and looked at times, dominant. Paul Day has quietly made some acquisitions for veteran players to this Wings team that could make them a true contender in the East if they play like they did early on in the 2019-20 season, winning seven out of nine games.

Key Additions:  

Ben McIntosh, Corey Small, John Ranagan, Jackson Suboch, and Brock Sorensen

Key Losses:  

Josh Currier, Liam Byrnes, and Liam Patten
Rochester Knighthawks (2-10, 4th in East Division 2019-20)
After the previous Knighthawks franchise relocated to Halifax for the 2019-20 season, it didn’t long for fans in Rochester to welcome box lacrosse back to their city as the new expansion Knighthawks began play for the 2019-20 season.  While the team was just 2-10 when the season came to a premature end because of the pandemic, there is excitement surrounding the franchise thanks to a busy off-season with the acquisitions of veterans Dan Coates and Evan Kirk.

“For us to be able to sign free agents that are going to make an impact on our roster, and the players on our roster, it definitely was part of our plan and the process of continuing to get better,” said Knighthawks General Manager Dan Carey.

Finding a true number one goalie is hard to do but Evan Kirk solidifies a backend that was a trio of goalies for the Knighthawks during the 2019-20 season. The team had a strong balance of young players and experience in their first season, and we should expect a competitive training camp for their second season.

Key Additions:  

Evan Kirk, Dan Coates, Ryan Smith and Matt Gilray

Key Losses: 

Steve Fryer, Craig Wende, Jay Thorimbert and Phil Caputo
Toronto Rock (7-4, 2nd in North Division 2019-20)
When you have one of the greatest lacrosse players in the world on your team, chances are you will be able to compete for a championship.  Tom Schreiber and the Toronto Rock were 7-4 and just a half a game behind first place Halifax when the 2019-20 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question remains whether Schreiber can remain healthy after he only suited up for five games during the shortened season. For the 2021-22 season, the team has relocated to the FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario where the original Ontario Raiders played prior to becoming the Toronto Rock.

“We feel that this is best for the future of the Toronto Rock and we’re very excited to work with FirstOntario Centre,” said Toronto Rock Owner, President and General Manager Jamie Dawick. “There is a strong business case behind the relocation to Hamilton.” The move at least initially has looked to pay off as the team has all Saturday night home games.

The Rock bolstered up a strong defense by adding Mitch de Snoo and Jason Noble out of the backdoor. 2020 second round pick for the Rock in TD Ierlan will be an interesting piece at camp. The faceoff guru will be great at the draw, but can he adjust and play NLL defense?

Dangerous Dan Dawson has the chance to set a handful of league records this year. He needs to play 10 games and record 25 assists to pass John Tavares as the all-time leader in those categories and he needs 11 points to pass John Grant Jr for second all-time. Will this be the final year for the 2009 MVP? If so, treasure every moment we see Dawson on the floor.

Key Additions:  

Mitch de Snoo, Jason Noble and TD Ierlan

Key Losses:  

Taylor Stuart and Damon Edwards

A number of East Division clubs improved during the extended off-season dating back to the premature end of the 2019-20 campaign.  Teams that were successful during the most recent season like Albany (formerly New England), Toronto, Halifax and Buffalo will certainly be taking notice of clubs like New York and Rochester who made big changes with the hopes of competing for playoff spots in a competitive East Division.

One thing is for certain, after a season without a champion crowned and a season cancelled because of the pandemic, there are 14 franchises that are chomping at the bit to get the 2021-22 season underway.