After a disappointing 4-14 record in their debut season, the New England Black Wolves spent the offseason building a stronger, faster pack. With a new coaching staff and blockbuster trades creating a much different lineup, the Black Wolves have much higher expectations for the 2016 season.
“Need to improve,” said new Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark. “Need to improve on the season from last year. That’s what a lot of these acquisitions have been about; identifying that we need to improve our talent. I think in certain areas we’ve done that, but there’s still work to do.”
Among the trades is the acquisition of the National Lacrosse League’s reigning MVP Shawn Evans. Coming off the best season of his impressive 10-year career, Evans could be the veteran experience the Black Wolves have been missing. While the trade itself was a bit of a shock, based on the subtle hints dropped during the offseason, the pack is the perfect fit for Evans and his family.
“[Black Wolves GM] Rich [Lisk] and I were talking and he said there might be a chance that Shawn’s available because he’s expressed an interest to come back to the East,” said Clark. “It took about a month to put all the pieces together and to actually make it work.”
“Having three kids and a wife and living on the East coast, playing the last four years on the West coast was a little difficult,” Evans said. “Being closer to home, being closer to family, it’s easier to get to games and keep the body healthy. Make sure the body’s healthy so I can keep going, keep producing, and keeping playing at the highest level.”
Though the Evans trade will make a huge difference for the Black Wolves during the 2016 season, the coaching staff made sure to lock in most of the players from the 2015 roster. Looking back at game film and individual performances throughout the season, the pack was strong to begin with coming into the new season.
Fan favorite Bill O’Brien and team leading scorer Pat Saunders both signed on for two more seasons, while rookie defender Sheldon Burns earned another year in New England after an impressive first year in the NLL. Goalkeepers Evan Kirk and Tye Belanger are also returning for another year with the pack. Though Kirk was the starter for most of the 2015 season, Belanger is just as experienced and statistically naming a starter could prove to be very tricky.
“They had a very level camp in terms of performance,” Clark said. “A healthy competition is ongoing and there is still a battle for that starter’s role. We’re going to let it play out.”
With the return of forward Kevin Crowley, the team morale will receive a much needed lift from a well-known leader both on the field and in the locker room. Crowley was traded to the Toronto Rock in a move that seemed more like a desperate attempt to fire up an ice cold offense than a strategic move to save the team’s overall performance. At the time he was traded, Crowley led the Black Wolves in goals scored and was an assistant captain and the team essentially lost a leader who offered more for team morale than most would suspect.
“We had a mandate, we wanted to improve the team and Kevin helps us do that,” Clark said. “Ownership was familiar with him, players are familiar with him, so he was certainly someone we targeted and were interest in. In a sense, it was a priority, it was something we had identified and we had looked into doing.”
“I’m definitely happy to be back,” stated Crowley. “I like the trades and the players we’ve picked up. It’s definitely an exciting time. I know ‘Evvy’ [Evans] as a competitor and a great lacrosse player and it’s exciting to have him on my side. I look forward to getting to know him even better than I do…Any time you bring someone of that caliber in, it obviously raises the level of play on the team.”
After signing Crowley and Evans to multi-year deals, the Black Wolves made yet another big move. The pack traded Drew Petkoff to the Georgia Swarm in exchange for forward Shane MacDonald. In 11 games with the Swarm last season, MacDonald proved to be a quiet contributor to the offense, scooping up 16 loose balls and collecting 6 goals and 7 assists.
With the 2016 season closing in, the Black Wolves are building team chemistry and fighting to prove the doubters wrong. While most teams would want to forget about a 4-14 season and move on, there’s a lot more than a losing season to come back from for the pack. The mix of new coaches and acquisitions, along with a mostly set roster of returning players, the New England Black Wolves are starting over and attempting to make up for their debut season.
“I think it’s a breath of fresh air to be honest,” added Crowley. “I love the coaching staff they’ve brought in, and I think it’s really going to be great for the players and the culture around the team.”
“Obviously New England didn’t do well the first year, but I think they’re making moves to be the next team and want to win,” Evans said. “When you see moves being made, that means the ownership and the coaching staff are trying to make this team better. I think, right now, they’ve put in place a few key players and I think it’s going to be good for the season. I think we’re going to shock some people this year.”
The New England Black Wolves open the 2016 NLL season on January 9, 2016 as they hit the road to take on the Vancouver Stealth at 7 p.m. ET.
Story by Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com.