When the Vancouver Warriors face off against the Calgary Roughnecks on Saturday night, the team will have a noticeably new look on the left side of the offence.
For over a year, there has been an expectation that forward Corey Small would be traded to a team in the East Division so he could better tend to family matters back home in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Yet, as last year’s trade deadline came and went and the summer months passed by with no movement of the former 111-point player, it was unclear when or if Small would be shipped to another team.
While conversations had been had between Corey and both former and current management groups about facilitating a trade, their front offices’ messages were the same: we will do our best to get you to an East Division team, but we will need to get comparable talent in return.
“I think what we would do is we would look at what’s in the best interest of the club like we always do,” The franchise’s former GM Doug Locker previously said. “We wouldn’t just move him to move him. If it was something that helped our club and something that he wanted, you would look at that. But, first and foremost, it would have to help us.”
During his overhaul of last year’s 2-16 Vancouver roster, current Warriors GM Dan Richardson structured arguably the most seismic move of this offseason when he was able to send Small to the Buffalo Bandits in exchange for raising-star Mitch Jones as well as future draft picks being swapped.
Jones, who is nearly five years Small’s junior, has been improving exponentially each of the last three seasons. But, can he fill Small’s big shoes and lead the team in scoring or even become the league’s MVP like his counterpart did during his four-season stint in Vancouver? Small certainly thinks so.
“100%,” said Small. “I’ve had a few good years in my career and he’s just starting to have those big point years. He proved it last year and even outscored my points total. I think if he has more years like that, he’ll have no trouble taking over the left side from me.”
“He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of those guys entering the prime of lacrosse career. He’s big, strong, athletic, quick. I feel like he and I have a similar game. He’s an excellent shooter. He probably brings a little more size and quickness than I’m going to bring, whereas I’m going to bring a little bit more experience. But in terms of scoring goals and setting up his teammates, he’s one of the best in the league right now.”
Last year, Jones and Small experienced vastly contrasting point shifts from the 2016-17 season — Small’s point total decreased by 34 points while Jones’ increased by 12 points.
Last season was the first time that Small had fewer than 30 goals (having played at least 15 games) since 2013 while Jones had more than 35 goals for the first time in his young career. Jones also continued to showoff his loose ball skills. For the second time in three years, Jones topped over 100 LBs and was one of the league’s best at scooping the ball off the turf.
The Delta, B.C.-native says that Warrior fans can expect more of the same from him in the coming years.
“I pride myself on improving every year that I’m in the league,” said Jones. “I think I’m still on the upswing and my prime is still ahead of me. I spent my last seasons trying to get better and I don’t see why that should stop.”
While both Small and Jones have set high expectations for themselves with their new teams, Warriors head coach Chris Gill worked with Jones during the shortened training camp to help get him adapted to the new system as quickly and smoothly as possible. But, Gill says there is no pressure for Jones to perform at a certain level. He just wants Jones to fit in and play his game within the system.
“He can definitely [fill Small’s shoes], but that’s not what we’re asking him to do,” Gill said. “He’s another piece to our puzzle and he’ll fit just fine. We’re just trying to be a five-man unit every time we’re out there. To tell him to put up numbers like Corey, that’s too much to put on someone. He’s just got to fit in with the group, and as a group we have to practice every game or every shift; whatever it takes to win.”
Jones has an opportunity to prove that he can produce at a similarly high-level as Small did in Vancouver prior to last season. With Small and Rhys Duch no longer with the organization, that leaves the floor open for Jones to tally up points alongside other tenured offensive Warriors, Joel McCready and Logan Schuss.
“We’re trying to start from scratch and make our new brand and what it means to be part of this whole Warriors collective,” said Jones. “ I think I fit into that pretty well. I can bring leadership, I can bring scoring, I can bring defence, I can fit in anywhere. I know what Dan [Richardson] is looking for and I know he has confidence in me that I can bring that to the table and set the tone.”
As for Small, although he is happy to be where he needs to be, he will always be grateful for the time that he had in Vancouver.
“I definitely want to thank all of the fans and [former Stealth owner] Denise Watkins and our old GM Doug Locker for everything that they did for me in Vancouver. Everyone was super great and super understanding of my situation.”
Unfortunately for Warriors fans who have stuck around the organizations for years looking to say ‘thank you’ to Small, unless the Warriors face the Bandits for the NLL Cup, the two teams will not meet this year.
Nevertheless, Small will have his Bandits debut at 1:00pm EST Saturday with Jones having his Warriors debut at 9:00 EST later that day. While they may not be competing against each other for wins or higher point totals, you can be sure that both organizations will be tracking whether Small or Jones is going pay higher dividends in the seasons to come.