Change is never easy, but sometimes it is necessary to reach the returns that you are looking to achieve. In the case of the New England Black Wolves, they knew that shaking up the roster after two sub-.500 records and two seasons allowing more than 240 goals since 2015 -they and the Vancouver Stealth are the only teams in NLL history to have multiple seasons giving up 240+ goals- that something(s) needed to be done to make this team a real contender again like the franchise was in the 90’s and early 2000’s as the Philadelphia Wings.
“As a result of the stats from last year and the play in the backend,” Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark said, “we, as a group, discussed making those changes, so we did, and that’s the big part of it. We’ve adjusted our philosophy a little bit based on our personnel, but a lot of it was bringing in new guys that played the style of game that we wanted to play in terms of transitioning the ball, limiting repossessions, limiting turnovers, all those things we talked about, and it’s been playing out so far.”
There was a lot of movement concerning the defense, and rightfully so. Coming into the 2018 season, no team had let in more goals than the Black Wolves over the last three years. David Brock and Adam Bomberry were brought in from the Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks respectively to ensure a stronger back-end presence alongside veterans Derek Suddons and Brett Manney as well as budding young talents, Joel Coyle and Matt Spanger.
Two other vital moves included sending Sheldon Burns to the Toronto Rock for Stephan Leblanc in the early stages of Week 3 and acquiring Aaron Bold and John Lafontaine (plus draft picks) for long-time goaltender Evan Kirk from the Saskatchewan Rush.
“It is always hard trading a quality player like Sheldon,” General Manager Rich Lisk said of the trade, “but you have to give up quality to get quality. In Stephan LeBlanc we get one of the premier left-handers in the NLL and adding him to an already potent offense is something that we are thrilled about. I believe fans will be very excited to see Stephan in a Black Wolves jersey and all of us are very excited to welcome him to the Pack.”
The moves weren’t limited to the defense; the aforementioned Lafontaine is playing a key role in the transition game alongside the Black Wolves 7th selection in the 2017-18 NLL draft, Colton Watkinson, and, of course, Leblanc is a dynamic forward. Other selections from this year’s draft such as JP Kealey and Anthony Joaquim have also made an impact on this year’s squad.
Black Wolves captain Shawn Evans knows that this is not the team he knew when he came to the club in 2016, but he’ll take the results that this team is putting up any day.
“We made a lot of great moves in the offseason, a lot of different faces.” The Captain said. “Aaron Bold has been stellar for us making the saves that he’s needed to late in games to give us opportunities to score on offense. And defensively, they’ve been outstanding in front of him. They’re pressuring to the ball, and they’re holding teams like Rochester to 8 or 9 goals the last two games. So when your defense and goaltender are doing that for you, it gives us on the offensive end time to get things rolling.”
Taking away the 24-11 loss the Black Wolves had against the Rush in Week 2, Bold and the defense have allowed 9.25 goals per game. As Evans said, in their last two games, the Black Wolves held the Knighthawks to eight and nine goals respectively, grabbing the attention of Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen.
“The defense is really good.” Hasen said. “They play a good team-system where they get on hand. They want to allow Boldy to be in his spot, see the shot and make it easier to see the ball. At the end of the day, Boldy was exceptional, he stoned us on many opportunities especially when we were tight and had a clear shot at the goal.”
Bold’s coach also has plenty of positive things to say about his performance through five games. “I think he’s a guy that doesn’t fade in games,” Clark said. “As the game goes on, he has seemingly been getting stronger and better. That has allowed guys to play with some more confidence and you don’t win in this league unless your goalie, on most nights, is your best player. You need your goalie to be good because in the game of lacrosse, no matter how good you are on defense, you’re going to give up quality shots throughout the game. He has been a big part of giving the guys confidence, and I think with his conditioning and commitment, he has been better in the 4th quarters, which has been real big for us.”
Bold and the defense have been so good in fact that even when the Black Wolves have been a man down on the penalty kill, they have been able to stop an NLL-leading 71.4% of the chances against them. Coach Clark is pleased with the effort the man down unit is putting in, and he knows that the success has a lot to do with the new guys on the roster.
“We’ve got a couple of new personnel on the man-down. I think we’ve been a little bit more aggressive on the man-down in terms of our schemes and forcing shots from spots we want them to come from. I think probably the aggression, but also some personnel changes have helped as well.”
Despite its potent potential, the defense has carried the team to its league-best 4-1 record, and many of the numbers prove that to be true. Offensively, the Black Wolves are 7th in GPG (11.40), 6th on the powerplay (46.15), they have -4 goal differential and they are tied for the fewest players with five points or more in the league with the Colorado Mammoth and Stealth who all only have eight men breaking the threshold. That’s not to say that guys like Evans and Kevin Crowley aren’t producing, they are. Crowley has the 4th-most goals scored (13), and Evans is 4th in overall points with 32. Although, Evans is the only player on the team with more than 20 points through five games.
Regardless of the offensive inefficiency, as the adage goes, “Defense wins championships.” As Captain of the Black Wolves, Evans knows that he has a prominent role in leading his team to the Champion’s Cup and bringing the first title to Uncasville, Connecticut.
“When I came we had the goal to get better each year and this, my third year here, making the moves that we did, the management have put [us] in a position to succeed. It’s my job and our leadership crew to keep the guys together and make sure that everyone’s happy and everyone’s on the same page. When we’re working together good things happen and as you can see we’re 4-1, and we gotta keep it rolling.”