With the new National Lacrosse League season finally underway, Ty Pilson highlights a handful of talented pros to keep an eye with his five NLL players to watch in 2015 on Inside Lacrosse. Check out the former NLL Media Person of the Year’s expert opinion on which laxers are primed for a big season this year.
1. D&D, CALGARY ROUGHNECKS
No, not the fantasy game. Well, come to think of it, if you’re playing the NLL fantasy game, you’d want these two.
For my Fantasy money, Curtis Dickson and Dane Dobbie are the best 1-2 goal-scoring punch on any team in the league because they complement each other so well.
One’s a righty, one’s a lefty.
One loves the ball in his stick, the other prefers to play without it.
One is know for his down-low post moves — arguably the best one-on-one player in the league — and a filthy underhand shot, especially on a fadeaway or cutting to the centre.
The other scores outside sidearm or overhand (often top corner, far-side on that one) and is money in tight, taking feeds in traffic on cuts or from picks.
Dickson and Dobbie — The Dynamic Duo.
Dobbie led the league with 51 goals in 2014 while Dickson finished third with 44 after an ice-cold start to the year where he only potted five goals in his first five games.
While John Grant Jr. and Adam Jones likely would have combined for more goals last year than Dobbie and Dickson had Jones not got injured and missed a handful of games, what makes D&D unique is their vastly contrasting styles that make life very tough for defences.
Being on opposite sides of the floor, both create space for each other just by being out there, especially as defences usually key on Dickson with their top shutdown defender giving Dobbie room to get open on cuts.
On an offence that also features former MVPs Shawn Evans, a righty, and southpaw Jeff Shattler, the Roughnecks attack, as whole, is impressive to watch. Often silky smooth in their execution, they led the league in scoring last season.
Evans’ deft passing ability certainly helps both Dickson and Dobbie. When you have one of the league’s best (if not best) passer feeding two of its best goalscorers, it’s the perfect combination.
Dobbie was the only player to top 50 goals last season and it’s a good bet that both he and Dickson will top that benchmark in 2015.
How high could they go?
You could certainly see one or both topping the elusive 60-goal plateau.
One thing is for sure, Roughnecks fans will again enjoy watching the Dynamic Duo fill the net.
(Dobbie had four goals and Dickson had a hat-trick in Calgary’s season-opening loss).
2. DILLON WARD, COLORADO MAMMOTH
The NLL has never been kind to young goalies.
The jump from junior to the pros for a ’tender — or even one with some senior experience — is massive.
To that end, it’s no surprise this league has chewed up and spit out many promising young goalies over the years. Without naming names, there has been no shortage of young stars who flame out quickly, those who had a promising season or two before fading away.
Which is why all eyes will be on Ward this season.
He entered the league with plenty of hype. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he had the height but still the agility to cover a lot of net and move quickly. Colorado president and GM Steve Govett said he simply couldn’t pass up Ward when he took him third overall in the 2013 draft.
Ward was the first goalie to be drafted in the top three since Gee Nash was taken second overall in 1999.
Govett wanted a dominant franchise goaltender, not easy to find or groom even in a nine-team loop.
Early last season Ward hit some bumps adjusting to the NLL, magnified by his team’s struggles in front of him. After spinning on a carousel withTye Belanger in and out of the Mammoth net he eventually won the starter’s job.
Ward ended up with a 7-7 record, playing 901:31. He had the fourth best save percentage and total saves at .773 and 592, respectively, and had the fifth-best GAA at 11.58.
His play was one of the main reasons — if not the main reason — for the Mammoth’s mid-season turnabout that saw them make the playoffs before losing in overtime to the Roughnecks in a game Ward made 42 saves in, many jaw-droppers.
And if he needed more of a confidence boost coming into this season, he got that when played net for Team Canada at the world field championships, helping them win gold.
(Ward made 35 saves in Colorado’s win over Minny Saturday).
3. JOHNNY POWLESS, VANCOUVER STEALTH
The ‘kid’ is just 21 years old.
He’s already won three Champion’s Cups in his three seasons in the league.
He’s also won two Mann Cup titles and a Minto Cup, turning the trifecta in 2014 with a Champion’s, Mann and Minto.
That impressive feat earned him a nomination for the Lou Marsh Award, given annually to Canada’s top athlete.
No big deal, right?
The other nominees were tennis phenoms Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, L.A. Kings star defenceman Drew Doughty and Olympic gold medallist and eventual Marsh winner Kaillie Humphries.
The nomination came as a surprise to Powless and much of Canada. Let’s face it, lacrosse is still off most people’s radars and many that read his bio likely could not appreciate how incredible his 2014 year was.
After winning his third title with the Knighthawks, Powless wanted to be a bigger part of an offence and reportedly requested a trade, being dealt in a blockbuster to the Vancouver Stealth.
Before even stepping on the floor for the Stealth, he’s invigorated a team and fanbase coming off a disappointing season and helped forge closer ties between the club and the large West Coast native population.
While all that would be a lot of pressure for most player, Powless isn’t most players.
He’s a rare phenom and not yet even close to the prime of his career.
Last season he scored 30 goals and had a career-high 53 points. He has racked up 78 goals and 144 points in 50 games since coming into the NLL as the fifth-overall pick in 2011 at the ripe old age of 18.
Of course, he became part of a blockbuster trade before he even played a single game, being dealt from Calgary (their pick) to Rochester in return for package that included Shawn Evans.
With Lewis Ratcliff having an off-season in 2014, the Stealth were desperate for some added scoring punch up front. Last season the team relied on the The Rhys Duch Show for nearly 20% of their goals.
Powless seems primed to take the next step from star to superstar in Vancouver and it should be fun to watch.
(Powless was held without a goal but had three assists in his first game with the Stealth)
4. ADAM JONES, COLORADO MAMMOTH
He. Is. Ridiculously. Talented.
With 106 goals and 220 points in his first three NLL campaigns, you get the feeling Jones is ready to explode this season.
Had he not suffered an injury last season which sidelined him for five games, we might have already seen the full breakout. He had 23 goals in seven games before being sidelined.
He had 12 goals in the final six games of the season after returning and scored five times in Colorado’s playoff loss to Calgary.
He transitioned from the NLL season to the world field championships and played a significant role in Team Canada’s gold-medal win.
Drafted third overall in 2011 behind Kevin Crowley and Stephen Keogh, he won the 2012 rookie of the year award and has steadily improved as a pro.
Listed at a modest 5-foot-11 and 175-lb., Jones has deceptive quickness and a knack for knowing where the ball will be. A great outside shot combined with incredible hands in tight makes him the total package.
Playing on the right side of the floor with fellow southpaw John Grant Jr. doesn’t hurt either.
Teams have to key on Junior which can leave a little bit of open floor for Jones, who capitalizes on that.
On a team with scoring standouts including Drew Westervelt and Athan Iannucci, Jones is the second biggest threat to score for the Mammoth behind Junior and is the future of the franchise up front.
He could very easily lead the league in goalscoring this season.
(Jones had a stellar start to 2015, scoring five goals and seven points in Colorado’s win over Minny Saturday).
5. KARSEN LEUNG, CALGARY ROUGHNECKS
People don’t realize how good Leung is.
If I had a buck for every NLL GM, coach, player or former player who said that to me and raved about Leung’s play, I’d probably have $15 or $20.
That’s a ton of money, really, given the small NLL brotherhood and the fact heady praise isn’t often heaped on rookies or players from other teams!
Most transition players, by their nature, are the unheralded guys in the league. The top forwards get most of the ink, the goalies come next and the shutdown defenders after them.
If your name isn’t Geoff Snider or Brodie Merrill, you often fade into the background.
A shame, really, given that teams need top transition players to be successful: guys who can play defence — really well — and score at the game’s highest level. They’re not easy to come by anymore.
Leung notched 11 goals and 29 points in his rookie season to go with 93 loose balls and 13 forced turnovers.
His senior A experience with the Victoria Shamrocks combined with his athleticism and lacrosse acumen had him playing the game with veteran poise and savvy by the end of the season.
While Logan Schuss was certainly a deserving winner of the rookie of the year award, some thought Leung should have won it given how he excelled at a position difficult for newcomers to the league.
With a great set of hands, you could easily see Leung taking more offensive shifts one day, much like teammate Jeff Shattler, Buffalo’s Mark Steenhuis or Minny’s Jordan MacIntosh.
In the meantime, the Roughnecks will look to Leung to make an impact in his transition role and hopefully improve on the 11 goals he scored in 2014. (Leung picked up an assist and looked solid in Calgary’s season-opener).
Photo by Brad Watson.