Which National Lacrosse League stars shined the brightest over the weekend which featured four openers in Buffalo, Georgia, Rochester and Vancouver on Saturday night? Preview Stephen Stamp’s Three Stars of NLL Week 2 below for a rundown of which pros helped get their teams off to a fast start in 2016.
Pat Saunders, New England Black Wolves
4 goals, 5 assists
Saunders is a great story. You can read more about him in my wrap up of the Saturday slate of games. The short version is that it took the 2008 sixth-round draft pick six years to establish himself in the NLL but he’s making the most of it now with 63 goals over his two full seasons and a spectacular performance in the Black Wolves opener this year. He’s proven himself as a legitimate NLL shooter. His opening goal Saturday came when an errant ball caromed off the boards to him atop the crease. It looked like a lucky play and it was to the extent that the ball came straight to him. Saunders showed great eyes and hands, though, to pluck the ball up, spin and tuck it home.
His second goal, of course, was vintage Saunders if there is such a thing this early in his career. The lefty has a somewhat unusual approach to jumping to catch a high pass, such as the one he received from Shawn Evans. Most players tend to jump with their legs close together and wind up leaning towards the goal. Saunders jumps and spreads his legs wide, which seems to give him stability in an upright position while not limiting his hang time. That allows him to catch and shoot accurately while still in the air, as he did Saturday. Saunders is one of the most overlooked emerging stars in the league, but a few more performances like he had in the New England opener and he’ll get plenty of attention.
Evan Kirk, New England Black Wolves
49 saves on 56 shots, .875 save percentage
First, a caveat. Let’s pump the breaks on the “New England is for real” talk. Yes, their 17-7 win over Vancouver was impressive. You know what else was impressive? Their 17-7 win over Rochester last year that moved them to 2-0 with Kirk standing out as the best goalie in the NLL through Week 2. They only won two more games last season. Trust me: I know them fairly well and both Kirk and new head coach Glenn Clark would be among the first to say “It’s only one game.” I’m not saying the Black Wolves won’t better this year, because I think they will. But you just can’t read too much into one game.
That said, it was a great game for the Black Wolves and definitely did show many signs of promise. And while the offence was excellent, Kirk and the defence deserve their share of the credit. Kirk is a solid goalie who, like most high-calibre keepers, will stop most of the shots that he can see leaving the stick. He struggled much of last year as the Black Wolves struggled and finished with a woeful .728 save percentage. He found his game again this summer, even earning starts ahead of Matt Vinc with the Peterborough Lakers. The New England defence doesn’t feature a lot of big names, but it does have an athletic and intelligent core group that has been together for a while supplemented with the likes of veterans Derek Suddons and Dan Ball. They did a good job of leaving Kirk shots he could handle and Kirk in turn made it look easy. But rest assured, stopping almost 90% of the shots fired at you by NLL shooters is never easy.
Randy Staats (Georgia): 3g, 4a. The scoring is attention-grabbing and impressive, but what really stands out about Staats’ play this year is just how easy he’s making the transition to the NLL look. He appears utterly comfortable on the carpet, making plays like he’s back in Jr A, not facing the best defenders in the world. Staats was good with the Six Nations Chiefs and Iroquois Nationals in the summer, but not like this. He’s taken his game to another level. It’ll be fun to see if he can maintain it all season…Graeme Hossack (Rochester): 2g, 8LB, 1CTO. In his first game in the NLL, Hossack looked like a veteran. He was out high pressuring opponents past the restraining line while rarely getting caught when he needed to get back tighter to the crease. He was on the floor in key situations late in the game. And he scored a pair of lovely goals in transition…Dhane Smith (Buffalo): 2g, 3a. Five points including the winning goal on a play that was breathtaking in how simple he made it look. Smith ducked under and around his defender with feet so quick they shouldn’t be allowed in a man as big and strong as he is. Tucking it home seemed inevitable once he was in alone…Callum Crawford (Colorado): 3g, 5a It’s still a little strange typing “Colorado” after Crawford’s name but he obviously isn’t having any trouble adjusting to his new home…Dane Dobbie (Calgary): 2g, 5a. Takes over the Roughnecks all-time goal-scoring record from the great Kaleb Toth. He was in on 7 of Calgary’s 9 goals. That offence needs to find some chemistry, but Dobbie is doing his part to try to get it rolling…Brodie MacDonald (Georgia): 35/42, .833 save percentage. Toronto led Georgia 6-5 at the 4:09 mark of the second quarter Saturday. Then MacDonald did his best impression of a brick wall the rest of the way in the Swarm’s 12-7 win…Cody Jamieson (Rochester): 2g, 5a. Jammer didn’t take long to announce he was back from Achilles surgery, scoring 19 seconds into the game…Rob Hellyer (Toronto): 3g, 2a. Hellyer was coming off surgery as well (to his shoulder) and teamed with Stephan Leblanc (2g, 4a) to provide almost all of the offence Toronto was able to generate…Shawn Evans (New England): 4g, 2a, 2CTO. He’s been so good for so long now that it doesn’t seem surprising Evans performed so well in his first game with the Black Wolves. Bear in mind, though, that as far as I know he’s never played with any of his new teammates in New England other than Saunders as a depth forward for a couple of games in Peterborough. His backhand whip goal was a thing of beauty. His groin stretch while waiting for an opponent to pressure him before picking up the ball late in New England’s romp over Vancouver elicited mixed reviews (cheeky and fun or disrespectful? you decide) but it certainly suggested he’s already comfortable in his new surroundings…Johnny Powless (Georgia): 4g, 1a. I erred in not giving JP some love in my Sunday story, which was hammered home as I saw his sensational plays shared all over my Facebook wall…