2016 NLL Face Off Weekend presented by New Era Cap is finally here which means Inside Lacrosse’s countdown of the Top 50 Players in the National Lacrosse League has culminated with the top handful of laxers on the planet. Two-time NLL MVP Shawn Evans from the New England Black Wolves earned the number one spot ahead of the league’s 30th anniversary year starting on New Year’s Day where players will have another shot to add to their legacy.
Ryan Benesch has always had game, no one’s questioning that. But his 2015 National Lacrosse League season with the Buffalo Bandits showed he’s got more game than anyone could have imagined.
Scoring 55 goals essentially doubled his output of just about every one of his other 9 NLL seasons, save for the 2011 season in which he scored 46. But considering he scored just 25 goals in 2014, there’s every reason to believe that Benny’s back in a groove and that’s good news for the Buffalo Bandits and their fans.
Working from the left side, this forward out of Kitchener, Ontario, brings a touch that’s led by his nose for the ball and the goal. For as many times as we see him work off set plays, we also see him corral rebounds and loosies, only to emerge from the tangled mess of bodies to light the lamp and maintain his presence as one of the game’s best with the ball in his stick.
“When you put yourself in the company of John Grant, John Tavares, Paul Gait and Garrett Billings, you’ve had a pretty good season. Those are the only four men who had scored more than Benesch’s 113 points in an NLL season before 2015. His willingness to go inside and ability to catch the ball and score in the traffic he inevitably draws is remarkable. He may have a tough time repeating last year’s 55-goal total given that he was connecting at an astonishing .229 shooting percentage, but he’s clearly an elite forward who is critical to the future of the Bandits.” – Stephen Stamp
By himself, Mark Matthews is no small matter at 6-feet, 5-inches and 230 pounds. But now that he’s got himself a supporting cast in the National Lacrosse League, is he just getting started?
It’s difficult to not think otherwise. After scoring 38 and 31 goals in his first 2 NLL seasons, the left-handed Oshawa native simply unloaded last winter. He scored 53 goals and helped on 62 others for a total of 115 points, and that was just in the regular season. But just like any other player in the game, it’s not the stats that matter, it’s the championships and in that regard, 2015 was good to Matthews.
After finishing second in NLL scoring to Calgary’s Shawn Evans, Matthews went on to lead all playoff scorers in 2015. He had 13 goals and 14 assists in 5 postseason games in leading the Edmonton Rush to their first Champion’s Cup.
“The numbers tell much of the story: 53 goals, 62 assists, 115 points (the third-highest total in NLL history). But they fall far short of telling the whole story. Matthews’ presence is a huge factor in Saskatchewan’s success. By that I don’t mean just being on the floor, but the sense he gives that he could score at any time with that beautifully fluid overhand rip or something he has to improvise. It forces defenders to pay him careful attention and opens up chances for his teammates. Matthews was expected to be a superstar when he was drafted and he hasn’t disappointed, reaching that level in 2015, his third season in the league. Expect him to be among the league leaders and high on this list for a long time.” – Stephen Stamp
It’s not so much how many goals Curtis Dickson scores, it’s how he scores them that’s made him a household name. Whether it’s on the field or in the box, the superb athleticism of this right-hander out of Port Coquitlam has certainly carved a niche for himself with a flair for the dramatic.
And if you’ve been paying any sort of attention to the game, whether indoors or outdoors, you understand why the 6-foot-2 right-hander is without a doubt among the world’s Top 50 players today.
In the National Lacrosse League, Dickson’s goal totals have steadily climbed in his 5 seasons. From 33 as a 2011 rookie to a career-best 48 last winter, the ascent is even more impressive when you consider he’s no longer a secret commodity. Defenses know they can’t ignore Dickson and he often draws the top defensive assignment and yet he’s still able to score more and more goals each season. He finished this past NLL season with a career-high 93 points before taking his summer game away from B.C. and to Peterborough.
“It’s about as good as it gets in the lacrosse world with Dickson around. He’s got talent, determination and vision, a fuel mixture full of desireables. His street cred comes from the work he does down low, where he’s not afraid to take a whack or two on his way to a shot. But it’s that work that opens the rest of the floor for him because if there’s space up top or outside, he’s got the velocity and accuracy to bury it from downtown. Dickson is about as dangerous as it gets when it comes to offensive weapons.” – Bob Chavez
For the 5 National Lacrosse League seasons we’ve been watching the defensive work of Kyle Rubisch, we’ve been asking if there is nothing he can’t do. Opposing forwards have been asking the same thing and the near-unanimous answer is no, there isn’t.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound defender out of Brampton is as solid and textbook as it gets when it comes to marking men. His footwork keeps his body in position and his strong hands keeps his stick where it needs to be, whether that’s timing a stick check just right to force the ball loose and keep him among the game’s best _ the Top 50, actually _ at causing turnovers, or bringing the lumber for a check that sends a message.
It’s a complete defensive game that’s been a big part of the defensive machine that’s known as the Rush in the NLL, and this past summer kept him busy in the Major Series with the Brampton Excelsiors. He’s also a gold medalist with Team Canada that won gold at the recent World Games.
“What can you say about Rubisch at this point? He’s the gold standard for what a defender should be. Discussions of who the best defender in the game are often start with the stipulation that you’re talking about who else is close to his level, but conceding that he’s the top of the mountain. Why? He’s big and strong, uses that to his advantage intelligently so that he plays a physical game without racking up gaudy penalty minute totals, is quicker than you’d think and — probably the one thing that really sets him apart from everyone else — he has an almost otherworldly ability to strip the ball. He’ll hit the player, the head of the stick, the shaft, whatever it takes to get the ball free.” – Stephen Stamp
We could point to the two MVP awards Shawn Evans has won in the National Lacrosse League in 2 of the last 3 years and that would pretty much cement the case. But for as much as that speaks volumes about the play of a man who hasn’t yet turned 30, there’s so much more to consider.
And while there can be so much debate and subjectivity when it comes to the top 10 or even top 15 players and the order in which they belong, how much of an argument is there with Evans at No. 1?
Whether it’s in the NLL, the Major Series and Team Canada, Evans is without a doubt one of the game’s premiere playmakers. He’ll score goals himself and set up teammates. He’s come a long way from the feisty firecracker that used to drop the mitts in a flash, realizing that he’s much more valuable on the floor than in the bin, and it’s this type of evolution that’s put him on a pedestal he’s likely to occupy for quite some time.
This past NLL season was a career-best for the right-hander out of Peterboroough in many regards, and that’s saying quite a bit considering he scored 112 points in 2013 and 105 in 2014. But last winter, Evans obliterated the record book with a 130-point season in 18 games that included a career-best 47 goals. Helping that number was a shooting percentage just better than 18%, giving him his best offensive numbers yet despite being a marked man every time he steps on the floor.
“You could overthink this. Argue that Evans is a product of the system and the talent around him in Calgary (and Peterborough, I guess you’d have to add). I’ve heard some people try to explain why Evans isn’t the best player in the world. I don’t buy it. He scored 130 points, 14 more than anyone else had ever scored, and he did break the record in 16 games before piling on in the last couple. He shot a lot more last year because Calgary needed him to and it worked brilliantly, to the tune of 47 goals. He also set the new record (along with Josh Sanderson) for most assists in a year. What else can you ask of a player? Well, he also hit the 10 caused turnover mark for the fifth straight time—as long as the stat has been kept—because he’s one of the peskiest and hardest-working forecheckers in the game, too. And he has a passion to win like few players you’ll find. This year he is, quite simply, the best player in the world. As a recent story in the Peterborough Examiner pointed out, winning the MVP of the NLL and the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships should have put Evans at least on the short list for the Lou Marsh award as Canada’s athlete of the year. He’ll have to settle for No. 1 in our rankings.” – Stephen Stamp