The 2016 NLL season is almost upon us and Inside Lacrosse is counting down the Top 50 NLL Players on IL Indoor ahead of the start of the National Lacrosse League’s 30th anniversary year on New Year’s Day. Get ready for the new year by previewing players ranked #11-15 by IL staffers Bob Chavez, Marty O’Neill and Stephen Stamp and stay tuned as the top 10 pros in the game today are unveiled in the coming days.
15) Stephan Leblanc (Toronto Rock)
It’s difficult to believe Stephan Leblanc first burst on to the NLL scene as a rookie in 2010.
But here we are, 6 National Lacrosse League seasons and 455 points later, and there’s no question Leblanc is one of the game’s finest snipers. And whether this left-hander out of Dundas, Ontario, is leading the way for the Toronto Rock, the Oakville Rock of Major Series, or Team Canada at the WILC, he’s a force which which to be reckoned.
As was already pointed out, 2015 was a busy year for Leblanc, who established himself from the outset with 36 goals as a rookie. Since, he’s scored more than 30 goals in 4 of his 6 seasons and the production last season, 86 points on 31 goals and 55 assists, helped lead the Rock to the NLL finals.
In the NLL playoffs, he posted 19 points (6-13) in 5 games as Toronto’s goal of winning it all came up just short against Edmonton. Still, Leblanc continued to display the versatility in his game, whether he can be counted on as a secondary line of production, or lead the team as a frontline man as it deals with injuries.
“Leblanc is about as consistent as a guy can be over the last six years for the Rock with points and man games played. Stephan’s size and the way he plays contributes to everyone’s success offensively in Rockland. Of course you can’t be a No. 1 set-up or pick guy without the ability to finish in tight and Leblanc has a soft touch in front of the net which clocks in at around 30 goals per year. Leblanc never stops coming and that work ethic in the trenches has paid off for Toronto and Leblanc. Stephan is a driving force for Rock offensive success and the ultimate complementary player on a top NLL team.” – Marty O’Neill
14) Brodie Merrill (Toronto Rock)
It’s pretty much just gotten to the point where all you have to say is the name, Brodie Merrill.
And when people hear that, they know the conversation is about one of the best all-around players in the game of lacrosse today. Whether it’s putting the clamps down on defense, covering the floor in a few strides in transition or putting the finishing touch on a rush, Merrill’s not only one of the most complete players today, he’s been that for years. Ergo, his name remains high on ILIndoor’s Top 50 list.
Hyperbole isn’t uncommon when it comes to discussion of lacrosse exploits, especially in a setting like this where the subjective nature of “the greatest” is the topic. But with Merrill, a left-hander out of Orangeville, Ontario, it’s no exaggeration.
In the back end, he remains one of the game’s elite defenders with precision footwork and timely checks, be they with the body or stick. But for many, it’s his work in transition that defines Merrill. It’s so effortless, the way he glides across the floor with his head up, waiting and looking for the opportunity to make a decision.
“It would be easy to take Brodie Merrill for granted because he’s been playing at such a consistently high level in the NLL for a decade now. But he’s still the prototype for what a transition player should be. The first job of anyone playing out the back door is to play good defence: Merrill is good enough that he was named the league’s defensive player of the year in 2006, before an award existed for the top transition player, which he has won twice. He still plays excellent defence, he’s still one of the very best loose ball trackers in lacrosse and he still contributes intelligently in the offensive zone when it’s called for.” – Stephen Stamp
13) Rob Hellyer (Toronto Rock)
Ever watch a pot of water come to a boil? At first, the bubbles are tiny and sporadic. But then they start to pick up the pace, more and more bubbles, faster and faster until before you know it, it’s a rolling boil of H2O that no one can touch.
That’s kind of how it’s gone for Rob Hellyer.
The young right-hander out of Lions Head, Ontario, is no stranger to the National Lacrosse League. He first appeared with Toronto in 2011 but over 3 seasons, played in 13 games. Still, you got the sense that something special was on the way.
Hellyer finally got his chance in 2014 with a full time role and did not disappoint, with 79 points over 18 games. And when the 2015 season unfolded, it was all anyone could wonder but my goodness, what took so long?
“Before Hellyer went out with an injury last year and had to miss four games, he was on pace to score 119 points, which would have broken the old single-season record. As it was, he wound up with 90 to set a personal best and continued his evolution into one of the top players in the NLL. Hellyer’s blossoming owes a lot to the patience and talent evaluation skills of Terry Sanderson and the Toronto Rock coaches. They waited through his first three years, in which Hellyer played just 13 games and scored 24 points while he was still of junior age. His fourth year proved their faith in him to be justified when he scored 29 goals and 50 assists. Who knew that would be just a warmup act for the remarkable 2015 season he would have? Hellyer has shown excellent floor vision and precision passing ability, combined with good enough shooting to force teams to respect his shot. It’s a dangerous combination that makes it look like Hellyer will be contributing to Toronto’s offensive success for the long term.” – Stephen Stamp
12) Rhys Duch (Vancouver Stealth)
The argument often centers on quality vs. quantity. But for Rhys Duch, it’s both.
It’s been an amazing 7 National Lacrosse League seasons for the right-hander out of Victoria, B.C. He burst out of the gates with a rookie record 89 points in 2009 and hasn’t slowed down a bit. In 2015, he had career bests of 41 goals and 62 assists for 103 points.
Amazingly, Duch is the first Stealth player to clear the 100-point plateau since Colin Doyle did it in San Jose in 2009, Duch’s rookie season. It helped that the Stealth traded for left-hander Corey Small, pulling some of the defense to his side to clear space for Duch. The offensive ability of Duch has never been in question, but having help like he got with Small and other quality shooters kept opposing defenses honest and that not only helped Duch, it helped the Stealth.
That’s why Duch was able to produce even more than what we’ve come to expect from him. Having Small as a summer teammate will no doubt prove beneficial for the 2016 NLL season as well. Duch scored 75 points for the Victoria Shamrocks in the regular season, then added 34 points in the WLA playoffs before adding 15 points in 6 games to help the Shamrocks win the 2015 Mann Cup.
“Duch has been a mainstay on the Stealth for seven seasons and is an NLL elite player for sure. Since Duch was selected No. 3 overall at the 2008 draft, he has been nothing short of a superstar in every NLL season he has played. This regularity in points generated proves that Vancouver’s offense goes through Duch and that his decision-making skills are strong. Quick feet and a deadly outside shot make Rhys a wanted man by the opposition. Should be interesting to see how Billings and Duch share the spotlight in 2016.” – Marty O’Neill
11) Matt Vinc (Rochester Knighthawks)
Save percentage, goals-against, wins, championships. All of these and more are part of the discussion when it comes to players where they stand among the greats.
They’re also part of the discussion about Matt Vinc, the goalie who many believe is the best in the game today. Of course, it’s all subjective, but what is not subjective is the track record of Vinc. Whether you think he’s the best or not doesn’t really matter because when it comes to the Top 50 in the game today, there’s no doubt Vinc belongs.
Whether it’s textbook form for positioning or athleticism being used to recover and move from post to post, Vinc has it all. He’s been named Goalie of the Year in the National Lacrosse League in 5 of the last 6 seasons and his OLA hardware is an impressive list of MVPs.
With the Rochester Knighthawks, this Hamilton, Ont., native enjoyed one of his better seasons stats-wise in 2015 and considering what he’s done over the years, that’s quite a statement. His .803 save percentage was the second time in 3 seasons he’s been at 80% and his goals-against of 9.62 was just slightly off of his 9.56 of 2014.
“Vinc fits the classic goalie mode of really finding his game in his late 20s. His breakthrough came in 2010, the season he entered at age 27. Starting with that season, Vinc has won five of the last six NLL goalie of the year awards. The debate always exists whether it’s the goalie making the defence look good or vice versa. Since he came to Rochester, there’s little question that it’s both. Vinc and his defenders have found a synergy that has allowed them to consistently allow among the fewest goals in the league. Vinc actually seems to enjoy facing a fairly high quantity of shots, as long as they are coming from spots where he’s comfortable seeing and squaring up to them. But for anyone who would argue that his excellence is attributable primarily to the defensive system in front of him, just watch some of the highlight reel saves he’s made when there have been defensive breakdowns and you’ll change your mind. He’s a hybrid of an angles goalie who takes away shooting spots with an athletic mover when he has to be. It’s a sensational combination.” – Stephen Stamp
Check back to follow the full Inside Lacrosse countdown of the NLL Top 50 Players on IL Indoor.
NLL Top 50: #16-20
NLL Top 50: #21-25
NLL Top 50: #26-30
NLL Top 50: #31-35
NLL Top 50: #36-40
NLL Top 50: #41-45
NLL Top 50: #46-50