Who am I? Who are we?
These are some of the questions we have been asking ourselves since the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered our lives. It has forced many of us to reevaluate what and who is most important to us.
They are also the same questions being asked by the Rochester Knighthawks players and coaches as they continue to search for identity and cohesion following a shortened first year as an NLL franchise.
With a 2-10 record when the 2020 NLL season was canceled due to the pandemic, the Knighthawks didn’t achieve the win-total they would’ve hoped for, but they didn’t come out empty-handed, explained GM Dan Carey.
“We wanted to try and find out who we were – our identity,” Carey said. “As far as the character and the culture, that’s one of the things we felt very good about – what we created and what we built so far. I think a lot of that has to do with the type of players we have. Obviously, though, we knew we had some improving to do with how we did last season.”
When I spoke with the team in January following a 0-3 start, the universal message preached was patience, the importance of camaraderie, the importance of a never-quit attitude, and a desire to learn and improve. By achieving those goals as a unit, the team believed it would beget success.
Considering that they won two of their last seven games and challenged their opponents – to the bitter-end in some cases – it’s fair to say the team was making progress. But let’s be clear, the team was, and still is, far from a finished (championship-contending) product.
“I don’t know if our record necessarily shows what kind of team we were last year; that’s what we believe, anyway,” Carey said. “But, at the same time, we did only win two games. We want to get better.”
Head coach Mike Hasen added that his guys did many of the right things during the season, especially how the veterans helped teach the young, up-and-comers the ropes.
“There’s wasn’t a game where we shut it down,” Hasen said. “We competed for the entire 60 minutes, and I think the guys who were on our roster bought in. Our veterans understood what it was going to take, and it was a bit of a learning curve for them – they were going to be teachers as much as players, and I thought they did a great job of bringing the young kids along.”
However, with all they did right to stay in games and begin to gel as a unit, there is still a drastic need to get better. During the 2020 campaign, the Knighthawks had the third-lowest goals scored per game (9.58), the highest goals allowed per game (13.75), were the only team not to win a divisional game, were one of two teams not to win a road game, had the highest penalty minutes per game (17.25), allowed the most short-handed goals and power-play goals (9 and 31 respectively), had the fourth-worst power play, had the worst penalty kill, the second-worst shots for per game (47.6), the most shots against per game (58.3) and were 0-3 when leading at half time. So, to say that the Knighthawks have a lot to improve upon (in many facets of their game) would be an understatement.
The 2020 NLL Entry Draft, in which the Knighthawks were the most active team in the league, and a couple of off-season moves, is evidence that the front office is putting in the work to attempt to improve the franchise. The message to the players is: “We’re trying our best to show you that we’re serious about winning. We expect the same of you.”
“We’ve asked our players to come in and do what they do,” Hasen said. “We don’t want to keep spinning our wheels. We have to show them we’re serious about competing and being better this year. The draft helps, but bringing in quality veteran guys that guys can relate to and have played against us also, I think, gives the idea that we’re serious.”
To both Carey and Hasen’s points, it is clear that the team has already established that it will fight to the bitter end, literally and figuratively. The Knighthawks were 2-6 in games decided by three goals or less, outscored their opponents in the 4th quarter three times in games decided by three goals or less, and were part of two overtime games (both losses).
They also showed how they would stand up for themselves when they were being pushed around by the Philadelphia Wings back in January. In that 12-4 blowout loss on the road, the Knighthawks battered and beat the Wings seemingly every chance they got. In one of the scrappiest quarters in recent memory, the Knighthawks accumulated a total of 43 PIM in 15 minutes. While no coaching staff would ever encourage their team to give away so many penalties, it sent a message to the league that this team will not go quietly into the night, no matter what the score.
The 2019 Knighthawks showed how hard they’d play for each other while trying to perfect a winning formula but with a handful of moves this off-season in the 2020 NLL Entry Draft and throughout the summer, how can the new pieces mesh with their hardworking, never-say-die attitude?
The Knighthawks brought in veterans such as Mike Manley and Thomas Hoggarth and re-signed other long-term league staples such as Curtis Knight, Jay Thorimbert, and Shawn Evans – let’s not forget that Paul Dawson still has two years left on his contract. Pairing those hardworking, good-character men with the high-performance new-comers such as Jeff Wittig, Ryan Smith (who will be joining the Knighthawks following his final year at Robert Morris University), John Wagner, Matt Gilray, and the like will give the Knighthawks more grit, lacrosse IQ and confidence on both sides of the floor.
It will be imperative they determine who they want to lead them in between the pipes. Last season, Craig Wende, Rylan Hartley, and Steve Fryer all spent ample time in the net – they nearly split their time on the floor evenly, totaling around 225 minutes played each.
What will be essential to these new-look Knighthawks establishing themselves as an unselfish, grind-it-out, winning club is that they need to give 110% every night. There is still a learning curve for a second-year franchise, but the expectations are much higher this time around. If the Knighthawks want to be seen as a team that plays a no-nonsense, dedicated, and diligent style of lacrosse, the front office will hold each player to that.
“Bringing in new guys means there’s an opportunity that you don’t have your job anymore at the end of the day,” Hasen said. “So, if you want to keep your job, make sure you’re ready to go [each practice, each game].”