The National Lacrosse League’s 30th anniversary season opened up with two thrillers as part of NLL Face Off Weekend 2016 presented by New Era Cap which continues with four more openers this weekend. Preview the West Division with projections from NLL Hall of Fame writer Neil Stevens on Lacrosse Magazine below as teams begin their quest for the Champion’s Cup.
Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of the West Division, in projected order of finish.
1. SASKATCHEWAN RUSH
2015 Record: 13-5 (in Edmonton)
Playoffs: Beat Toronto in Champion’s Cup finals
Mark Matthews 53g 62a
Robert Church 37g, 55a
GM/Coach: Derek Keenan
Captain: Chris Corbeil
Last Champion’s Cup Title: 2015
Draft: Added depth on left side of offense by selecting forward Dan Taylor (Lehigh) 12th overall. He could free up Riley Loewen to play more of a transition role. … Added goaltending depth by taking Doug Buchan out of Burlington (Ont.) Junior A club 18th overall.
Major Changes: Pro lacrosse ventures into virgin territory of prairie province of Saskatchewan. … Forward Curtis Knight returns after missing 2015 season rehabbing from a knee injury. Knight led Rush with 35 goals in 2014.
Overview: The Rush started slowly last season and still wound up four wins clear of runner-up Colorado, and there was no doubt in the championship series that they were better than Toronto. Keenan has built a roster that could dominate the league for years.
2. CALGARY ROUGHNECKS
2015 Record: 7-11
Playoffs: Lost to Edmonton in West finals
Shawn Evans 47g, 83a (traded to New England)
Curtis Dickson 48g, 45a
Last Champion’s Cup Title: 2009
GM: Mike Board
Coach: Curt Malawsky
Captain: Mike Carnegie
Draft: The Roughnecks got two exceptional forwards in Denver star Wes Berg at No. 3 and Georgetown captain Reilly O’Connor at No. 7. They then selected at No. 13 Drexel grad Mitch de Snoo, a defenseman who can play a transition role. (Calgary traded de Snoo to Buffalo for transition player Brandon Goodwin on Monday.) At draft position 15, Board took 18-year-old Coquitlam (B.C) goalie Christian Del Bianco.
Major Changes: The retirement of captain Andrew McBride, release of faceoff specialist Geoff Snider and trade departure of league scoring champion and MVP Shawn Evans shook things up like an 8.0-level earthquake. … Crease crasher Tyler Digby, who scored 38 goals last season, arrived in the Evans deal and he and Berg augment the right side. … Lefty forward Daryl Veltman went to Buffalo as a free agent, so O’Connor will try to earn that spot. … Veteran defender Jeff Moleski left as a free agent to Vancouver. … With two back-end openings, De Snoo is expected to get one of them.
Overview: Look for the Roughnecks to get back over .500. This franchise has never missed the playoffs, and it will stretch that streak through another season and be a formidable postseason foe.
3. COLORADO MAMMOTH
2015 Record: 9-9
Playoffs: Lost to Calgary in West Division semifinal
Adam Jones 51g, 42a
John Grant Jr. 34g, 57a
Last Champion’s Cup Title: 2006
GM: Steve Govett
Coaches: Dan Stroup, Chris Gill, Pat Coyle
Captain: Dan Coates
Draft: Waited until fourth round for a pick and selected Bryce Sweeting, who played defense with the Mammoth’s Robert Hope on the Peterborough (Ontario) junior team.
Major Changes: Free agents Callum Crawford and Greg Downing arrived from the Swarm via free agency. Crawford, whose output dropped last season when he was hampered by injuries, had a 95-point season three years ago. Govett hopes that is the player he’s getting. … Signed forward Jamie Lincoln after he was released by New England. … Released defender Dan Ball.
Overview: Back-end improvements are a necessity if the Mammoth are to take the next step.
4. VANCOUVER STEALTH
2015 Record: 5-13
Playoffs: Missed playoffs for second straight season
Rhys Duch 42g, 62a
Corey Small 32g, 43a
Last Champion’s Cup Title: 2010
GM: Doug Locker
Coach: Dan Perreault
Captain: Curtis Hodgson
Draft: Locker got a couple of impressive forwards at the 19 and 21 spots. Jordan Durston helped the Six Nations Arrows win the last two Canadian junior championships. The lefty forward is a digger who can do much more than set picks. Shayne Adams, out of Detroit, is small but can score.
Major Changes: Tyler Richards’ retirement leaves the goaltending in the hands of youngsters Eric Penney and Cody Hagedorn. … Local product Garrett Billings, a former MVP finalist, joins the right side of the attack in place of Tyler Digby, the man sent to New England to get Billings. … Defender Jeff Moleski left Calgary to return to the Stealth as a free agent. … Defender Matt Beers returns after sitting out 2015. … Transition man Tyler Hass is on injured reserve until February. … Former captain Kyle Sorensen moves behind the bench as assistant coach in charge of the defense.
Overview: Injuries afflicted the defense in 2015. If the Stealth can play with a full deck this winter and get good goaltending from the least experienced goaltending tandem in the league, they’ll win more often. That’s a big if.