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LAXMetrics Playoffs: Albany’s Efficiency Excellence

The Albany FireWolves have provided NLL fans with the surprise turnaround of a lifetime. After finishing 3-15 a year ago, the FireWolves swept past San Diego to punch their tickets to the NLL Finals for the first time. Based on their Semifinals performance, there is nothing even remotely fluky about this young group of budding stars. In fact, the blueprint for success that Albany has followed through three playoff games may be insulating its offense from the trouble that we otherwise might expect it to encounter over time.

Understandably, rookies Alex Simmons and Tye Kurtz stole most of the headlines after combining for 30 points in two games, led by a dominant five-goal, five-assist effort from Simmons on Friday. Goaltender Doug Jamieson didn’t post the same gaudy numbers he did in his team’s Quarterfinals win over the Thunderbirds, but still was excellent in making timely saves to stymie the Seals. But if we take a slightly closer look at how Albany forced itself into the Finals, the truly shocking statistics were compiled by the unsung heroes of the team’s offense. While Simmons and Kurtz deserve their due for the numbers that they put up, the supporting characters of the Albany offense were the true engines that drove the proverbial train and served as the buffer against potential decline.

There were two keys to Albany’s offensive success over the weekend: punishing off-ball picks and remarkable efficiency.

The first of those two items—off-ball picks—was not a statistic that was previously available to lacrosse fans. Thanks to the work of LaxMetrics.com, we can quantify the quality of teams’ off-ball work. Watching in real time, Albany’s movement away from the ball was eye-popping. Now in retrospect, the numbers support that eye test.

If you are unfamiliar with the LaxMetrics concept of pick assists, they are picks (screens) that immediately free up a passer or shooter in the sequence of scoring a goal. So, while Alex Simmons accumulated huge numbers on Friday, he did not do so alone. His teammates did the kind of heavy lifting and dirty work that makes an offense virtually impossible to defend. In their two Semifinals games, the FireWolves posted a total of 14 pick assists. On Friday, the FireWolves collected eight pick assists and then on Sunday they managed six more.

To provide some context, consider Albany’s performance entering the Semifinals. During the course of the regular season, Albany averaged just 2.7 pick assists per game. Over their previous 19 games, including the regular season and the Quarterfinals, the FireWolves had not compiled more than five pick assists in any game. In their Semifinals’ sweep, they recorded their two best off-ball performances of the season by pick assist count. Truly, Albany saved its best for the most important time of the season.

But relative to other playoff teams, how do Albany’s pick assist numbers compare? In three playoff games, the FireWolves have racked up 18 pick assists—an average of six per game. Of the other three teams to play three playoff games, the Seals (10) were the only other to crack double-figure pick assists. In fact, San Diego, Toronto and Buffalo combined for 22 pick assists. Again, Albany has 18 by itself. That comparison is staggering.

It is not a coincidence that Albany’s two best pick assist games occurred in two of the team’s best offensive games statistically. Offensive Rating is an advanced stat that serves as a holistic measure of overall offensive production. Albany’s semifinal games accounted for two of the group’s five best offensive ratings. In both instances, the FireWolves posted scores better than 135. League-wide, the average Offensive Rating this year was just over 92. Thanks to their dominant off-ball performances, the FireWolves were able to turn in a pair of elite offensive efforts against one of the league’s best defenses.

Halifax at Albany 4.28.24, Marshall Powless

The other aspect at play in Albany’s winning effort was its incredible efficiency.

First Order Conversion Rate is a number that tells us how frequently a team converts its quality chances into goals. To qualify as a First Order Chance, the scoring opportunity must be the product of passing that leads immediately to a shot. The league average First Order Conversion Rate this year was 25%. In the regular season, Albany converted its chances at a pace of 27.7%, which led the league. In their two semifinal games, the FireWolves converted a staggering 29.1% of their chances into goals. Generally speaking, the higher a team’s First Order Conversion Rate, the likelier it is that the team will encounter bad shooting luck moving forward. As a season elapses, the Law of Large Numbers comes into play and teams typically finish at or near the league average.

The fact that Albany has been able to extend its regular-season success into the postseason is particularly interesting because it suggests that the FireWolves are defying the powers of probability. Math suggests a shooting slump for the FireWolves is increasingly likely. Yet, through three playoff games, that regression to the mean has shown no signs of materializing.

Upon a deeper exploration, there is a mathematical correlation at work connecting Albany’s off-ball work with its scoring success. During the 2024 regular season, pick assist totals and First Order Conversion Rates enjoyed a correlation coefficient of 0.42, which indicates a moderate-to-strong relationship. Previously, there had been no effort made at connecting the two statistics. But thanks to Albany’s remarkable defiance of mathematical likelihoods, we can now conclude that the FireWolves are not actually as vulnerable to a regression to the league average First Order Conversion Rate as other teams might be. In fact, if Albany continues to build upon its off-ball work against the Bandits, the team’s risk of falling victim to bad shooting luck will continue to be suppressed. This is a potential formula for hoisting a trophy.

What this also means is that we need to pay proper respect to the pieces keeping Albany’s offense sturdy. Based on the relationships discussed above, Simmons and Kurtz aren’t the two keys to Albany’s continued success. While they are irreplaceable parts, the trio of Marshall Powless, Travis Longboat and Nathan Grenon are the pieces that insulate the FireWolves from falling victim to an ill-timed regression to the mean in their scoring efficiency. The FireWolves’ offense is only as stable as their off-ball work and those three players are the key to that area of the game. This theory will be tested immediately upon the start of the NLL Finals as Albany collides with red-hot Buffalo goaltender Matt Vinc. The showdown is looming and something has to give.