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LAXMetrics Week 1: Breaking Down Calgary’s Defense

Editor’s Note: LAXMetrics, powered by the NLL, is an innovative data approach to better understand the league. Cooper Perkins will break down these stats each week on NLL.com and the league’s social channels.

 

Should the Calgary Roughnecks be worried?

The season is only a week old, but it’s never too early to start asking the big questions. With Curt Malawsky no longer roaming the bench at the Rough House, could the Roughnecks be in trouble?

They might still have the league’s MVP Christian Del Bianco between the pipes, but there may be some reason for concern. If their season-opening loss to Rochester is any indicator of what is to come, fans in Alberta should ready themselves for a tumultuous run through the upcoming season.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that despite losing Malawsky, the primary pieces that led them to the West Conference Finals a year ago are mostly still in place. Sure, they made their one significant offseason trade with the same Rochester team that beat them in Week 1, but Jesse King, Tyler Pace, Zach Currier, Eli Salama and Christian Del Bianco are all still Roughnecks. With that in mind, how does a team so adept at winning grimy games let a big lead slip away to a group that struggled down the stretch of last season? What was once a franchise that built itself off halftime adjustments looked the part of a group that simply ran out of gas.

 

 There isn’t a singular explanation for what happened, but there are a couple key areas of this year’s Roughnecks team that looked different than the perennial contender that we’ve come accustomed to watching. Of the items that comes to mind is their relative lack of transition offense. Additionally, the team’s inability to sustain its defense for four quarters stands out.

The first—and most striking—aspect of their loss to Rochester was their virtually nonexistent transition offense. While Del Bianco did attempt more outlet passes than any other goaltender in the opening week of games (5), he was nowhere near as aggressive as last season when he led the NLL in outlet pass attempts (more than 9/game). For some reason, the league’s most aggressive passing goaltender took half as many chances as he did during his MVP season.

Likely a function of the reduction in outlet attempts, Calgary didn’t manufacture a single breakaway attempt against Rochester, which is quite shocking. The same team that scored over 15% of its goals in transition last year—nearly twice as high as the next-highest rate—was seemingly uninterested in getting out and running in the same manner that led to their success in 2022-23. For a team to rely so heavily on the transition game one season and then open the ensuing year as one of only two teams without a true breakaway opportunity is cause for curiosity, if not concern. Did the Roughnecks choose not to run or did the Knighthawks just do an exceptional job of preventing Calgary from doing so?

Because of Del Bianco’s nearly 50% reduction in outlet pass attempts, it seems unlikely that the full extent of Calgary’s absent transition offense can be attributed to good changes from Rochester’s forwards. Rather, the more likely explanation is that new head coach Josh Sanderson opted not to put as much of a premium on pushing transition. Can we say that for sure without asking him? No. But it does seem curious that the team with Zach Currier, the NLL’s reigning Transition Player of the Year, – and Shane Simpson, one of the league’s most lethal transition scorer scorers, wasn’t able to manufacture a single true breakaway.

The other aspect of Calgary’s loss that jumps out is the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of its defense and the way that the supporting pieces of that unit struggled as the game progressed.

The Roughnecks held Rochester to 4-for-42 (9.5%) on contested shots in the first half, including an insane 1-for-20 (5%) in the second quarter. After halftime, the Knighthawks rebounded to shoot 16.7% in the third and a remarkable 36.4% in the fourth. In fact, Calgary’s fourth quarter defense produced one of the worst single-quarter defensive shooting percentages of any team in the league this week. No team surrendered a higher shooting percentage in the fourth quarter and only Albany, Rochester, and Vancouver allowed individual quarters with higher defensive shooting percentages. The key difference is that all three of those higher percentages were conceded in the first quarter when defenses are still finding their footing. Calgary allowing its worst defensive effort in the final 15 minutes of the game should raise eyebrows.

The most striking aspect of Calgary’s struggles defensively in the fourth quarter centers around the quality of looks that they conceded to Rochester. Of the 11 defended shot attempts they conceded in the fourth, three of them were of the one-on-one variety, meaning that the play concluded with Del Bianco left on an island by himself. Despite CDB’s relative success in one-on-ones earlier in the game, Rochester converted all three of its chances in the fourth quarter, essentially accounting for the difference in the game.

Beyond just the fourth quarter, hanging Del Bianco out to dry was a theme of the game for the Roughnecks back-end. The 10 one-on-ones that Del Bianco faced were the second-most of any goaltender in the opening week, trailing only New York Riptide netminder Cameron Dunkerly. Sure, Del Bianco is the game’s best goalie, but asking so much of him is not a recipe for regular success. The league-wide save rate on one-on-ones is only 35.6%, so even someone as talented as Del Bianco is set up to struggle in such situations. Of the 12 goaltenders that saw action over the weekend, only Philadelphia’s Zach Higgins saw more than five one-on-ones (8) while also maintaining a save percentage of 50% or better in those situations. Long story short, leaving your goaltender on an island is a recipe for losing.

If Del Bianco can’t reasonably be held responsible for failing to stop so many one-on-ones, who actually is responsible for Calgary’s second-half defensive struggles?

It certainly was not the top three defenders that we typically expect to perform at a high level for the Roughnecks. Zach Currier, Eli Salama and Ethan Ticehurst combined to allow only 3 goals on 30 shots defended (10%) collectively throughout the game, including zero goals on four shots defended in the fourth quarter. Rather, it was the second and third-tier defenders for Calgary who struggled. Second-year defender Seth Van Schepen and third-year defender Harrison Matsuoka allowed each of the three shots that they defended collectively to find the back of the net. Additionally, Liam LeClair’s otherwise solid night limped to a finish by allowing the final shot that he defended to go for a goal. Only Ticehurst, Salama and Jeff Cornwall came up with stops on shots that they defended in the fourth quarter.

But does all of this add up to reason for concern about Calgary’s first season in the post-Malawsky area? The best answer is a simple “maybe.” Undoubtedly, the Roughnecks established a pattern of relying far too heavily on their superstar goaltender to be exceptional all the time. Yes, Christian Del Bianco is other-worldly, but even goalies of his caliber historically have struggled to save even 50% of the one-on-ones that they face. Even while posting the best Saves Over Average mark of the season’s first week (1.365), Del Bianco’s performance wasn’t enough to win. Should they find more transition offense, that calculus might change in the coming weeks, but their performance from week one doesn’t reflect that of a team whose identity will once again be built around running and pushing tempo with the outlet passing game.

You’d think 13 goals would be plenty to win with the league’s best goaltender playing at his best in the season’s opening week. But rather than leaving Rochester 1-0, the Roughnecks have to circle the wagons and figure out what went wrong on defense in the game’s final 30 minutes. The good news is that the season is only in its infancy.

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