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LAXMetrics Week 2: FireWolves’ Blazing Start

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.

Through two weeks, the Albany FireWolves are the most interesting team in the NLL.

After finishing last season with a league-worst record of 3-15, Albany has come in hot with consecutive wins, including a shocking 17-13 upset of the reigning champion Buffalo Bandits over the weekend.

But what stands out about Albany’s performance through the season’s first two weeks isn’t simply that the team has played better than any reasonable expectation. The surprise runs several layers deeper. Using the advanced stats created and curated by LaxMetrics.com, let’s investigate what the driving forces are behind Albany’s resurgence.

Historically, Albany has been a defense-first team under head coach Glenn Clark. This year’s iteration of the FireWolves, however, has been quite different stylistically than the teams that have been heavy on defense and light on offense in recent seasons. Where Albany had become accustomed to winning games 11-9 or 10-8 in past years, this season’s group has demonstrated significantly more firepower (pardon the pun), but also less defensive stinginess.

 

 

At first glance, Albany’s defense might be a cause for concern. They’ve allowed a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 24.4% this season, which ranks 12th out of the 15 NLL teams. But with Albany’s back end, the overall numbers don’t tell a complete story.

The FireWolves have been a miserable defensive team in the first half of games, while performing much better after halftime in each of their first two games. Albany’s Defensive Shooting Percentage of 29.5% in the first half of games is one of the three worst marks in the NLL this season. But after halftime, the Albany defense is an entirely different creature. That number of 29.5% in the first half drops to 19.5% in the second half, led by a nearly flawless effort from Jackson Nishimura, who has allowed just one goal on eight shots defended after halftime this year. Goaltender Dougie Jamieson has been consistent from whistle to whistle, but the unit in front of him has clearly gotten better in the later portions of games.

Offensively, the recipe has been fascinating. Despite the departure of Kieran McArdle, the FireWolves have been vastly improved on offense, led by tremendous starts to the year by Alex Simmons and Marshall Powless. Simmons has produced at one of the top marks in the league through two games, evidenced by his production rating (pRating) of 2.61, which is second in the league to only Saskatchewan’s Zach Manns. Simmons has brought the ability to create for himself and his teammates to a previously anemic Albany offense.

Since acquiring Powless from Saskatchewan last season, the FireWolves have had high hopes for the tremendously talented young player, but until the start of this season, he’d only flashed his potential intermittently. This season, Powless has been one of the most efficient forwards in the NLL. Only Toronto’s Challen Rogers has a better Offensive Efficiency Rating (eOE) than Powless. Overall, Powless has been one of the most effective forwards in the NLL this season, ranking in the top 13 percent of nearly every major metric category.

The efficiency that Powless has played with in the season’s first two games is illustrative of a greater theme with the FireWolves’ attack. The FireWolves have converted their best chances at a rate of 37%, which is only slightly higher than the league average, indicating that their success is largely sustainable going forward. This isn’t a case of a team benefitting from good shooting luck for two weeks. In fact, Albany has posted the league’s best Offensive Rating (151.7), which is equivalent to a lacrosse version of football’s Total Quarterback Rating. It is an efficiency metric that attempts to grade players or team on their holistic performances offensively. A year ago, the FireWolves ranked 13th in the NLL in Offensive Rating. So not only has their scoring increased drastically, the efficiency with which they have found the back of the net has improved tremendously.

But why are the FireWolves the most interesting team in the NLL? Because outside of their goalie, Dougie Jamieson, the FireWolves don’t boast a true star player on either side of the ball. Nishimura, Simmons, and Powless have all been excellent, but none were ranked in the NLL Top 50 that was released earlier this year (as voted on by league Coaches and GMs). In fact, other than Jamieson and face-off specialist Joe Nardella, the only other Albany player on the top 50 list is transition player Colton Watkinson. Albany has had the league’s most efficient offense through two games and have averaged 14.5 goals in that span without a single forward from the top 50 list.

Because of the relative lack of star power, players like Simmons, Powless, and Ethan Walker have stepped into roles that they otherwise might not be afforded. In the process of doing so, the trio has led an Albany attack that has facilitated the ball around the unit better than anyone in the league. Albany’s Production Rating, which measures the quantity of a team’s offensive production in the context of efficiency, is by far the best in the league. Generally speaking, a team needs a diverse collection of contributors to put up numbers commensurate with the FireWolves. The trio of Simmons, Powless, and Walker account for nearly half of the team’s Total First Order Chances, which are a measure of high-quality scoring opportunities.

But can Albany maintain its level of play for 18 games? It’s hard to make definitive statements when talking about the future because there are so many variables like health and personnel moves. How the FireWolves have won their first two games should be cause for celebration and anticipation in the Capital Region because the success is a product of young players performing exceptionally efficiently. Generally speaking, we expect young players to become more efficient with game repetitions. If that trajectory holds true for Albany’s young core, then the FireWolves could very reasonably sustain their offensive success well into the later portions of the season.

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