The Rochester Knighthawks are on the brink of becoming a top-tier team in the NLL.
After a 3-0 start to the season, Rochester has lost back-to-back games and seen its position slide down the NLL Power Rankings. But what should we make of the Knighthawks? On one hand, they have one of the most explosive offenses in the league led by Ryan Smith and Connor Fields. On the other hand, Rochester’s defense has been porous and inconsistent.
Looking at the full landscape of the NLL, it’s hard to place the Knighthawks. At 3-2, their only losses are to Albany and San Diego — two very good teams. But at the same time, their one notable win to date was their opening night victory over Calgary.
Rochester’s offense clearly isn’t the problem. The Knighthawks lead the NLL in scoring at 14.0 goals per game and are fourth in the league in Goals Over Expectations, which measures scoring efficiency. Only Albany, Calgary and Saskatchewan have been more efficient at scoring than the Knighthawks. Ryan Smith has been one of the best forwards in the league this season. His Goals Over Expectations of 5.30 ranks in the top five and his Weighted Average per game ranks eighth. In terms of both efficiency and production, Smith has been an elite contributor.
The issue that the Knighthawks are faced with solving comes on defense. Defensively speaking, Rochester has been one of the league’s least impressive teams over its first five games. In addition to allowing at least 11 goals in all five of their games, the Knighthawks have surrendered four Offensive Ratings of 130 or higher. For context, the league average Offensive Rating is 102. With a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 19.6% allowed, only the Colorado Mammoth have been less efficient defensively.
Consider the chart below that places teams by virtue of their scoring efficiency and overall defensive efficiency. Rochester’s placement is consistent with that of a team who has paired poor defense with excellent offense. But when we explore Rochester’s defense a little bit further, it becomes clear that reality is a bit more complicated than it looks.
Rochester’s defense has been entirely two-faced. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde story at its finest.
Slow starts have killed them. The Knighthawks have surrendered a whopping 63% of their total goals allowed in the first half of games this season. Overall, in the first half of games, Rochester’s Defensive Shooting Percentage of 23.4% is the worst in the NLL. When you break it down quarter by quarter, Rochester’s defense looks like this. The Knighthawks have the worst first-quarter Defensive Shooting Percentage (26.7%) and the second-worst second-quarter mark (21.9%). After halftime, however, their Defensive Shooting plummets to just 10.4% in the third quarter of games – only Las Vegas (9.2%) has a better third-quarter Defensive Shooting Percentage. Interestingly, the Knighthawks have pitched two third-quarter shutouts in their five games – first against Calgary and then again versus Buffalo.
One key difficulty for the Knighthawks is managing their goaltending. With Rylan Hartley injured and Riley Hutchcraft forced into action, Rochester has received unreliable performances between the pipes. To make matters more challenging for their keepers, the Knighthawks have given up a staggering 9.2 one-on-one chances per game. Hartley and Hutchcraft have combined to stop just over 52% of those one-on-one shots, which is one of the three lowest rates in the league this season. It’s a formula for defensive disaster: the Knighthawks give up a ton of one-on-ones and their goalies struggle to stop them.
Fixing their one-on-one problem isn’t so easy. There isn’t a singular fix that we can point to, which raises the following question: can we trust the Knighthawks over the course of an 18-game season? We know they’re going to score goals, but there is nothing to suggest that their defense is due for improvement. If anything, their quality work in the third quarter of games is somewhat likely to deteriorate of time and regress to the mean established by their other three quarters.
Look at the chart above for an illustration of how Rochester’s defenders are playing. Three players have both Goals Prevented numbers above 4.00 and Defensive Shooting Percentages under 15%. That’s actually really good. The problem is that six of the seven other defenders in question have Defensive Shooting Percentages above 20%. That is not good. The defense is top-heavy in a problematic way.
Individually, Matt Gilray personifies the complexities and inconsistencies of the Knighthawks as a team. Gilray leads the team with 6.032 Goals Prevented, which is one of the 15 best scores in the league this season. His work on loose balls, causing turnovers, and pushing transition has been instrumental in the team’s success. Gilray, however, has struggled as an on-ball defender, allowing a team-high 11 goals and a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 28.9%. Like the unit as a whole, Gilray does everything well other than serve as the primary defender.
This brings us back to the original question at hand. Can we trust Rochester? Statistically speaking, there is reason to be skeptical of their ability to contend across a full season. But even in the face of defensive lapses that have begun to add up, Rochester’s offense is sturdy enough to keep scoring at a league-leading rate. Like Albany’s win over Georgia two weeks ago, Rochester needs a dominant defensive performance to bolster our confidence in them as a possible playoff team. If they can turn the corner, the sky is the limit.
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