The New England Black Wolves have a giant question looming ahead of its 2018-19 Season Opener against the Georgia Swarm this Saturday, Dec. 15: Will Kevin Crowley report to the team in time for Saturday’s game?
The NLL’s top goal scorer in 2017-18 was placed on New England’s protected player list earlier this week when active rosters were announced. The Black Wolves franchised Crowley over the summer, but efforts to get him to sign a multi-year deal over the offseason have been unsuccessful.
While Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark would certainly love to see the team’s most productive offensive weapon in action on Saturday at Infinite Energy Arena, Crowley’s potential absence should not overshadow the offseason work New England did to address its needs following the team’s early exit in the 2017-18 postseason.
“With or without Kevin, we knew we needed to change, because we still went and scored the second lowest (goal) total in the league last year,” Clark said. “Whether Kevin was in or Kevin was out, we needed to change the way the ball moved through different sticks, the way the offense was configured, and that continues to be the challenge for us.
“You move on; you adapt. I worry about what is here and not what’s not here.”
New England’s adaptation involved multiple trades to shore up both ends of the floor. Defenseman Andrew Suitor returns for his second stint with the franchise, and Ryan Fournier will take over faceoff duties for the Black Wolves.
The team also added defenseman Greg Downing as a free agent. Goaltender Alex Buque was acquired in a trade with Buffalo, and forward Tyler Digby joins the offense.
With the return of 2016 first-rounder Seth Oakes and selection of Dereck Downs in the 2018 Entry Draft, the Black Wolves are hoping the new offensive additions mesh with the returning veterans — like Callum Crawford, Stephan Leblanc and a healthy Kevin Buchanan — and that translates into more distributed success.
“We’ve got a group on the offensive side of the floor that’s committed to playing systematically, moving the ball, playing fast — which is the theme of the NLL now,” Clark said.
Brett Manney in transition | Photo Credit: Kyle Hess
The biggest defensive change came at the goalie position following last season’s starting netminder Aaron Bold joining the Vancouver Warriors via free agency. Buque now forms a tandem with 22-year-old Doug Jamieson. While there has been no official decision as to who gets the nod to start between the pipes against Georgia, both impressed the coaches in New England’s two preseason games last weekend.
“They looked solid,” Clark commented. “Dougie looks a lot more confident and a lot more aggressive in net, and he appears to be growing into that goalie that we thought he was going to be when we drafted him a couple of years ago.”
Georgia also went through a roster shakeup following its exit in last season’s East Division Finals. It was one of the teams hit hardest in the 2018 Expansion Draft, with forwards Kiel Matisz and Jordan Hall selected by the Philadelphia Wings.
The Swarm shifted transition players Jerome Thompson and Zed Williams to the offense full-time to address the holes created in the Expansion Draft. Holden Cattoni is the other new face on the Swarm offense, acquired in a trade with Calgary which sent Jesse King to the Roughnecks. The three join 2017 NLL MVP Lyle Thompson, Miles Thompson, Shayne Jackson and Randy Staats out the front door.
With Joel White on the protected players list and Ethan O’Connor in Buffalo via trade, Georgia focused on shoring up its defense in the 2018 Entry Draft and through free agency. With four new rookies — Brendan Bomberry (No. 7 overall), Adam Wiedemann (No. 8 overall), Joel Tinney (No. 18 overall) and 2018 MLL Defensive Player of the Year Matt Dunn — out the back door, Swarm head coach Ed Comeau is confident that the returning defensive veterans led by captains Jordan MacIntosh and Jason Noble will have a positive impact on the fresh Swarm faces.
Sellars and Stouros causing a turnover | Photo Credit: Kyle Hess
“I think our defensive core is really good,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve reassigned a couple of people from defense to offense, and losing Ethan O’Connor to trade and Joel White not playing really gives opportunities for other guys. But the fact that we have a strong core, I know that those players will do everything they can to help the young players that are stepping in and getting the opportunity to play and perform at this level.”
Entering his 14th season in the NLL, Mike Poulin will be the Swarm’s primary goaltender again. Poulin led the league in 2017-18 in minutes played with 1042:11, posting an 11-5 record to go along with is 11.69 GAA and .773 SV%.
The Swarm and Black Wolves will start their seasons against each other for the second year in a row. The two played in Mohegan Sun Arena to kick off the 2017-18 NLL season, and New England came away with a 13-11 win.
With home floor advantage now flipped, the Swarm will be seeking its fourth-straight Home Opener win. Georgia finished the 2017-18 season first in the East Division with an 11-7 record, following a six-game winning streak to clinch the East’s top spot in the final weekend of the regular season. Despite its -48 goal differential, New England sat in third place last season with a 9-9 record and went 1-2 in the season series against the Swarm.
Given the changes to New England’s roster over the offseason and abbreviated training camp, Comeau and the Swarm are concerned more with what they can control than what the final iteration of the Black Wolves will look like come Saturday.
“Early in the season, it’s really important to focus on your team, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Comeau said. “We’re trying to focus on the Swarm and our players and our principles and what we need to do to be successful this weekend and throughout the season.”
Faceoff is set for 7:05 p.m. ET. Fans can catch the game live via the B/R Live app available through iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire