What is it that allows a very good player to rise to the elite level? To paraphrase former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I’m sure I could intelligibly define it, but I know it when I see it. And this National Lacrosse League season Corey Small has it.
Small has been a good player for years, but something has clicked this winter. With two games to play, has already posted career highs in goals, assists and points. In fact, he hasn’t just broken his old 16-game marks; he’s crushed them.
Before the advent of the 18-game season, his career highs were 28 goals, 40 assists and 64 points. Last year he set new highs in all three categories with 37, 47 and 84. In 2017, he already has 39 goals, 58 assists and 97 points.
It’s not just the numbers, though. Small just has the indefinable look of a player who has reached the pinnacle of his game and has the commensurate confidence.
Small told NLL.com that he feels his scoring is up largely because he’s playing the top of the power play and that provides better scoring chances and more chances to feed teammates. His power play numbers are up substantially, with his 11 goals and 19 assists both career highs. He acknowledges that the confidence thing is a major factor, too, though.
“When you’re an offensive guy and you’re playing with more confidence you’re bound to have a better year. I think it’s been a combination of [playing the top on the power play and increased confidence],” he says. “And I’m shooting the ball well, I guess,” Small adds, almost as an afterthought.
Well, the shooting is no minor thing, but it’s in keeping with his personality that Small didn’t make a big deal of it. “A real modest guy who just comes out every week and works hard,” Stealth GM Doug Locker calls Small. “He’s probably the most unassuming guy that we have on our team that’s at that calibre.”
The confidence with which Small is playing stems in part from familiarity and comfort. “I think the experience, the chemistry with Rhys Duch and Cory Conway helps,” Locker says. “That left side [of Small with Logan Schuss and Jordan Durst] is going into the end of their second year together so I think that’s obviously had a big effect.”
Locker says Vancouver coach Jamie Batley’s belief in Small has contributed, as well. “I think Jamie’s empowered him quite a bit to carry the load on that side and he’s been fantastic.”
Getting fully healthy helps, too. It can take a while to get over the kind of major knee injury that Small suffered in the summer of 2013.
“I think everybody tends to write guys off who have hurt themselves. He had a bad knee injury, missed that entire season,” Locker says. “Obviously there was a risk at that point but back then Chris Hall, who had seen him play every single summer, just loved what he did so we decided to take the risk. He’s just been a warrior I would say for the last several years.”
“It just seems like each year since the surgery things have progressed for me,” Small adds, “whether it’s just feeling more comfortable, getting rid of the knee brace after a year then having another year after that. As far as my health, it just feels a lot better than it’s felt since then.”
You don’t hear as much talk about the price Vancouver paid to obtain Small any more. When they gave up two first round picks to the Rush to get him, many observers felt like it was a lot.
“I’m not even sure the way he’s been producing for us that it was really a high price,” Locker says. “If you look at first round picks over the years he’s certainly a guy that you would take in any first round right now and worth the two that we paid. We invested in him and he’s paid that off in dividends for us.”
At the time, the beginning of the 2015 season, Small was coming off his knee injury to rejoin an Edmonton team that had gone 16-2 without him the year before and had established chemistry. “Coming back, I was…not the odd man out but I kind of broke up some of that chemistry maybe that they had built,” Small says. “We lost two in a row to start the year after having such a successful year before that.”
The deal looks like it is working out for both teams. Vancouver received an impact player in Small. The Rush used the first of the picks to take Ryan Keenan first overall last fall and has another first rounder from Vancouver in 2019.
It certainly looks like a positive move for Small. “I like the trade for me, getting an opportunity to go to a team where I wasn’t maybe a secondary scorer, maybe more of a primary guy,” he says. “Just an opportunity to develop my game.”
What hasn’t gone so well for Small and the Stealth is the numbers in the win and loss columns. The Rush have won the last two Champions Cups while Vancouver hasn’t made the playoffs in the three years since they moved from Washington.
Small thinks things are looking up for Vancouver, though. “Obviously I missed out on a couple of championships but we’ve got a good thing going this year. Our record doesn’t necessarily show it but we’re a hard working team. We’ve got a close locker room. We’ve just got to get in the playoffs and see what we can do from there.”
The Stealth are close to doing just that. A win in one of their final two games or a Calgary loss in the Roughnecks lone remaining game and Vancouver will be off to the postseason. If they make the playoffs, it will be in no small part to Corey Small and his breakout season.