At 9-4, San Diego Seals are in first place in the West Division and have the third best record in the NLL… as an expansion team. Entering week 14, the Seals have won five games in a row and are coming off of a 16-9 win against the Calgary Roughnecks on March 30 in the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The Seals are led by a mix of veterans and youngsters. Forward Garrett Billings, now in his ninth year in the NLL, leads the team in points and assists with 64 and 49, respectively.
Austin Staats leads all rookies in goals, assists and points (31 g, 28 a, 59 pts) and veterans Dan Dawson (21 g, 61 pts), Kyle Buchanan (24 g, 58 pts) and Casey Jackson (26 g, 43 a) round out the top scoring options for the Seals.
Interestingly enough for San Diego, the Seals have only one player in the top-10 in scoring (Staats) and no players in the top-10 in points in the league.
The Seals clinched a playoff berth with their win over the Saskatchewan Rush on March 22nd and can clinch a home game in the first round of the playoffs with a win vs. Georgia or a win vs. New England this weekend. If the Seals lose both games, they can clinch a first round home playoff game with two losses by both Calgary and Colorado.
NLL.com recently spoke with Seals first-year head coach and general manager Patrick Merrill about working in an NLL front office, what he looks for in potential players and the Seals chemistry this season.
NLL.com: How are you enjoying being in the front office?
Merrill: Obviously I really enjoyed my career as a player. I’m happy to stay involved and have been really enjoying the coaching and the general manager duties so far. I’m fortunate to work for Steve (Govett) and Joseph Tsai. That’s made it a lot easier for me to learn both jobs. It’s been good so far.
NLL.com: You were in a leadership role as an assistant captain with the Toronto Rock. What communication methods are you using differently with players now compared to when you were an assistant captain?
Merrill: It is different being an assistant captain. I was fortunate enough as a player to play under great captains and under great coaches my entire career. I think you learn to take the little things that you learned from people and your career and I tried to do that when I was a player. That certainly helped me with my role now. I also work for The Hill Academy and my job there is a leadership and administrative type position so that has helped me transition.
I think what I learned at The Hill Academy is more on the business side of things, but it’s still building relationships with players. I try to be kind and respectful and try to treat players the way I hoped and expected to be treated when I was a player. It’s a delicate balance. I’m fortunate we have a great group of players who are professional, respectful and kind people themselves. That makes my job a lot easier in that regard.
NLL.com: Teams are structured differently in this league. Some coaches are the general managers, like you are. On other teams, the coach and general manager are two separate positions.
What have been the positives and negatives of being both a coach and general manager?
Merrill: I enjoy both roles. I think that’s the key thing. I’ve got a passion for the business side and I love to coach. It’s been a dream job for me. It means a lot to me to be given the opportunity as an unproven guy. I think that goes more to the credit to the guys around me, such as my coaching staff with Josh Anderson and Bill Greer. I don’t look at myself as a head coach. It’s a team effort.
But it’s certainly different. You know, that comes with the territory of having that role. Again, I try to be as professional as I can be. When you make a transition and let somebody go and make a trade, that’s certainly the toughest part of the job because there is a personal aspect to it with how it affects the player and their family and how it affects the team. You just have to be honest and be fair and put a player in a position where he’s going to be successful, whether it’s with us or somebody else. Those decisions are the hardest part of the role.
Training camp was the toughest part because we didn’t have a whole lot of time to make decisions with the shortened training camp. We had to make some really tough calls with some guys. Again, the guys were really really professional and understood (when I made cuts) but I had some sleepless nights when we had to get our final roster in. I think that was probably the toughest time. I wouldn’t call it a negative but it was a tough part of the job. That first training camp was definitely an eye opening experience.
NLL.com: How would you describe your coaching style, and which head coaches influenced your coaching style the most?
Merrill: I don’t try to copy a type of style. I try to just be myself.
Like I said earlier, I learned everything from all of the coaches I played for. Les Bartley, Ed Comeau and Derek Keenan especially. Their success speaks for themselves. They were great people and great leaders and looked at the game the way I never saw it before.
John Lovell was a huge mentor of mine as well. I enjoyed playing for him. Troy Cordingley brought so much intensity to the game and Adam Mueller and Blane Harrison were great coaches to learn from as well.
Lastly, Terry Sanderson. I admired Terry and the Sanderson family so much. Terry has a way about him that really resonated with all of his players. Tough empathy. He was demanding but for all of the right reasons.
I try to take a little bit of what I learned from them and apply it to what I do with San Diego. I try to be honest and fair and put the players and people in front of myself. Having empathy and compassion for what people go through is a huge part of this job as is relating to players.
NLL.com: You have a future franchise-type player in Austin Staats. Has your strategy been to find guys that compliment his playing style or are you more of the type to acquire as much talent as possible and let’s see how they mesh together?
Merrill: That’s a good question. When we acquired Austin I knew him quite well when I coached him in Jr A.
The one thing about Austin that was clear was that as a player he was an NLL-ready guy. He was mature beyond his years as a player. He’s a winner and a very competitive guy and can do a whole bunch of things besides put up points. I think it was very important to add veterans like Dan Dawson, Garrett Billings, Kyle Buchanan, Cam Holding and Turner Evans – guys who are professionals who we felt would be great mentors for Austin and our younger players, specifically up front. They’ve done a phenomenal job, not just with players like Austin but setting the foundation for where our culture is today, so they deserve a lot of credit for that.
NLL.com: The Seals are in first place entering week 16. If you heard that sentence in November, what would you have thought?
Merrill: I don’t want to sound cliché but we have a mindset of just trying to get better every week and approach the challenges as they come and stay in the moment. We know that success in this league can be a little bit fleeting and can be taken away from you pretty quickly. There is a lot of parody in this league every single night. We know there is a lot of lacrosse left to be played and a lot of things can change, but we know our best lacrosse is ahead of us.
NLL.com: You acquired Paul Dawson from Rochester at the trade deadline. He’s been a veteran of this league for ten years and is one of the most dynamic players in the league. What did you feel the team needed that necessitated the trade for Paul?
Merrill: I think Paul beings a lot of positive things to the team. He was a guy we had interest in based on the fact we had to add another righty defender that had some size and who we knew could fit in with coach Greer’s defensive system really well. I know Paul really well and coached with him on the Jr level. Sometimes when you acquire players at that time of the year, you have to be careful about the type of guys you bring in. We knew he’d come in right away and have the respect right away and fit in and make friends pretty quick and he’s done just that.
NLL.com: The Seals have two road games this weekend on the East coast. What’s your travel plan or sleep plan to help the team get adjusted to losing three hours from the cross country trip?
Merrill: It’s a change to our routine and a short week as well, as we played in Calgary on Saturday night. We head to Georgia Thursday night and then New England Saturday. We spent a little bit more time with our psych management coach to make sure our players are managing their bodies.
Our assistant GM Shawn Walsh has been busy with strategizing sleep, eating, and flight details. It’s a tough logistical challenge but there are positives to having back to back weekends on the road to spend additional time together and become closer as a team. It’s a bit of a grind but I know the guys enjoy it.
The Seals aren’t just winning, they are in first place in the West and have the third best record in the NLL. They also look to be clicking and having fun on the field. Where do you think the team chemistry comes from? Is it from a particular player? Something you guys did off the field in the preseason?
I would circle back to the veteran leaders we have on our team. From the first weekend on they’ve spent a lot of time trying to develop that family in the room. They deserve the credit for that. From Brodie to Dan Dawson and the rest of the veterans in that room, they’ve established the culture and enjoy playing for each other and care about each other. That makes a difference I think.
NLL.com: What would you say the biggest thing standing in the way between the Seals and the NLL Cup is?
Merrill: It’s a really really tough league. There is a lot of parity in the league. Whoever makes the playoffs on each side is going to have a great chance to win the whole thing.
Our mindset is to get better each week and peak at the right time. I don’t think there is anything particular. Now that we punched our ticket, we know the work isn’t ending, it’s beginning. It’s going to get a lot more challenging and we will have to deal with more diversity.
I don’t want to get into too many specifics. We have confidence that whoever we put in the lineup will get the job done. We don’t look at it in a micro way; we look at it from a large point of view of how we can improve.