Last season, the San Diego Seals proved to the league that an expansion team is more than their title suggests. In fact, most opposing coaches refused to refer to them or prepare for them as if they were an expansion team.
Those Seals broke the mold by making the playoffs in their first season as a franchise led by likely future hall of famers Dan Dawson and Brodie Merrill and a gifted group of inspired young players, including the NLL’s Rookie of the Year, Austin Staats.
Oh, how a year can change things, though. Dan and his brother Paul are no longer suiting up for the Seals along with role players such as Garrett Billings, Kyle Hartzell, and Connor Kelly. Not to mention that Staats and prolific scorer Casey Jackson are still recovering from their respective injuries, and Adrian Sorichetti still hasn’t suited up for them either.
Having manufactured a team with new parts, this team is still trying to work out the kinks of what should be a well-oiled machine a third of the way through the 2020 season.
Connor Fields, who was a part of the 2019 Seals club, understands even in just his second season in the NLL that it takes time for teams to mesh when there are new acquisitions. He is confident that his team will come together to play at the level they need to win, and that chemistry building is already in the works.
“I definitely think that as our chemistry grows, I feel like we’re going to get better and better,” Fields said. “It’s early in the season, but there’s no excuses for how we’ve been playing. With new faces in the lineup from pickups over the offseason, we’re still trying to figure out each others’ tendencies and then get a couple of guys going each game.”
The team knows that a change is on the horizon with both Staats and Jackson expected to return to the floor before the end of February – the Seals are producing almost two goals fewer per game with the pair out of the lineup.
Team President Steve Govett believes that he, Seals General Manager and Head Coach Patrick Merrill, and the staff have built a strong side, but added that it’s a great challenge to keep up that success when the roster has significant holes as it does right now.
“It’s important to any team to have the guys that you’re expecting to be in your lineup, to have them playing,” Govett said. “If you took the number of goals out of the lineup that we have, any team would struggle. Think about the best players on any given team… How are those teams able to continue to win?”
Yet, injuries to key players aren’t the only reasons for the Seals early struggles this campaign. As painful as it may sound, Merrill had a laundry list of things he felt the team needed to improve upon before their game this past weekend versus the Saskatchewan Rush.
“We would shoot ourselves in the foot when we were trying to go on our runs,” Merrill said. “We weren’t getting stops or scoring goals when we needed to stop other team’s runs. We’ve given up too many goals off face-offs, too many transition opportunities, giving up too many goals within the last couple minutes of a quarter, etc. Those were areas that we thought we could get a lot better in, and we were much better in the Vancouver game.”
Unfortunately, as we now know, the coaching staff felt their team’s effort against the Rush was much of the same story. Their lack of runs, and, inversely, the runs allowed by the Seals are deeply affecting the team’s ability to build much momentum during games. In the Seals’ first five games, they allowed ten runs of three or more goals while only creating two runs of three or more goals for themselves.
Poor early starts do hinder a team’s chance at making the post-season, but you wouldn’t have to look too far back to find a team that had similar misfortunes to begin the year. Last season, the Calgary Roughnecks were riddled with absences to their lineup for a good portion of the season but endured the tough stretch, came on strong at the end of the year, and went on to become the NLL Cup winners.
What’s looking like one of the most important signings of the offseason, the Seals grabbing the skills of Wes Berg, has partially filled the gap left by the offense that hasn’t been on the floor. But, as Berg knows from his years in the league, a season-defining win is all it takes takes to turn your season around.
“It’s been a bit of a rocky start,” Berg said. “You never want to drop too many games early and be battling for your life for a playoff position when the season is only midway through. We’re definitely going to need to win some games and some important division games coming up.”
The Seals embark on a short, two-game, non-divisional road trip this week facing the league-leading Halifax Thunderbirds, followed by the expansion New York Riptide. However, when the team heads to Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Feb. 1st, they will begin a four-game stretch against West Division opponents.
Of course, winning every game from here on out is the goal for the 1-4 Seals, but with the potential point-swing in divisional matchups, Merrill knows that those matches play a critical role in the team’s postseason fate.
“We’ve dug a bit of a hole to start this season,” Merrill said. “Any games that we win in the division, especially on the road, are going to be huge for us if we want to stay in the race.”
The do-or-die mentality is starting to creep in, particularly in the highly competitive West Division that is already put behind the eight-ball in terms of the playoff race because they have five teams instead of four battling for the two guaranteed post-season berths.
Yet, as Govett explained, with the Roughnecks of last season very much on his mind, this is the Seals opportunity to show that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
“The whole point is to get into the playoffs,” Govett said. “How you get in doesn’t matter, it’s what you do when you get there.”