Like a kid on Christmas eve, Vancouver Stealth captain Curtis Hodgson is excited.
“It is the calm before the storm, the day before Christmas,” he said with a laugh.
And Hodgson and his Stealth teammates cannot wait to open the 2016 National Lacrosse League season.
They will do so with a home game against the New England Black Wolves on Saturday, Jan. 9 at the Langley Events Centre, starting at 10 p.m. ET.
The Stealth are eager to put 2015 behind the team, a year in which they had their post-season fates in their own hands in the final game of the regular season — a win would have qualified them for the playoffs — but watched as it slipped away with a one-goal loss.
Vancouver finished 0-3 in one-goal games on their way to a 5-13 finish.
“My message to the guys this year is to be accountable and establish that winning culture again,” said Hodgson, who has suited up in the most games of any player in the Stealth’s franchise history.
The team has missed the post-season in both 2014 and 1015 after qualifying in six of the previous seven campaigns.
And to get back to the dance in 2016, the players and coaching staff all know what has to be done.
“You try and learn from last year and try and fix the problems that you had to hopefully move forward and expect a different result,” Hodgson said.
No team in the NLL gave up more goals than Vancouver’s 265, an average of 14.7 per game. The league average was 11.8.
“It is no secret: we gave up a lot of goals last year. And I think it starts defensively. We addressed the needs that our team was missing last year,” Hodgson said.
A new man will start the season as the Stealth’s No. 1 goaltender as Eric Penney takes over from the retired Tyler Richards.
Penney’s goals against average was 14.74 in 2015 as he went 1-4. While his GAA ranked worst, the promising sign was that his save percentage (.754) had him ranked tied for 12th out of the 19 goaltenders who saw action.
He is also coming off a stellar summer Western Lacrosse Association season where he was named the league’s top goalie as well as co-rookie of the year with New Westminster.
“I learned a lot about the pace of the game last year and over the summer,” he said. “It’s a lot faster than it was in junior and the ball is always moving. The guys are so skilled at this level that you have to always be ready and play every shooter honest each and every possession.”
“I think as a team we have to stick to the game plan our coaches are putting forward. They have introduced a new system this year and if we stick to that I think we will be very successful,” he added.
“I think the biggest challenge for me this year will be the transition part of the game. It’s crucial to make a good/smart pass. It was something I really focused on improving over the off season, hopefully settling in as the starter and getting more minutes will help with my ability to see the floor and hit the open guy in transitional game situations.”
Chris Levis will back-up Penney as he returns to the league after a two-year absence.
Matt Beers should help shore up the defense as he returns after a year off.
Beers joins returnees Hodgson and Chris O’Dougherty, as well as free agent signees Jeff Moleski, Ian Hawksbee and Brier Jonathan.
While Jonathan is a rookie, the other five have a combined 42 years of NLL experience.
The added defensive depth, combined with their lacrosse IQ, should help both Penney and the team, Hodgson said.
The transition position should be helped by a fully healthy Tyler Garrison, who only suited up in six games last year. Mitch McMichael is also back as the team’s primary face-off option.
Justin Salt, Brandon Clelland and Travis Cornwall round out the position.
Up front, the Stealth added Garrett Billings.
The offense was middle of the pack at 11.7 goals per game and Billings should help boost that.
He joins the returning forward corps of Rhys Duch (41 goals, 103 points), Corey Small (32 goals, 75 points), Logan Schuss (22 goals, 66 points) and Joel McCready (30 goals, 51 points).
Cliff Smith (eight goals, 25 points) and rookie Jordan Durston round out the forward groups.
“(Garrett) adds a different element to the way we can hurt opponents,” said general manager Doug Locker. “I think he brings the ability to (not only) score goals … but to feed the ball, to really open up those lefties a bit more.”
Billings should also help the team’s power play, which was sixth in terms of percentage.
Overall, the special teams suffered in 2015. Vancouver had 29 power-play goals (they scored 45 but allowed 16) while allowing 46 when a man down (opposing teams scored 52 power-play goals compared to six Stealth short-handed markers) for a special teams differential of -17. Only Buffalo and Minnesota were worse at -18.
By Gary Ahuja (@VanStealthBeat) for NLL.com.