Throughout the 2017 season, the rest of the Eastern Conference watched their rival, the Georgia Swarm, run rampant on them and the rest of the league. The Swarm went on to set NLL season-records in goals, assists, and points, finish with a league-best 13-5 record (without Jesse King) leading them to a four-game cushion to conquer the East, not to mention, a Champion’s Cup.
The Swarm knew their tremendous success last season would lead their competition in the East to step their game up in 2018 said Swarm assistant coach Dan Ladouceur, “We know that after a championship year you have a target on your back which makes the rivalries in the East even more exciting. You know you always have great teams in the East, but knowing that teams are aiming for you is going to make it that much better.”
Each Eastern Conference team made great strides in the offseason, making key trades and signings while also preparing for numerous players to return from injuries that sidelined them in 2017. The conference’s four other contenders all had a similar goal coming into 2018: dethrone the East’s new darlings, the Georgia Swarm.
“It starts from Day 1.” Said Rochester Knighthawks head coach, Mike Hansen. “We had hungry minds and hungry bodies coming into camp wanting to make the team and push the team to set the tone for us.”
The Knighthawks offense has come back to life following the return of their 2014 MVP Cody Jamieson who missed all of 2017 due to a knee injury. Jamieson’s presence paired with the continued success of Cory Vitarelli and Joey Resetarits along with the budding talent of Kyle Jackson have the Knighthawks offense (49 goals in three games) looking more like their 2007 and 2014 Champion’s Cup winning teams that scored 249 and 210 goals respectively.
On the back side, Rochester beefed up their defense by signing the always physical and scrappy, Billy Dee Smith, taking him from their arch-rival Buffalo Bandits. Smith adds yet another force in front of the goaltender Matt Vinc alongside veterans Sid Smith and Paul Dawson and the emerging ballhawk Graeme Hossack. Smith and Hossack currently are snatching up 18% of the team’s total LB; each has more than 15 a piece.
The Knighthawks also made terrific selections in this fall’s NLL Draft selecting Jake Withers and Eric Fannell in the 1st round. Withers has helped the offense take the majority of possession on the young season from his spot at the X (and leads the team in LB) while Fannell has collected a trifecta of goals and assists in as many games.
About 70 miles southwest of the Knighthawks home, Blue Cross Arena, the Buffalo Bandits and their staff were making big moves of their own to position themselves for a Champion’s Cup run.
The Bandits were part of arguably the most significant trade of the offseason shipping a focal point of their offense the last few years, Ryan Benesch, who was an NLL MVP finalist in 2015 with his 113 points to the Colorado Mammoth, in exchange for another proven scorer in Callum Crawford as well netminder Alex Buque.
Crawford is now leading the charge paired with the 2016 NLL MVP, Dhane Smith, up-and-comer Mitch Jones (who is on pace for another season full of personal bests), and another essential offensive offseason pickup who Smith says, “might be the most underrated player in the NLL,” in Jordan Durston.
Through four games, Durston is looking like he will have his first 50-point season. Jones and Crawford have started the year on pace to eclipse 70 points, and Smith is on track to top 100
points for the third time in his career. The last time the Bandits had three or more players with 70+ points, they made it to the Champion’s Cup (2016 runner’s up).
Smith, who has paid his dues in the rough and tumble East for six seasons now said this of the competitiveness in the conference, “I think this might be one of the toughest Eastern leagues I’ve been a part of over the last five years (six including 2018).” It’s hard to disagree with him considering that this has been only the second year in the last six seasons in which all teams in the East were neither winless or undefeated.
Just across the border and a short drive from Buffalo, the Toronto Rock saw their team turn into a potential powerhouse. Rob Hellyer, who was greatly missed last year with an ACL tear, was getting set to return to the turf at the same time the Rock’s front office was acquiring one of the league’s best scorers in Adam Jones from the Saskatchewan Rush.
Hellyer and Jones matched with the reigning NLL Rookie of the Year (and supreme American sniper), Tom Schreiber, and two-time 40+ goal scorer, Brett Hickey, are in an early season groove in 2018 combining for 36 goals in four games.
The two-time NLL Goalie of the Year finalist, Nick Rose, has stood tall in the early part of this year while getting great assistance from his defense. The Week 2 acquisition of Sheldon Burns from the New England Black Wolves in exchange for Stephen Leblanc has added to an already sharp defense led by one of the league’s most-tenured great defenders, Brodie Merrill. The Pesky play from the likes of Billy Hostrawser, the under-20, Latrell Harris, and rookie, Drew Belgrave, are causing turnovers and forcing the ball down to the other half of the arena.
Despite being with the team for just a few months, Jones understands how skilled some of the young guys he’s now teammates with are. “It’s crazy. Seeing how it’s gone, at least since I’ve been in it (the league) to see how much is focused on athleticism and transition; Schreiber and Latrell are probably two of the most athletic people in the league. It’s great to see the type of players coming out of Junior and who are coming from America.”
Fueled in part by the skill of an American of their own (Kevin Buchanan), the New England Blackwolves round out the uber-competitive East.
Their offensive-core has stayed true over the last few years, but bringing in Stephen Leblanc to fill the gap left by Brett Bucktooth who retired this past offseason has been an important pickup. Leblanc, Kevin Buchanan, and Canadian, Kyle Buchanan, have all proven to be reliable 20+ goal scorers throughout their careers. All of them are on pace to do that again while Kevin Crowley is showing that he can put in not just 30+ goals this year, but can top 40 as well.
Orchestrated by the masterful skill of one the greatest passers (and shooters for that matter) the game has seen in quite some time, Shawn Evans and the Black Wolves are seeing their play translate to wins. Evans already has 20 points (7 G, 13 A) in three games and is helping to distribute the offense amongst their many weapons. Crowley has been the beneficiary of great ball movement -already scoring nine goals in three games- putting him in form to tally 50+ this year.
The defense and transition on this squad, however, are still trying to find its legs in through the first five weeks. In fairness, many of their players on the backend are either in their first years in the league or have just arrived to the club this season from elsewhere.
A New England vet, Jay Thorimbert is playing alongside the highly-touted rookie, Colton Watkinson, and first-year Black Wolf, John LaFontaine, just as assistant captain, Brett Manney,
is working with new Black Wolves of his own in Adam Bomberry and David Brock and league sophomores, Joe Coyle and Matt Spanger.
Nevertheless, the Black Wolves find themselves with a 2-1 record regardless of their second- worst GAA of 14.67, an unusually high average for the Black Wolves newest goaltender Aaron Bold -in 2017 the Black Wolves finished second to last in GAA 13.56 yet still manage to squeak into the playoffs.
And, as for those defending champs with the target on their back? They are seated in last place through Week 5 with a surprising 1-3 record.
“Teams that are successful are consistent.” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said before his team fell to the Rush this weekend. “They (teams) put it together for full games, and that is what we’re trying to do. We’re still working things out but I think we’ve improved the last couple of outings and continue to work on the what is best for Swarm lacrosse.”
The team’s offensive struggle is staggering considering that last season they set records in key offensive categories. The team has only mustered 45 goals in their first four games compared to 64 in the same timeframe in 2017.
To boot, Shayne Jackson and Jesse King have 19 of those goals while Miles and Lyle Thompson who had a combined 77 goals last year are only on pace to total 41 goals this season. Overall, the team’s 11.25 GPG is the worst in the East, whereas last season they consistently put 14.77 goals in the back of the net. In goal, Mike Poulin has not been his normal-self either. If he were to finish his season with a 12.5 GAA, it would be his highest total since 2015 and his fourth-highest GAA over his impressive twelve-year career.
All in all, It’s hard to state how good the East is better than Tom Schreiber did when he said, “The East is definitely stacked this year.” The proof is in the pudding, and that sentiment is holding true through the first month of play.
Many coaches and players are saying that “Saskatchewan is the team to beat this year.”, But one thing is clear: the Eastern Conference looks open for the taking. If the first few weeks are any indication, we may see a year like 2011 when Rochester, Buffalo, and Toronto all finished the season with a 10-6 record.