This 2021-22 NLL season has been filled with more losses for the Rochester Knighthawks than they’d like. Nevertheless, this team understands that becoming a dominantly successful team takes patience and a desire to learn from past struggles.
Following a promising 2-1 start and then clawing their way to 3-5, these Knighthawks are now 3-11 and riding a 6-game losing streak – the longest losing streak in franchise history. That streak has positioned them in last place in the East Conference, and the team now has the worst record in the NLL.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, even if it may seem faint at the moment. No one is hanging their heads, no one is giving in. This is a team that is willing to put in the time and effort to creating a winning club and a winning culture in the city if Rochester, New York.
During this losing streak, the team has had to readjust its priorities and expectations. Rylan Hartely had gone down with an injury – he hasn’t played since March 4th – and the team’s offense wasn’t producing the way the team had hoped; GM Dan Carey decided to make the first significant trade around the trade deadline.
The Friday before the deadline, Carey shipped Shawn Evans to the Halifax Thunderbirds for their top first-round compensatory pick in the 2022 NLL Draft and their 2023 second-round selection. Carey believes it will benefit the team in many ways this season and in the foreseeable future.
“From our standpoint, it was obviously beneficial to receive [those draft picks],” Carey said. “We get a 2023 second-round draft pick that we didn’t have because we traded that for Matt Gilray, so we get that back. Quite frankly, we have some younger guys with Ryan Smith and Thomas Hoggarth on the right side – Curtis Knight has been on that side for a long time, and we think he’ll be with us for the future. So, it gives those guys more of an opportunity to take more responsibility, which will help us for the rest of this year and next year.”
The draft picks bolster what is already a flush 2022 draft for the Knighthawks. The addition of those two picks gives the team two first-round picks this year on top of a second, third, and fourth-round pick and then a sixth-round selection.
“The impact that those future selections will ultimately make on this team is not lost on anyone,” coach Hasen said. “Not only do you have the potential to pick up a guy in the late rounds who can turn into a superstar – don’t forget Charlie Bertrand was undrafted – but you have a couple of very early picks that usually turn into everyday guys right away.”
“I think the future is very bright,” Hasen said. “There’s a good deep draft coming up, and we have our first-round draft picks, which translates to guys stepping on the floor as soon as they’re available.”
Assistant Coach Pat O’Toole added that according to the statistics, you can see how influential Evans was on the offensive side of the ball. With him out of the lineup, it will force younger players to step into roles that the coaching staff believes they can fill.
“Now we’re in an opportunity where [Knight] and [Smith] will have the ball more, and so will the rest of the guys on offense,” O’Toole said. “Now they’re going to learn to play with the ball, whereas if [Evans] was still on the team, he would be handling the ball, and he would be making the plays. If you look at [Evans] assists numbers this year, you see how much he was touching the ball, but now other guys are going to have to step up and lead. They’re going to have to have the ball, and they’ll have to make plays.”
We’ve already seen the incredible impact younger players such as Ryland Rees, Bertrand, Smith, Hoggarth, and others are making. Smith and Hoggarth alone have combined for 45 goals and 31 assists, while Rees leads the team with 90 loose balls and has accumulated the 3rd-most caused turnovers on the team with 11. Yet, now with Evans out of the lineup, those offensive positions will be run through the youth instead of the savvy veteran in Evans.
While this is one of the youngest teams in the league, Paul Dawson and Dan Coates are still holding down the backend. And, it appears that Dawson and Coates, who signed a two-year deal with the team prior to the season, are committed to helping the rest of the Knighthawks defense that is either in their early or mid-20s develop into a dynamic defensive force, says Carey.
“[Dawson] has indicated that he wants to be here, which says a lot about what he thinks we have as a team and what we believe we have as a team,” Carey said. “We’ve got a really young defensive core, and he’s a veteran guy that I think is very important for developing our younger players.”
Throwing younger players into the line of fire of NLL action can be a daunting experience, but this front office and this coaching staff believe they have the type of quality character guys that can step up to the occasion. Historically speaking, the older Knighthawks franchise at the beginning of the 2010s did that with Cody Jamieson and Sid Smith back when O’Toole was still playing for those Knighthawks, and he believes this team is full of guys who can produce just like those young talents.
“When Cody [Jamieson] and those guys were young back in the day, they came in and made a huge impact on our team by getting big goals in big moments,” O’Toole said. “He wasn’t sitting in the stands for a couple of years and getting ready to play; guys like him were getting thrown in and producing. I think at this time it’s the same thing. Our big guys are coming in getting big minutes, and they’re producing.”
Having the newest version of the long-term strategy in place is reassuring, but for fans, players, and even the front office staff, that doesn’t mean that it’s not frustrating to be going through a prolonged winless spell. Hasen has emphasized to his players that it’s essential to focus on improving each game to eventually be able to play peak performance each and every game in the future.
“We’re always trying to stress to our guys to stick with the process, and that’s what good teams do; they stick with their game plan,” Hasen said. “We honestly believe that our effort is there for 60 minutes every night. We just need to learn to be consistent and not make the same mistakes week in and week out.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the optimal Knighthawks roster, but that doesn’t mean that glorious domination isn’t on the horizon. With Carey, Hasen, and the crew focusing on developing their pieces while having a bounty of additional pieces coming shortly down the road, there is still plenty of hope and optimism regarding this franchise’s potential future successes.
Everything these players are going through now will only build more character and a greater desire to win. Losing will not defeat this team. It’s only a matter of time until the plan comes to fruition. Everyone must remain patient and focused on the process.