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Stories/Op-Ed

Training Camp Questions: East Conference

Albany – Can the offense produce enough to win games?

Fans in Albany will have to get used to a new offensive core this season. The top five scorers from last season are all with new franchises. Joe Resetarits signed in Philadelphia, Ryan Benesch signed in Halifax, Andrew Kew was traded to Georgia, Reilly O’Connor to New York and Jacob Ruest to Las Vegas. But could it potentially be a good thing to spark this team? The FireWolves sat in 12th last season in goals scored per game while allowing the 4th lowest number of goals per game.

This team is built on defense and strong goaltending behind Doug Jamieson who was one of four goalies to record over 1,000 minutes played last season. Their defense is led by team captain, Brett Manney and other veterans in Greg Downing, Colton Watkinson, John LaFontaine, and Adrian Sorichetti. They have young stars in the making in Jackson Nishimura who they got back from Las Vegas after he was selected in the Expansion Draft, Nick Chaykowsky, and Mike Byrne. They have one of the best faceoff players in the world in Joe Nardella who is a fierce competitor on the defensive end as well, causing 11 turnovers last season.

A magic formula seemed to be holding opponents under 10 goals per game, they won seven of their nine games that way. On the flip side, can they get to 10 goals per game to help their defense win games?

The new offense will consist of a combination of Ethan Walker (acquired from Georgia), Kieran McArdle (acquired from NY), Aaron Forster (acquired from TOR), Haina Thompson (free agent), Travis Longboat (free agent), Connor Kelly (free agent), alongside returners in Charlie Kitchen, Tanner Thompson and Brad Smith all fighting for positions with others they are bringing to camp.

Of those players, McArdle had the most points last season at 52 playing on a deep Riptide offense. He is also coming off a summer in the PLL where he was second in points (behind Lyle Thompson) and led the league in assists. Travis Longboat had a successful campaign in the COVID shortened 2020 season with the expansion Riptide, recording 27 points in nine games played.

Buffalo – How long will their championship window be open?

Another year of heartbreak for Bandits fans as they looked to be one the favorites for the NLL Cup and fall short in the Finals. They now have lost in the Finals in back-to-back seasons (2018-19 season and 2021-22 season) and some on this team were on the 2016 team that lost to Saskatchewan in the finals.

They have the talent but how long can they keep this group together in their push for a championship?

Dhane Smith won the MVP award after almost breaking his single season scoring record with 135 points (7.5 per game) and shattering the assist record at 94 in a season. Five different players recorded 30+ goals on the season and in net is one of the greatest NLL players of all-time in Matt Vinc, who won his eighth Goaltender of the Year award last year after another 1,000+ minutes played, a league best 747 saves and .807 save percentage.

They led the league in scoring, were 11-1 in the regular season when scoring first, second in powerplay record and the top penalty killing team. The one downside (if any) for this team is they had the second most penalty minutes in the league and led the league in minor penalties. They had a losing record if they were trailing after any quarter but with them scoring the first goal in 12 of 18 games, that did not happen often.

Steve Dietrich has to be happy with his roster and their 14-4 regular season record but what will it take to get the championship win? They lost Connor Fields in expansion but have added veterans David Brock and Brandon Robinson to their team. Depth is no issue for this team.

While the East remains ultra-competitive for four to five spots and other teams will froth at the mout to knock them off, how will Dietrich and Head Coach, John Tavares, look to get them their elusive ring, the franchise’s first since 2008.

Georgia – Will Brett Dobson be the starting goalie come game one?

The Swarm were left out of the playoffs for the first time they moved to Georgia after relocating from Minnesota ahead of the 2016 seaspm and will look to make it back in this season. The offense saw some changes without Zed Williams and Randy Staats but with Lyle Thompson and Shayne Jackson on your team, you are going to score goals. Brendan Bomberry played primarily out the front gate last season and contributed in a huge way with 26 goals (his previous career high was seven). They also get to add Andrew Kew to their offense and their first-round pick from the 2021 Entry Draft in Ryan Lanchbury.

The defense took some time to gel but found their groove through the season. With multiple rookies trying to make an impact they found their footing and contributed in big ways as the season came to a close. The defense was third in the NLL in penalty kill percentage.

In net, they had Mike Poulin play the majority of the games and I’m sure if you asked him, he did not play up to his own expectations. He finished the season with an 8-8 record, an 11.69 goals against average and a .757 save percentage. This offseason he announced his retirement but will still be working with the Swarm. In the 2022 Entry Draft they selected Brett Dobson as a potential replacement for Poulin with the 11th overall selection.

Dobson is similar to Dillon Ward in the sense they play goaltender in both field and box lacrosse at the highest level. He played one game in the PLL and also led Team Canada to the gold medal in the World Games Sixes competition in Alabama with a win over the United States, 23-9. In Jr A. with the Whitby Warriors, he improved his save percentage from .670 in 2017 to .844 in 2019. A key reason why he is one of few goalies to ever be selected in the first round of an Entry Draft. The talent is there.

The other main option in net is Craig Wende who was with the Swarm last season and has some experience there as well as in Rochester in their inaugural season in 2019-20. Will Dobson be their guy come day one or will the Swarm look to a more veteran presence in net?

Halifax – Will Halifax take care of their unfinished business?

No team in the NLL had a harder time last year making it through the season than Halifax with the COVID restrictions. At points there were very strict capacity limits but also two of their home games had to be moved to Ontario with no fans in attendance. Despite all this, the Thunderbirds finished third in the East and the NLL with an 11-7 record.

A couple of midseason moves had fans wondering if this was the push to the finals as the team released Kyle Jackson and traded for Shawn Evans to join the offense. Jackson would go on to sign with conference rival Philadelphia Wings and Evans never meshed with the offense like many expected. Given his long and historic career, and the fact he had played with many of the Thunderbirds previously, it was surprising to see him record just four goals in six games played in the regular season.

They also traded veteran Stephan Leblanc to Panther City for Dawson Theede who was a pleasant surprise in the games he played toward the end of the year.

One big name returning was re-signing Ryan Benesch who was on the team in their inaugural season in Halifax in the shortened 19-20 year before being selected to Panther City in their expansion draft and then traded to Albany for the majority of the 2021-22 season. Despite his age, he still put up 29 goals and 81 points last season for the FireWolves.

The other big piece of news is the acquisition of Randy Staats from Panther City in a trade this offseason. While we haven’t seen Staats since before the pandemic, the soon to be 30-year-old has put up huge numbers in his career. In just 12 games during the shortened 19-20 season, he put up 70 points with 22 goals in Georgia which was fifth in the NLL.

The team has brought back veterans in Rhys Duch and Aaron Bold who have crucial championship experience to their team and Warren Hill is a top-tier goaltender in this league and will be for a long time. Some of their younger players got invaluable experience and should be ready to go this season.

The Thunderbirds looked like one of the favorites to win the title before the pandemic and their mantra for last year was “unfinished business”. For the first half of the season they looked poised to take care of that business but tapered off in the second half. While they were unable to reach their goal for last season, could this be their year?

New York – Is the Riptide a legit playoff contender?

The Riptide looked like the most improved team last season, having gone 1-12 in their inaugural shortened season in 2019-20 to 6-12 in 2021-22. This despite the team started 0-4 and then 1-7 last year. The second half Riptide looked much improved with the ability to compete with any other team in the NLL. They were the only team to beat both the Bandits and Rock last season.

The Riptide had an outstanding offense led by rookie Jeff Teat who took the NLL by storm. In just 16 games, he shattered the rookie record for assists and points in a season, finishing with 71 assists and 108 points (4th in the NLL). Alongside Teat on that offense was Callum Crawford, Connor Kearnan, Larson Sundown, Jake Fox, Dan Lomas and Tyler Digby. They lose Kieran McArdle who was their fourth leading scorer but add Reilly O’Connor to this deep offense.

While the Riptide were second in goals scored, they were last in the NLL allowing goals at 12.56 goals per game. After the 1-7 start though, the team would have their goals allowed average drop to 11.6 despite two rough outings to close the season allowing 16 and 17 goals respectively.

Steven Orleman took the reigns as the starting goalie for this team and despite some struggles, he really grew and developed as the season progressed into what could be a true number one option in net for years to come. He set rookie records in minutes and saves as a rookie with no prior experience in the NLL. He was the first goalie since Alex Buque in 2015 to be named to the All-Rookie team. General Manager Jim Veltman has expressed his confidence in the young netminder.

The Achilles heel for this team was they would have to play catch up more often than not and when they needed to, they were usually unsuccessful, going 1-9 when trailing after the first quarter and 0-11 when trailing at the half.

Now that the defense has had another year to mesh and have added players like Kevin Brownell, Brent Noseworthy, and Jordi Jones-Smith this offseason, how much better can this defense be to help Orleman in net? There are not many holes in this roster, they just have to put the pieces together. The top four teams from the East will be guaranteed a playoff spot, can the Riptide put all their pieces together to make a run at the postseason?

Philadelphia – Can Joe Resetarits repeat his MVP type performance this year?

The biggest move this offseason was likely the signing of MVP candidate, Joe Resetarits to Philadelphia from Albany. Resetarits was third in the NLL in points last season at 111, which is a record for an American born player, and was tied for first in goals with 47 alongside Lyle Thompson and Tom Schreiber.

The Wings hung around .500 almost the whole season and would finish at 9-9 and earning the Wild Card spot in the West side of the bracket. Despite being a playoff team, there were stretches of the season where their offense looked lethargic. They were second to last in goals scored at just 10.28 goals per game. There was a five-game stretch where the team would not reach 10 goals scored, going 1-4 in that span. So, while the defense and goaltending would keep this team in games most of the year, the offense held them back in multiple games. If you can’t outscore your opponent, you can’t win.

The team was busy trying to get offensive pieces at the trade deadline. They traded Brett Hickey to San Diego, acquired Sam LeClair from Colorado, and signed Kyle Jackson after he was released by the Thunderbirds.

The shake up in the offense seemed to work as the team would score 10 or more goals in five of their last six games.

This offseason they lost Cory Small and Kevin Crowley in free agency who were the top two scorers for the Wings. They add 2021 first round pick Hunter Lemieux to the team and will likely see Kiel Matisz play primarily out the front door this season.

With those additions and the major signing of Joe Resetarits, can he have a repeat performance and help make this Wings offense one of the top squads in the league?

Rochester – Can Ryan Smith be a bonafide #1?

It was a rough season for the Knighthawks in their first full season since their expansion. They finished the season with a league-worst 4-14 record and were dealt some tough situations with injuries. Their big additions from the prior offseason in Dan Coates and Evan Kirk made immediate impacts. Unfortunately, the Knighthawks lost Kirk to off field obligations, but Dan Coates provided more leadership and experience in the backend. Their backup goalie in Rylan Hartley dealt with injuries through the latter half of the season which led to third stringer Joel Watson being the man in net.

Compared to the 2019-20 season, there was growth on this team. They allowed over 1.5 less goals per game and averaged over half a goal more on the offensive end. They still struggled in games to find the back of the net, scoring a league low 10.22 per game.

The team traded Shawn Evans mid-season and lost Charlie Bertrand to Las Vegas from their key offensive player’s last season. This offseason they add Connor Fields from Las Vegas (after he was selected in Expansion selection from Buffalo) after he scored 32 goals last season in Buffalo.

The good news is they bring back their leading goal scorer from last season in Ryan Smith who finished the season with 35 goals, second among rookies. There was good reason for him to be the third overall selection in the 2020 Entry Draft behind Jeff Teat and Reid Bowering. The guy knows how to put the ball in the back of the net.

After the Evans trade, Smith scored a goal in every game and had multiple 3+ goal games even as the team offense struggled, scoring 10+ goals in only three of their final eight games. The pressure will not be solely focused on Smith to contribute this year. Players like Fields, Holden Cattoni, Curtis Knight, Turner Evans and Thomas Hoggarth will play significant roles. Smith will likely be the teams primary goal scoring option, can he take that step in his career to be a number one forward in this league?

Toronto – Is Toronto the new favorite in the East?

The Rock were mere inches and milliseconds away from making it to the NLL Finals last season. Despite losing the series 2-0 to the Bandits, they had the pieces in place to be a NLL Cup Champion. This offseason, they add more depth and leadership to their roster.

In the offseason, the Rock’s main losses include Rob Hellyer and Reid Reinholdt (trades to LV), Aaron Forster (trade to ALB), and Riley Hutchraft (Expansion Draft to Las Vegas). In return, they sign Corey Small, Stephen Keogh, and Chris Corbeil to their roster. All three signees are respected veterans of this league with championship experience. Hellyer and Reinholdt combined for 31 goals last season whereas Small and Keogh totaled 45 so the production lost was immediately addressed.

The good news for Small and Keogh is they are not expected to be the number one option for the offense. That would belong to Tom Schreiber who was tied for the league lead in goals last year at 47 and Dan Craig who contributed 79 points with 34 goals. Add in the timeless Dan Dawson, Zach Manns, and Josh Dawick from the second round of the 2022 Entry Draft and the offense is stacked as long as everyone remains healthy.

The scary part for teams is the Rock’s defense may be better than the offense. Nick Rose in net made a strong case for Goaltender of the Year with over 1,000 minutes played, a .803 save percentage and a league best 9.05 goals against average. In front of Rose is reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Mitch de Snoo, Second Team All-League members in Challen Rogers and Latrell Harris, and other stand outs in Brad Kri, Brandon Slade, Phil Mazzuca, Sheldon Burns, and Billy Hostrawser. They only got better by adding former Rush captain, Chris Corbeil to the mix.

The Rock always looked second fiddle in the NLL last year behind the Bandits, finishing second in the NLL with a 13-5 record (despite starting the season 2-3) and losing two extremely close matchups in the East Finals. Is the Rock the new favorite in the East to make the NLL Finals with their offseason acquisitions?

NLL