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Stories/Op-Ed

Training Camp Questions: West Conference

Calgary – Can the offense be sustainable this season?

For two straight free agency periods, it has been heartbreak for Calgary Roughneck fans losing key pieces of their offense. Prior to last season, Dane Dobbie departed for San Diego and this offseason, Curtis Dickson chose to sign in San Diego as well. The last full season the two played together in Calgary in 2018-19, they posted a combined 196 points. Looking at the offense from that championship winning season, their top five scorers are no longer with the team just three years later.

Jesse King had a breakout season for the Roughnecks last year, posting 95 points and proved he was capable of being a true number one option for this team. Without Dickson now, where else do they turn to? The Roughnecks sat at 10th in the NLL last season with 10.78 goals per game and losing multiple multi-season 40 goal scorers is not easy to replace production from.

Tyler Pace, a former first round pick, was third on the team in scoring last season with a career high 67 points. Rookie Tanner Cook, another first round pick from the 2020 Entry Draft, was tied for seventh amongst rookies with 41 points on the season. The big splash for the Roughnecks this offseason was signing right-handed forward, Brett Hickey. Hickey has a history of lighting up the net with seasons of 50 goals (2015 with Toronto) and 45 goals (2017 with Toronto). In the COVID shortened season in 2019-20, he put up 29 goals in just 13 games with the Wings.

On the backend, Christian Del Bianco is one of the best goalies in the league and has a stout defense to support him. Reigning Transition Player of the Year in Zach Currier is a huge help in his caused turnovers, loose ball recoveries, and his ability to push the ball down the floor in transition.

If Jesse King is being double teamed or has an off night, who will step up to be the true number two or three option on this team? How much can the transition game with Currier, Shane Simpson, Reece Callies, Eli Salama, among others help score goals for this team? After a slow start to the 2021-22 season, the team came alive the last half of the season before falling in the West Conference Semifinals to the eventual champions.

Colorado – Which Zed Williams will we see?

The defending champions come into the season with the bulk of their roster still intact from last year. They lost a couple of pieces in expansion to Las Vegas and retirement, but the core is there.

Ryan Lee went down with a knee injury in the middle of their playoff run after setting a franchise record with a 119-point regular season, good for second in the league (behind Dhane Smith) and fourth best all-time for a single season. Despite losing Lee, the Mammoth offense was still able to produce enough to win a championship behind a physical defense, Championship MVP, Dillon Ward in net, and huge contributions from Zed Williams.

Zed Williams was the key pickup from the summer of 2020 for the Mammoth and they got a good taste of him last season. It felt like a tale of two seasons. There were games where he took a lesser role or was adjusting to his new team. Similar to his time in Georgia behind Lyle Thompson, he was playing secondary offense to Lee in part to help his team win. In 16 regular season games, Williams tallied 45 points with 20 goals. In the post season however, he recorded 37 points with 20 goals in just seven games. His point per game production almost doubled, going from a respectable 2.81 to 5.29. At that pace, he would have tallied 95 points in the regular season with over 50 goals.

With Lee’s injury still in the air as training camp nears, which Zed Williams will we see this season? Luckily in support of Williams is former number one overall pick Tyson Gibson, who was acquired at the trade deadline last season and on the other side of the floor is Connor Robinson who scored a team and career high 42 goals, Eli McLaughlin, Chris Wardle, and Dylan Kinnear. So while he may have expectations to lead the offense, will he need to for the Mammoth to repeat?

Las Vegas – What type of expansion team will the Desert Dogs be?

Las Vegas has high expectations as they should. They have one of the best minds in lacrosse at the helm with Shawn Williams, he masterfully navigated the expansion draft, free agency, and the entry draft to build his first roster.

For the fans in Las Vegas there have to be signs of optimism especially considering the early success Panther City saw last season and San Diego and Philadelphia from a couple years ago (they both joined in 2018-19 and have qualified for the playoffs). Not without growing pains though as Philadelphia was 4-14 in their first season, Rochester was 2-10 and the Riptide were 1-12 in their shortened inaugural seasons.

Landon Kells looks to be the man in net. He may not have a ton of experience at the NLL level, he has proven a competent goalie at every stage of his career so far. Joel Watson who was thrown into the fire with Rochester last year will look to battle for minutes. Luckily, they have a good mixture of size and experience to help settle in net. Out the front door Rob Hellyer and Reid Reinholdt will have cohesion from their time in Toronto. Jacob Ruest has played for Shawn Williams in Colorado while Williams was the Offensive Coordinator. Marshal King had moments of brilliance in Calgary and Charlie Bertrand turned a lot of heads last season as an American player with minimal box experience. They also just added Zack Greer in free agency.

On the backend size is no issue. Jackson Suboch (6’5), Garrett McIntosh (6’3), John Wagner (6’2), Tyson Roe (6’10), Mark Glicini (6’1), Tor Reinholdt (6’1) and James Barclay (5’11) will provide the physical play to help their young goaltenders.

While there will be a learning curve to align on systems and meshing with your teammates, what outcome will we see from the Vegas Dogs in their inaugural year at Michelob ULTRA Arena? Will we see the immediate success like the Seals or Panther City or the longer development like Rochester, New York, or Philadelphia?

Panther City – Can Damude, Dodds and team take the next step?

Panther City was what we expected them to be at the beginning of the season, a team looking to figure each other out and how they were going to play. They almost won their inaugural game, losing in OT to the Wings. They would win their first game in their fifth outing against the Riptide. After starting the season 1-8, it looked like the team would just fold their efforts and look towards next season. They then went on a five-game winning streak and were fighting for the last spot in the West Conference.

They finished the season on the outside of the playoffs at 7-11 but have a lot of reasons to be excited for year two. Patrick Dodds as a rookie led the team in scoring with 84 points. They signed Dean Fairall and Cam Milligan mid-season and were huge sparks to the offense. Will Malcom took a large step in his development as a second-year player. Oh, and they get their first overall draft pick from the 2021 Entry Draft on the roster in Jonathan Donville who took his extra year of eligibility to play in the NCAA last season.

On the backend, Nick Damude emerged as the number one goalie for this team, finishing the season with a 6-8 record and an 11.88 goals against average and scoring a goal of his own in the process.

This team would not beat you with flash in the offensive end or a defensive battle. They grinded their opponents down and capitalized on their scoring opportunities. Les Bartley Award winner, Tracey Kelusky, got his team ready to compete each night. With as many rookies or young players on the team, they bought into the process and saw the success of their efforts.

So the question for this Panther City team is can we expect a playoff contending team on a nightly basis or will they suffer a sophomore slump now that teams have more film to study?

San Diego – Can the offensive talent mesh?

Berg, Crowley, Dickson, Dobbie, Jackson, O’Keefe, Staats. There is no doubt there is an immense amount of offensive talent on this team. How will the new additions of Crowley and Dickson mesh with the other returning players with the old adage of “there is only one ball”?

Those players listed above have combined for 711 played games in the NLL and have tallied 1,590 goals and 3,287 points, that is an average of 2.2 goals and 4.6 points per game per player.

On paper, this is one of the deepest teams in the NLL on both sides of the ball. The Seals came up just short of the NLL Finals last season and only looked to add more depth to their team. Frank Scigliano twice limited teams to just four goals in a game, they led the league with 12 shorthanded goals and were top five in both offensive and defensive scoring.

They were one of the hottest teams to start the season even with having rookie goalies make their debuts on short notice but stumbled as they headed into the playoffs but advanced to the West Conference Finals after defeating Philadelphia in the first round.

Brodie Merrill has returned for another season with the Seals but is running out of time to get that coveted NLL title that has eluded him for so many years. The soon to be 41-year-old has won seemingly everything in his career in both the field and box games. Will this team be the season to finally get him over the hump and potentially send him into retirement as a champion?

Saskatchewan – How will the change in leadership affect this team?

The long layoff from COVID seemed to negatively impact the Rush the most of any team across the league. While they lost certain players to free agency and expansion, the core of their team was still together and many of their players from the dynasty years of the mid-2010s. A slow start to the season saw the Rush fall from playoff contention fairly early on, leading to the dismissal of Jeff McComb as Head Coach in his first season. Jimmy Quinlan stepped in as the interim coach and won their final four games of the season.

This offseason their longtime captain in Chris Corbeil left in free agency to Toronto. So between head coaching changes and leadership changes in the locker room, how will this team respond? Having veterans like Mark Matthews, Ryan Keenan, Robert Church, Ryan Dilks, Kyle Rubisch and a former captain in this league in Matt Beers should help fill the gap. Quinlan also seemed to find a way to motivate his players last season with a slim chance at making the playoffs during the final month.

The Rush will also be looking to their younger players to contribute more this season. Players like Bobby Kidd, Holden Garlent and Marshall Powless each got valuable playing time and will look to build on that experience. The team also welcomes multiple first round picks in Jake Boudreau and Ryan Barnable from the 2021 Entry Draft and Austin Madronic from this year’s draft.

The next question they will need to solve is who will be in net for game one and will that change? The Rush signed veteran Alex Buque who seems to be the favorite for the starting role after his performance with the Warriors last season but will also have Eric Penney (who played the majority of minutes for the Rush last season), Cameron Dunkerley and former first round pick in Laine Hruska also coming into camp.

Will the Rush be able to return to form and look to dominate the West or will this sign a transition period where they will look to restock on draft picks and younger players (which GM Derek Keenan loves to do)?

Fun fact: last season the Rush were outshot in only two games, having the second most shots on goal per game and allowing the least.

Vancouver – Who is playing in net?

The Warriors have lots of talent on this team but have not seen the wins like they would like to. A couple of tough losses last season after getting out to large leads helped seal their fate on the outside of the playoffs but if they were able to hold on, this team was a legitimate playoff contender.

Keegan Bal and Kyle Killen were both 40+ goal scorers last season, Logan Schuss contributed 70 points and they were missing their offensive leader in Mitch Jones for the majority of the season. Adam Charalambides had some learnings as a rookie but still contributed 47 points and will look to add to those totals this season. Plus, they added one of the best goal scorers and fiercest competitors in Shawn Evans to their lineup.

On the backend they have arguably the most exciting player to watch in Reid Bowering. He can do it all and was everywhere on the floor for the Warriors. He recorded 214 loose balls (3rd in the NLL), blocked 26 shots (1st in the NLL), forced 34 turnovers (t-5th in NLL) and was eighth on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 12 assists. He did this all as a rookie too. In almost any other year, he would have won the Rookie of the Year title as well as potentially the Transition Player of the Year award. They have great complimentary pieces in the defensive zone with Derek Lloyd, Justin Salt, Owen Barker, Brett Mydske and Taylor Stuart among others.

The question for this Warriors team is who will be in net? Alex Buque logged the majority of minutes last season, sharing some time with Steve Fryer. Buque has signed in Saskatchewan leaving Fryer competing for the starting role with newcomers in Aden Walsh and Ethan Woods as well as Brody Harris.

Fryer came in relief in multiple games and played well, in some of his spot starts he also looked comfortable. Despite his 1-4 record last season, he had a better goals against average and save percentage than Buque. He does not have the history of being a true number one goalie in this league so can he manage the workload on a week-to-week basis especially if teams are able to gameplan against him?

The other goalies on the roster are all young with large upsides. Ethan Woods is 24 years old and has logged just about 30 minutes of time in net in the NLL. He is a former third round selection (31st overall) in the 2018 draft. Aden Walsh is only 21 and has no minutes in net in the NLL. He was the 25th overall selection in the 2021 Entry Draft. Brody Harris was signed as a free agent to Vancouver so is most familiar with the organization but does not have any experience in the NLL.

#FaceoffWeekend starts Friday, December 2. Make sure to watch all the games this season on ESPN+ and on TSN’s digital properties, TSN.ca and the TSN App. Next week we will look to preview the East Conference.

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