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2016 National Lacrosse League Season Preview

Today is the first day of 2016 and also the first day of National Lacrosse League action. From now until the end of September, there will be meaningful lacrosse to be played every week. Not only is it the start of the new year, but the start of the 2016 lacrosse calendar.

In many ways, 2016 will be a benchmark season for the NLL. Two teams are in new markets- Georgia and Saskatchewan. New England faces its second full season.

New Faces

Not exactly a new face, but a welcomed return for Curtis Knight and the Rush. After missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, Knight returns to an already stacked Rush offense. It remains to be seen what he can do in an offense full of stars already, but he can’t hurt the champs, as he led the team with 35 goals in the 2014 season.

Brandon Goodwin is shipped to Calgary after a decent rookie campaign in Buffalo. He scored seven points in 10 games last season and should see an expanded role on a depleted offense.

Tyler Digby also arrives in Calgary via New England. Digby had a breakout season in 2015 with the Vancouver Stealth with 38 goals. He should replace some of the offense that was lost in Daryl Veltman and Shawn Evans. He’s a big body and will create space on a Calgary offense that needs it.

Speaking of Evans, the former NLL MVP will make his new home in New England. Evans arrives in Connecticut with expectations to lead a vastly improved New England offense. 47 goals and a whopping 83 assists are inserted into a lineup that struggled to score last season. Last season Evans scored a record 130 points, and there’s no reason he can’t again. He has put up 100-plus points in three straight years.

Also (re)joining the Black Wolves is Kevin Crowley after he was traded to Toronto last season. He had 12 points in four games with the Rock last year, and 12 points in five playoff games. Before that, he had put up 270 points in four years in the New England organization.

The Black Wolves also signed former Buffalo defenseman Derek Suddons, adding a veteran presence to a young defense. Last season Suddons picked up 39 loose balls and caused eight turnovers in 17 games played in Buffalo.

Shane MacDonald was acquired from Georgia late in the offseason. Quinn Powless returns to New England after missing most of 2015 with a torn ACL. Both players should act as secondary scorers on what could become a potent offense. MacDonald had 13 points in 11 games last season, his rookie year, while Powless had seven points in three games, including six assists.

Drew Petkoff went to the Swarm in that trade, and he was their only real acquisition of the offseason. Reid Acton will be a part of the Swarm for the first time since they drafted him in 2013.

Veltman signed with Buffalo as a free agent. He fills a hole left by John Tavares that is nearly impossible to fill. However, he should work well with Ryan Benesch on that left side. Last season Veltman scored 57 points in 17 games, and he scored 21 goals, his most since the 2010 season.

With Crowley back and Evans joining New England, Garrett Billings was traded to his home town Vancouver Stealth. Billings played eight games in 2015 after being traded to New England where he put up 36 points. Before that, he had three straight 100-plus point seasons.

Callum Crawford left the Swarm in Gwinnett to join Colorado on a three year deal. Crawford has been a stud his entire NLL career, and adds to an already potent lineup of John Grant Jr. and Adam Jones. Injuries hurt Crawford’s production last season, but he remains one of the best scorers in the league.

Defenseman Greg Downing also made the Swarm-to-Mammoth swap, and will be a part of a Mammoth defense that needed depth. Downing caused 21 turnovers last season and put up 14 points from the back end.

Jeff Moleski was another major departure for the Roughnecks as he returns to Vancouver. Defense has always been the Stealth’s achilles heel, and Moleski’s addition strengthens them. Matt Beers returns to the defense as well after sitting out last season. In 2014, Moleski picked up 91 loose balls with Vancouver.

Once again not a new face, but Cody Jamieson is back for the Rochester Knighthawks after getting injured in the playoffs. He missed the entire summer in Ontario but recovered quickly in time to be back for Rochester’s opening game. Jamieson had 92 points last season.

Mike Grimes is the only acquisition for Toronto, as the defender joined the Rock after he missed all of last season holding out from Minnesota.

Saying Goodbye

The legendary John Tavares retired from pro lacrosse and will now be behind the bench for the Bandits. He retires as the all time leading scorer in NLL history.

Andrew McBride retired after a stellar career with Calgary.

Geoff Snider was released from Calgary and is yet to find an NLL home.

Stealth goaltender Tyler Richards retired due to concussion issues. Defenseman Kyle Sorensen also retired after an injury-plagued past few seasons.

Former Rochester, Buffalo, Edmonton, and Minnesota forward Aaron Wilson retired.

Injury Report

Brad Self will miss the start of the season for Rochester. Andrew Watt also starts the season on injured reserve in Buffalo.

Josh Sanderson starts the year on the PUP for Toronto, and the team will miss his 83 assist output from 2015. He is unlikely to return, and could retire during the season. Also out for Toronto is Kevin Ross, who is recovering from wrist surgery, and it remains to be seen when he will return to the roster.

Damon Edwards should miss a large part of the season after tearing his ACL playing in Ontario this summer. Scott Johnston is also on the IR after being injured during last season.

Both Mike McNamara and Andrew Suitor are recovering from knee surgeries and will miss the first month of the regular season.

Shining Stars

Mark Matthews has continued to improve every single year he has been in the league. Last season he led the champion Rush with 53 goals and 62 assists. That goal total was good for second in the league last season. His 115 point total should keep growing as he becomes one of the NLL’s elite.

Curtis Dickson is the face of the Roughnecks with Evans gone. Last season he scored 48 goals with 45 assists and should see more of the ball in 2016 as the offensive leader. The player dubbed “Superman” in Calgary might need to put up more than his 93 point output in 2016. Playing with a player like Digby who can create space for him might allow that.

Adam Jones keeps getting better every year after producing 93 points in 2015. He’s on a star-studded roster and that might see a decrease in production, but he remains one of the best players in the league. He might see more than 93 points in 2016 after Crawford was added to the Mammoth’s arsenal of weapons.

Rhys Duch remains one of the best players in the league with 104 points in 2015. He took over the offense once Johnny Powless was traded and Lewis Ratcliff retired, and though Billings is now a part of the lineup, Duch remains their leader.

Dan Dawson’s 62 assists compliment a deep Rochester offense. His point production went down from the last season, but with both Jamieson and Stephen Keogh on the roster, Dawson has the ability to run the offense through him.

Ryan Benesch continues to be as good as ever after a season of 113 points in 2015. While his first season in Buffalo saw 78 points, around his career average, his explosion in 2015 should raise expectations again in 2016. Named an all-pro last year for the first time since 2011, he should be projected to return to that position again.

Rob Hellyer exploded onto the scene last season before being injured. He will be looked to as a leader for a Toronto offense without Sanderson. Brett Hickey is also expected to emerge once again after breaking out in 2015 with a 50 goal season.

Shayne Jackson broke out last season for a Swarm team without a leader when Crawford was hurt. Jackson scored 78 points to lead the team. That point total was 15 points higher than his previous career high.

Pat Saunders broke out last year with 68 points, and now that the team has both Evans and Crowley, he can settle into a role and become one of the better secondary scorers in the league.

Breakout Watch

It might be a bit late to the party to say Robert Church will “break out” in 2016, but there’s no reason Church won’t keep getting better. His 37 goals and 55 assists last season were a career high. Church saw a 40 point increase between his two NLL seasons, so who’s to say what the third will bring?

Tyler Ferreira finally gets a chance to start the season on an NLL roster. The former 18th overall pick acts as a rookie even though he was drafted in 2014. Meanwhile, Mitch Jones will also play a full season, and after scoring 11 points in three games last season, he could also be due for a breakout year.

Joe Walters has been a solid NLL player for a while, but after a huge MLL season and a strong World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, he could have an even bigger 2016 for the Knighthawks. Rochester is a deep offensive team and that means Walters is a player that will be left unchecked at times, especially with Jamieson returning. His 53 points were his career high in 2015.

Between the Pipes

Aaron Bold is back as a free agent signing after a career season with the champion Rush. It wasn’t as good as his 2014, but it would have been almost impossible to accomplish that kind of year again. Still, any team would take a 9.44 goals against average.

Eric Penney has the opportunity to be the number one goaltender in Vancouver with Richards gone. He had a 14.74 goals against average in 346 minutes played last season.

Matt Vinc will return as the starter in Rochester, but with Angus Goodleaf on the PUP to open the season, youngster Brandon Styres will have backup responsibilities.

Brandon Miller and Nick Rose have split time in Toronto for the last couple of the years and it should be more of the same. With a veteran, strong defense like always, both ‘tenders should continue to play at their same pace as the best tandem in the league. Rose had a GAA under ten for the first time in his career with more than 60 minutes played.

Anthony Cosmo mans the net again in Buffalo along with strong backup David DiRuscio. Cosmo has given up exactly 191 goals in back-t0-back seasons. He lost his only playoff game of last season after winning in the playoffs for the first time two seasons ago.

Georgia starts the season with just Zach Higgins on the roster as Brodie MacDonald is on the PUP list. There is no doubt that Higgins has earned the long time starting role in Georgia. He had an 11.70 goals against average in 2015.

Evan Kirk is back in net for New England with Tye Belanger backing up. Both goaltenders struggled last year, with Kirk putting up a 13.55 goals against average, but the team had a putrid defense in front of them.

Mike Poulin and Frankie Scigliano will return in Calgary, and its likely Scigliano will remain the starter after Poulin has struggled for the past few seasons. The former goalie of the year saw a drastic fall, and finished last season with a 12.88 goals against average.

Dillon Ward is locked in as the starter in Colorado, and second year player Alex Buque will backup again. Buque played well in his time played last year, playing to a 9.36 goals against average in 256 minutes. Ward went 7-6 with a 12.55 GAA.

The Young Pups

Dan Taylor out of Lehigh is an interesting rookie, because if he plays as well as he did in juniors, he is going to force himself into a role with an already potent offense.

Both Wes Berg and Reilly O’Connor will have opportunities with the Roughnecks right away with the departures of several offensive players. Christian Del Bianco is a goaltender at just age 18 who performed well in the pre season for the Roughnecks. He will stay on their practice roster, but long term is a goalie for Calgary to keep. If they trade one of their ‘tenders, that makes room for Del Bianco.

Jordan Durston is a potential sleeper rookie for Vancouver after helping lead the Six Nations Arrows to two Minto Cups.

Graeme Hossack was the second overall pick for the Knighthawks, and he’s expected to do big things defensivley right away. Forward Adam Bomberry also made the roster.

Anthony Malcolm is a part of the Bandits roster, but it remains to be seen how much he plays on a deep Buffalo offense. There won’t be much pressure on him, especially with Mitch Jones playing a full season and ahead of him on the depth chart.

Toronto has two rookies that will step in right away in Turner Evans and also Dan Lintner, who was traded to the Rock from New England. Both should have roles in what might be a much different looking Toronto offense.

Like always, the Swarm bring in a plethora of young talent; Lyle Thompson, Jesse King, Chad Tutton, and Randy Staats are all expected to be a major part of yet another rebuilding effort.

Mike MacDonald is the only rookie to make the New England roster.

Team Holes

Both Georgia and Colorado have criminally thin defenses.

Joey Cupido has helped the Mammoth figure themselves out on defense and transition, and adding Greg Downing should help that team, but they still lack a solid backend. Second year player Robert Hope is going to be expected to take a leap in his sophomore season.

Georgia has historically struggled on defense because they have not been able to develop a defender or attract a veteran free agent, and losing Downing only hurts them more. Mitch Belisle is the lone veteran defender, and the team had to employ Acton, who has never played in the NLL, and trade for Petkoff who has played limited in the past three seasons. Jason Noble, Kiel Matisz, and Ethan O’Connor will be big on the transition game to help out defensivley.

Team Strengths

Saskatchewan might be the deepest team in all facets of the game. Knight being added to a lineup of Church, Matthews, Riley Loewen, and Ben McIntosh leaves the Rish with a star studded team. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning Zack Greer, Jarrett Davis, and rookie Dan Taylor. On defense the Rush remain unmatched with the duo of Kyle Rubisch and Chris Corbeil. Brett Mydkse remains one of the most underrated defensemen in the league, and Ryan Dilks creates a transition game like no other.

Rochester can also boast impressive defense. While Brad Self might be a key loss for other teams, an impressive defensive lineup that includes Scott Self, Dylan Evans, Ian Llord, and Jon Sullivan sees that the Knighthawks will barely miss a beat.

Most Improved

Two teams top this list in New England and Vancouver.

The Black Wolves added 130 points to their lineup in the form of Evans as they shored up an already intriguing offense. Both Saunders and Kyle Buchanan can settle into comortable secondary roles while Evans and Crowley lead them. Could the defense use work? Yes, of course. However, that offense should win the Wolves more games than in 2015.

The Stealth struggled with a 5-13 season, and losing Tyler Richards won’t help. However, the team has made several additions to fill holes. The defense is bolstered by both Moleski and Beers. The offense adds Billings to an already strong core of Duch and Corey Small.

Who Has to Worry

The Calgary Roughnecks appear to be in full rebuild mode after a disappointing 7-11 2015 season. They’ve traded many of their players, and while they retain some stars, the entire offense is much different than it was in 2015. Not to mention, its not exactly clear who will emerge to lead in net between Frankie Scigliano and Mike Poulin. Last season Calgary overcame a weak western conference to make the playoffs, as they have every year in franchise history, but that streak could be in jeopardy in 2016 in they falter.

(Source: Marisa Ingemi – http://inlacrossewetrust.com/2016-national-lacrosse-league-season-preview/)

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