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2016 NLL Season Preview: Vancouver Stealth

2015 Record: 5-13 (fourth in division/missed Western playoffs)

Team Acquisitions:

(F) Garrett Billings

(F) Jordan Durston

(T) Travis Cornwall

(D) Matt Beers

(D) Jeff Moleski

(D) Brier Jonathan

(D) Ian Hawksbee

(G) Chris Levis

 

Team Losses:

(F) Tyler Digby

(T) Illija Gajic

(T) Conrad Chapman

(D) Tyler Burton

(D) Jarrett Toll

(G) Tyler Richards

 

Offense:

Despite being basically league average in the goal scoring department last season, the blockbuster addition of Garrett Billings gives the Stealth their best offensive firepower in years.

Billings’ influence on Vancouver’s offense might be difficult to notice in the first couple of games, but it will come. One of the main reasons Vancouver acquired him, besides the Langley connection, was his ability to facilitate the ball to a combination of dangerous shooters and cutters in Dan Perreault’s motion offense. He’s also a threat to score from 30-plus-feet out as well as in tight with his back to the goalie; teams will respect that despite his knee injury.

Joining Billings on the left side will be Logan Schuss and Corey Small, both acquired last season. Schuss provides the big body at the shooter position and likely has the mandate to shoot when the spacing is right. He was still a five point-per-game player in his short seven game stint upon his arrival in Vancouver. Schuss had a 9.4 per cent shooting percentage in those seven games, the lowest of his career. If he finds his touch, a return to his 36-goal rookie season form isn’t out of the question.

Another area Billings should be able to give the Stealth a boost is on the power play. Vancouver drew the second-most penalties in the league, but could’ve been more dangerous as they were in the bottom half of the league in terms of power play percentage at a 44 per cent clip. Billings has an array of players to dish the ball to and could get back to his 2013 power play assist numbers, where he had 24 assists.

Corey Small can’t be left out of this conversation after a career 2015 NLL season and an ensuing Mann Cup with Victoria. ‘The Kitten’ had a career-high 31 goals and matched his career total in assists with 40. He now has two seasons worth of evidence that he’s an excellent shooter, with 60 goals on 248 shots. Even if the left side dominates the ball relative to the right side, there’s a lot of optimism Small will get his possessions within the O.

It’s a testament to the Stealth’s depth that I went four paragraphs in without mentioning the Stealth all-time scoring leader Rhys Duch. Duch was no slouch last season either – he had 103 points behind 41 goals – and was the highest usage player within the offense. With Tyler Digby in Calgary, you would figure Duch would have the similar amount of touches, but the dominance of the left side likely shifts the ball away from Duch a little more often.

Joel McCready is the other option on the right side, unless Keegan Bal garners a call-up from the practice squad. Vancouver’s strength on the left side also lies in numbers, and McCready will be heavily depended upon once again. He took a beating last season, but willingly cuts the middle, gets into the proverbial dirty areas and scored some highlight reel goals while doing so. He more than doubled his goal totals with upon coming to Vancouver and was the underrated piece in the original Johnny Powless deal.

Jordan Durston will get his chance at some point during this season, and he has the potential to do some damage when he does. He produced throughout junior and flashed multiple times in training camp. Along with Cliff Smith, the Stealth might have the best stable of lefties in the league.

Much of the Stealth’s shortcomings on offense have been stagnant ball movement and an overreliance on perimeter offense. It’s why players like Powless and Lewis Ratcliff are out and why more efficiency will be prioritized this season.

Transition:

While Vancouver made changes to basically every facet of their roster, it’s what they didn’t acquire that might make the most difference.

Tyler Garrison played in just six games last season, but had a breakout tournament at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship for Team Iroquois. He’s a guy who will be depended upon to take that play and translate it to the upcoming season. Vancouver’s transition game lacked at points during last season and there was heavy emphasis on upgrading the unit in the offseason. Garrison has a lot to do with that – he’s too physically imposing to check in the open floor and he has good enough stick skills to make teams pay for mental mistakes and poor gate changes.

If Garrison is the meat and potatoes of the transition unit, Travis Cornwall comes into the Stealth lineup to provide some pace. The logjam of lefties probably prevents Cornwall from adding much value on the offensive end, but Cornwall is listed at 6-foot-2, 210 lbs and can play both ends of the floor. He’s also the type of signing that increases the internal competition, especially for guys like Justin Salt and Brandon Clelland.

Mitch McMichael is back as the draw guy, potentially at the expense of Tyler Burton. McMichael is an underrated guy in the faceoff dot, winning 52.2 per cent of his draws. With Geoff Snider without a team, McMichael is in the argument as a top-five face-off guy in the league alongside names like Jay Thorimbert and Jerome Thompson. With new faceoff rules confirmed and more advanced draw statistics being provided by New York-based startup Krossover, it’ll be interesting to see how McMichael fares this season.

Defense:

Patience will be crucial for the defensive unit as they work out some expected kinks. The additions of Ian Hawksbee and Jeff Moleski were meant to reinforce the depth and give them some valuable experience coming out of the back gate. The Stealth D were too easily scored on last season despite getting pedestrian goaltending. They didn’t win one-on-one battles nearly often enough, and easily permitted opposition offenses to get inside. They are missing Rory Smith and Tyler Hass as they start the season on the PUP list but Vancouver’s D looks very good in terms of depth options. With Curtis Hodgson and Chris O’Doughtery already on D and Matt Beers returning to the lineup, this is a defensive core with much more backbone.

One area I do think there should be some cause for concern – Vancouver was dead last in the NLL in loose balls with 1003 and 13.5 per cent of that came from McMichael. It was an area that probably could’ve been more thoroughly addressed, unless they expect Garrison to be a vacuum when the ball is on the turf, which is honestly a realistic thing considering he had 106 loosies in 2014. Turnovers and loose balls are two integral parts of being a successful box team; if Vancouver can turn things around, a lot of these defensive issues go away.

An intriguing player for the Stealth may be Brier Jonathan, who made the team after spending last season on the Rochester Knighthawks practice roster. Jonathan has to show well if he wants to stick around when Smith and Hass make their returns, but there’s no reason he couldn’t add more jam to the defense. He’s on the bubble, which means the leash will be short – discipline will be crucial for Jonathan.

Goaltending:

Eric Penney takes over as the starter in the crease for the first time in his young NLL career after Tyler Richards retired in the offseason due to concussion complications. It’ll be interesting to see how Penney has developed after a heavier workload in the summer with the WLA’s New Westminster Salmonbellies. Penney had excellent stats with the ‘Bellies en route to winning a share of the WLA’s rookie of the year award, posting a .829 save percentage – best in the league.

Penney’s playoff run was intriguing because he was able to face the dominant Shamrocks team who had one of the best offenses in the country. In 416 playoff minutes, Penney had a .816 save percentage while allowing 7.75 goals per game. But those numbers pale in comparison to the struggles Penney had in his first NLL season. Penney finished last in qualifying goaltenders in goals against average, with a 14.74 GAA rate. That may be a bit misleading, because his .754 NLL save percentage puts him in the same atmosphere as Zach Higgins (.765) and Dillon Ward (.760).

Either way, it’s an outstanding opportunity for Penney to show he has the ability to backstop a team for a deep playoff run, or the playoffs altogether. After watching Penney for a fair amount of games in 2015, there’s no doubt to me that Penney can put together a competent season that will give both the defense and the offense an opportunity to win every game.

Behind him is Chris Levis, and while the Stealth could have gone with the younger option in Cody Hagedorn, Levis is in the fold to provide mentorship to Penney. Vancouver is in trouble if the veteran has to play more than a handful of games; the focus is on developing Penney into one of the better goalies in the NLL, and Levis has the ability to help foster that.

Practice Squad:

Vancouver used all four of their practice squad spots – Keegan Bal, Ryan Wagner, Jarrett Toll and the aforementioned Hagedorn. Bal beat Colton Clark out for a spot on the team with a solid preseason, while Wagner is a rookie who the Stealth can develop as they go. Toll played five games for the Stealth last season, but the upgrades coming out of the back gate means he’ll have to really play well in practice for any solid amount of playing time.

Hagedorn has shown well in limited appearances for the Stealth but also had a promising first-half of the WLA season for Victoria. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hagedorn see some game action this season, and he would have more than earned that opportunity.

Season Outlook:

After two dismal seasons upon returning to Vancouver, the Stealth seemed to have some momentum going into this season. The acquisition of Billings amongst other quality additions give Vancouver depth, firepower and skill throughout the lineup. The biggest questions going into the offseason – what will they do with the defense and in net – remain to be answered, but there’s promise at the very least.

The West will be paced by Saskatchewan, but after the Rush the final two playoff spots are certainly up for grabs. We’ll probably get a clearer picture after Feb. 6, when Vancouver hosts Colorado. That game will conclude a four-game stretch in which the Stealth play Western Division opponents only. They’re in Saskatchewan in Week Two, before hosting Colorado twice and a trip to Alberta to take on the Roughnecks.

Stealth fans have reason for optimism, but it’s time to show why everyone expects a lot of improvement from the squad. They take on New England Saturday, Jan. 9 in their home and season opener at the Langley Events Centre.

(Source: Owen Munro – http://inlacrossewetrust.com/2016-nll-season-preview-vancouver-stealth/)

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