Trying to pick a National Lacrosse League champion has turned into an impossible job.
Entering the 2012 postseason, the Rochester Knighthawks and Edmonton Rush might have been considered the least likely of the eight playoff teams to win it all. They wound up in the final, with Rochester taking the championship.
It’s anyone’s guess, then, as to how 2013 will go. However, the Knighthawks seem poised to make a vigorous defense of their title. Their young team has received a pair of major reinforcements in Dan Dawson, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, and Casey Powell, a former league most valuable player who took last season off. Mix those players with forwards Cody Jamieson and Johnny Powless and goalie Matt Vinc, and Rochester looks very strong.
Toronto found a goaltender in Nick Rose in midseason in 2012, and the Rock went on to win the division. They had five 20-goal scorers last season, and Blaine Manning will be another threat after missing much of last season to injury. Toronto also has added defenseman Chris White as a free agent. The Rock should be good. Philadelphia added Paul Rabil and ex-Bandit Kevin Buchanan in trades, but has seven rookies on the roster. The Wings may have trouble catching the others in the East.
Out West, Calgary and Colorado have had about nine months to stew over last year’s playoffs. The Roughnecks (12-4) and Mammoth (11-5) were the league’s only 10-win teams in the regular season, but they exited in the first round.
Calgary still looks like a powerful, balanced force, and it added Joe Resetarits (Hamburg) in the first round of the draft. Colorado has a great one-two punch in veteran John Grant Jr., the league’s MVP, and rookie Adam Jones (Canisius). Minnesota had the second, third, fourth and 10th picks in the first round of last fall’s draft, so the Swarm became younger and more athletic in a hurry. Edmonton figures to draw some inspiration from last year’s playoff run despite the loss of its leading scorer, Shawn Williams.
Washington missed the playoffs last season, a huge disappointment after reaching the finals the year before. However, the Stealth opened the season on Saturday with a win over Rochester. If that’s any indication, there could be no such thing as an upset in 2013.
The league has nine teams once again for 2013. That’s good news for a league that has lost several members over the years, so the stability is welcome. But it’s a rather awkward number in terms of the postseason.
The NLL again will have eight teams qualify for the playoffs. The fourth-place team in the East may be replaced in the postseason by the fifth-place team in the West if the Western team has a better record.
“Our board feels this is where we want to be,” said George Daniel, commissioner of the NLL. “We want to have eight teams in the playoffs. We feel it’s the right number for our sport. It’s a higher percentage than what others have. But in March Madness in college basketball, there are teams that play in conference tournaments with a losing records and make the playoffs. The team that’s playing the best wins. Last year, Edmonton was playing the best of any in the West and that’s why they made the final.”
The cure for the situation is expansion. However, the league has lost three teams since 2009 and memories are fresh about adding franchises that weren’t ready for the long term.
“We did the preseason games in British Columbia and Montreal. Those are two markets we’d like to be in,” Daniel said. “We feel we need to expand. It’s important for us. We need more cities, particularly in Canada, to get to critical mass and exposure with television networks and sponsors.
“Having said that, our first goal is to make sure we have stability in our league. That’s something we haven’t always had. ... We have been very cautious. We have all of our teams back again. All of our teams have been around for at least four years.”
Daniel said any major Canadian city is a potential candidate for expansion as well as U.S. cities such as Boston, New York and Pittsburgh.
The NLL has a similar television arrangement in 2013 to what it had in 2012. The CBS Sports Network will broadcast a game per week beginning in April and running through the playoffs. The Bandits’ last two regular-season games will be shown on CBSSN. Other games will be shown online through The Lacrosse Network on YouTube. Last week’s game between Rochester and Washington attracted record viewership for an online NLL broadcast.
The rules for the 2013 NLL season haven’t changed much from 2012. The most significant alteration concerns hits to the head, which has been a concern of the league in recent years.
In the coming season, high-sticking calls will either be a five-minute major or a match penalty.
Officials can’t call a game misconduct for that offense; they must take it up to the higher level of punishment, which carries an automatic one-game suspension.
Also, players must serve their entire major penalty — previous rules allowed teams to give up a maximum of three goals while short-handed.