I am not one for writing long poetic season previews, especially when it comes to the NLL, due to the fact that I cannot possibly know enough about every team to give them their due. So in this case, I will have a key question that each team will have to answer to make their runs at the Champions Cup.
Boston Blazers: Can they overcome their expansion status to be competitive? As usual in most leagues, the expansion league usually takes a few years to be truly competitive. This may change for the Blazers. The Blazers were the beneficiaries of first picks of two expansion drafts. They were able to pick up Dan Dawson and Anthony Cosmo as well as a handful of players from the expansion draft. They will be more competitive than the previous expansion teams, but I think that the Eastern Conference will be so competitive that they will experience some bumps along the road.
Buffalo Bandits: Can they overcome the Champion Cup hangover to repeat? The answer to this question should be yes, and I am not saying that because I am a Bandits fan. The Bandits retained most of their roster from last season including the goaltender tandem of Mike Thompson and Ken Montour. They have lost Brett Bucktooth for the season and most likely Pat McCready to injury. Kyle Laverty went to the Blazers and then the Knighthawks during the expansion draft. In return, the Bandits gained Sean Greenhalgh who returns from a knee injury last season. This team should be as competitive as they were last year but with the Eastern Conference as tight as it is nothing can be certain.
New York Titans: Can they handle the ever changing home locations? This team is starting to turn into the MLL’s version of the Philadelphia Barrage. The Titans play in three home stadiums, MSG, Prudential Center in Newark and they lose a home game due to the Florida Cup. With all those changes, a team that competitive should be able to handle everything. They showed the have enough firepower last year and the team has stayed essentially the same. They also had the same issues last year with the changing of home dates. Therefore, this team should be a playoff contender again.
Philadelphia Wings: Can this team handle missing Athan Iannucci? Athan Iannucci will be out for an undetermined amount of time. If the Wings are going to be playoff contenders, they will have to find a way to score and a way to win without leading scorer Iannucci. Iannucci will not score at the pace he did last season and that pace was what kept the Wings in the hunt last season. That firepower has to be replaced and who steps up to replace it remains to be seen.
Rochester Knighthawks: Can they overcome a tumultuous offseason to become a playoff team? The Knighthawks offseason went something like this: new owner, new GM, new coach, top scorer of team is out for season with knee injury, replaced by formerly retired Gary Gait, second leading scorer goes down with knee injury, first new coach resigns week before season starts, replaced by Paul Gait. Can you keep up with that? The Knighthawks are going to have a hard time keeping things together and trying to learn a new system with so little time. The combination of the Gait brothers should help keep some cohesiveness in the locker room, but I think that if this team gets off to a slow start, they will be cooked.
Toronto Rock: Can this team be offensive enough to make a difference? The Toronto Rock have always been known as a defensive first team. The Rock have added offense in Jason Crosbie and Luke Wiles which just may be enough for this team to make the playoffs again. With only two teams missing out on the playoffs this season, the Rock will most likely sneak in as the four seed with their defense carrying them the entire way.
Calgary Roughnecks: Can the Roughnecks improve? There really isn’t much to say about this team. They didn’t make many major changes going into the offseason except for trading Steve Dietrich to the Edmonton Rush. This team had just enough to make it to the Western Conference Finals last year, but the Western Conference was extremely weak. With an improved Rush team and a Swarm team coming over from the East, the Roughnecks are probably going to be in for a long season.
Colorado Mammoth: Can the Mammoth stay as the class of the West? The Mammoth always seem to be the top dog in the Western Conference. The question is, can they keep that status this year. With all the changes in the Western Conference, the Western Conference may catch up to the Mammoth. Colorado will make the playoffs, but they won’t do much while they are there.
Edmonton Rush: With all the roster turnover, can this team gel and compete? Bob Hamley has completely turned over this roster and made this Rush team his. Now the question is, are the going to be able to work together and play well. A massive roster turnover usually means that the team will take time to become a cohesive group. It remains to be seen if this will happen to the Rush, but they will make life miserable for others in the Eastern Conference.
Minnesota Swarm: How will the Swarm react facing more Eastern Conference teams than their Western compadres? When the Swarm agreed to move from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, one thing followed them, their rivalries. The Swarm will face the Eastern Conference six times this season, more than any other Western Conference team. That unfair balance may hurt the Swarm, but the Swarm are a better team because of their affiliation with the Eastern Conference.
Portland Lumberjax: How will this team rebound from the loss of Dan Dawson? Dan Dawson carried the Lumberjax through the playoffs last season and carried them to within one goal of winning the championship last season. They were a weak team without Dawson and they are going to have to be able to recover that leadership and the goal scoring if they are going to compete this year.
San Jose Stealth: Can the Stealth recover from losing Anthony Cosmo? Anthony Cosmo wanted out of San Jose so he could be closer to work and family. The Stealth sent him to Chicago which then meant he went to Boston. The Stealth will not have the goaltending to replace him and probably will have a very disappointing 2009 season.
Eastern Conference Predictions:
1. Buffalo (12-4)
2. New York (10-6)
3. Philadelphia (9-7)
4. Toronto (9-7)
5. Rochester (8-8)
6. Boston (7-9)
Western Conference Predictions:
1. Minnesota Swarm (11-5)
2. Colorado Mammoth (9-7)
3. Edmonton Rush (8-8)
4. Calgary Roughnecks (7-9)
5. San Jose Stealth (7-9)
6. Portland Lumberjax (4-12)
NLL Champion Cup Final: Minnesota Swarm vs. Buffalo Bandits
NLL Champion: Buffalo Bandits