The National Lacrosse League season has officially passed its halfway point, with 44 of the 79 games to be played in 2016/17 in the books. A milestone like that is always an interesting time to take a look at who the top players in the league have been, so today I’ll go through my personal mid-season award leaders.
Most Valuable Player
1. Lyle Thompson, Georgia Swarm
2. Mark Matthews, Saskatchewan Rush
3. Callum Crawford, Colorado Mammoth
4. Corey Small, Vancouver Stealth
5. Kevin Crowley, New England Black Wolves
Thompson is the best player on the best team in the league to this point, and that’s always a good place to look for MVP contenders. Georgia leads the league in goals even though six of the other eight teams have played more games. Thompson is the foremost of many reasons why, leading the league in points per game at 7.1. He’s taken a huge step up from his rookie year. Swarm head coach Ed Comeau summarizes Thompson’s season so far perfectly. “Lyle grew the whole year last year and got better as the year went on. We really wanted him to start at that level and grow from there this year. He’s done that. He’s been lights out good.”
Saskatchewan has as well-balanced an offence as you could ask for, but Matthews is night in and night out the player who makes things tick for the two-time defending champions. He can shoot with the best of them, but it’s really been his setup game that has shone this year and it shows in the stats as he leads the league with 41 assists.
Crawford is tied for fourth in scoring, but even that high ranking doesn’t fully capture what he’s done for a Colorado team that as been missing leading offensive players John Grant Jr, Zack Greer and Jeremy Noble for significant stretches. There’s been no letdown from Crawford’s fabulous first year with the Mammoth.
Small leads the league in scoring with 66 points. He also has the highest shooting percentage among the 19 players in the league who have taken 100 or more shots. His .235 makes him one of only three in that group above .200 (the others are Dane Dobbie and Lyle Thompson). If Vancouver weren’t below .500, Small may well be at the top of this list; it’s just hard to vote for someone on a losing team as the MVP unless he’s head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.
The fifth spot was a difficult decision. Either Dobbie or Curtis Dickson would have been a good pick, as would Shawn Evans. But I decided to go with a player who’s a touch further down the scoring list (albeit not far: Crowley is 8th in the NLL with 25 goals and 24 assists for 49 points). Crowley does so much for a team. He’s a consistent scoring threat, he uses his size to create space for his teammates, he goes back and plays solid defence. Crowley may be the best all-around forward in the NLL and he deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Steve Priolo, Buffalo Bandits
2. Robert Hope, Colorado Mammoth
3. Kyle Rubisch, Saskatchewan Rush
4. Matt Beers, Vancouver Stealth
5. Greg Downing, Colorado Mammoth
As always, the defender category is a tough one because there are so many good players and so few measurables to try to make selections more objective. Numbers for caused turnovers and loose balls help, and it never hurts to throw in some points as a defensive player. Largely, though, it does come down to the eye test. Having watched a lot of games, the player who consistently stands out the most to me is Steve Priolo. Even when the Bandits were struggling mightily as they got off to a 1-5 start, Priolo was bringing it every night. He leads the league with 21 caused turnovers, has 76 loose balls and has added 6 goals and 9 assists. He’s a beast and he’s been at the top of his game this season.
Hope is a loose ball machine—third in the league among non-faceoff men—and plays a consistently solid game that has become more physical in his third year in the league. Rubisch is just being Rubisch: big, strong, smart and hard to play against. Beers has always been hard to play against, too, but he took way too many bad penalties the last couple of years. He’s been staying on the right side of the line this year and as a result he is one of the best in the league, accumulating just 11 PIM while adding 2 goals and 7 assists. Downing is tied with Rubisch for second with 18 CTO, but there’s more than just numbers that put him in this spot. When you watch a Colorado game and a defender other than Hope makes a really smart, athletic play, it’s as likely as not to be Downing. Crawford is the highest-profile free agent pickup from last year, but as good as Crawford has been, Downing has been almost as important an FA for the Mammoth.
There are plenty of other players for whom you could make a good argument for inclusion among the top five. The hardest part of this list was not having anyone from Toronto’s league-leading defence. I just couldn’t pick which Rock defender was worthy. They are working so well as a team that it’s virtually impossible to single anyone out. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Sandy Chapman or Bradley Kri, but you could point out three or four others that you think should be named instead and I’d have a tough time disagreeing.
I also wish there was a way to fit either Alex Crepinsek or Jason Noble of Georgia into the top five, and one of them may work his way in by the end of the year, but right now they’re just outside that group.
Transition Player of the Year
1. Justin Salt, Vancouver Stealth
2. Brad Self, Buffalo Bandits
3. Brodie Merrill, Toronto Rock
4. Chris Corbeil, Saskatchewan Rush
5. Jordan McIntosh, Georgia Swarm
Justin Salt is an overnight success the way most people are overnight successes. That is, he’s been good for a long time and getting better, but he’s suddenly splashed into the spotlight. Salt leads Chris Corbeil, who is the current gold standard for a transition player, in CTO, LB, goals, assists and points. He’s fourth overall in caused turnovers with 17, the exact same number of points he has.
Brad Self’s scoring numbers (12g, 18a, 30pts) are a bit inflated because he’s been playing forward lately with Ryan Benesch out, but he was already among the scoring leaders out the back door before that. Self has been a great addition for the Bandits and at 36 is still flying up and down the floor effectively. Brodie Merrill carries the Toronto back door colours impressively. As usual, he’s leading non-faceoff players in loosies and he’s caused 11 turnovers. Merrill consistently draws the opponent’s biggest, strongest forward and battles for 60 minutes a night. Corbeil is still among the elite players in the league and makes big plays like the strip that led to Adam Jones’ overtime winner against Calgary.
Jordan McIntosh is an interesting case because he was winning TPOY awards while playing a lot of forward but being listed at transition. Now he’s listed as a forward but is playing more of a true transition role. Exactly zero of his 19 points have come on the power play.
Rookie of the Year
1. Tom Schreiber, Toronto Rock
2. Latrell Harris, Toronto Rock
3. Mike Messenger, Saskatchewan Rush
4. Josh Currier, Rochester Knighthawks
5. Chad Cummings, Calgary Roughnecks
This category is not as much of a slam dunk as it may seem on the surface. Tom Schreiber does come out on top with his 45 points, which is tied for 11th in the NLL. He’s been a revelation and may just have started a trend of teams looking to fill roster gaps with American field lacrosse players. The crossover isn’t rocket science but it is harder than Schreiber has made it look.
Nipping at Schreiber’s heels for this award are a pair of defenders, one of whom is living up to his draft spot and one of whom is exceeding his. The latter is 12th overall pick Latrell Harris. What can’t this kid—and I mean kid, since he doesn’t turn 19 till next week—do? Harris has 12 caused turnovers and 55 loose balls. He makes the odd mistake in his own zone, but for the most part he’s been rock solid for Toronto. Harris started out having trouble finishing but now has 3 goals, the last coming last weekend in the two-man game!
Mike Messenger was selected 3rd overall by Saskatchewan and has been everything he was expected to be. He’s big and solid and tough, he can run the floor and he makes a high percentage of good decisions for a first-year player.
Josh Currier leads all rookies with 16 goals, none bigger than the tying marker with three seconds to play against Buffalo last Saturday that gave the Knighthawks a chance to earn the overtime win that may have salvaged their playoff chances. His teammate Kyle Jackson, at 7th overall taken one spot behind Currier, would fit in the top five as well but I feel like Currier has been more consistent, producing throughout the season while Jackson has been very good in stretches but his numbers are a bit inflated by the one 11-point game he had in just his second NLL contest.
Chad Cummings is a 25-year-old defender who was drafted back in 2012 but couldn’t play in the NLL because of his college hockey career. He’s been worth the wait for the Roughnecks, bringing a dynamic physical presence to the defensive zone and helping push the ball up the floor.
Goalie of the Year
1. Dillon Ward, Colorado Mammoth
2. Nick Rose, Toronto Rock
3. Matt Vinc, Rochester Knighthawks
There are three goalies instead of five because there are so many fewer players in the position than at the other spots on the floor. Nick Rose was running away with this award for the first several weeks and it’s not like he’s fallen far from his early-season peak. Dillon Ward taking over top spot is more about the Mammoth goalie stepping up with a series of incredible games lately. His best performance may just have come in a loss when he held Colorado in the game even though they were outshot 64-34 by Saskatchewan, falling just 8-7. Mike Poulin and Evan Kirk have both had strong stretches but also some slips, while Matt Vinc has come on strong and is looking like vintage Vino in pulling his season save percentage up to .790.
There’s a dark horse in this category to keep an eye on in the second half of the season. Tye Belanger didn’t even open the season as Vancouver’s starter but over his last four games has been as good as anyone in the league. Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers. A stellar .821 save percentage and a goals against average below 10 put him among the elite over that stretch. It’s hardly his fault that Vancouver’s over won two of those four games—the losses were just the second and third times the Stealth have been held below 12 goals in a game this year, one a 10-9 overtime loss to Colorado and the other a 12-8 loss to Rochester in which Vancouver scored just once in the final 28 minutes.