Last week’s National Lacrosse League action officially marked the midway point of the 2016 campaign. With that in mind we’re going to change up the approach of the weekly NLL Rookie Report. To this point, we’ve ranked the rookies on their performance the previous week. Moving forward, we will do it based on their season-long performance, essentially making the column a look at who is currently leading the Rookie of the Year race.
With five games and all nine teams in action during Week 9 there was no shortage of freshmen talent plying their trade across the league. Georgia Swarm forward Jesse King put forth the most noteworthy performance this past week, tallying 10 points on four goals and six assists, although his Swarm would fall 16-15 to the New England Black Wolves. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan Rush forward Dan Taylor had a breakout performance in his second career game, picking up five points on two goals and three assists in Saskatchewan’s loss to Buffalo. A couple of defensive rookies also looked good during Week 9 as Rochester defender Graeme Hossack continued his stellar play despite the Knighthawks getting blasted by the Rock on the road. Swarm stalwart Chad Tutton was also strong as he continued his impressive two-way play, producing an intriguing stat line in yet another high-scoring game from this past weekend.
1. Jesse King (LF) – Georgia Swarm
8 GP – 12 G – 29 A – 41 PTS – 4 PIM – 37 LB
On a Georgia team that boasts several highly-touted NLL Rookies, King is arguably the most important to the club. A versatile offensive threat, King has been near impossible to contain through the first half of the season. The offence really runs through King as his dynamic playmaking abilities—along with a near lethal finishing ability—draws the eye of opposing teams’ top defenders on most nights. In the one game King missed, the Swarm offence looked disorganized after looking nearly unstoppable in the weeks prior and following. While King may not provide the highlight reel goals that a Lyle Thompson or Randy Staats seems to produce on a weekly basis, his play week to week is hard to ignore. If the season were to end today, I’d have a hard time picking anybody but King as my Rookie of the Year.
2. Graeme Hossack (D) – Rochester Knighthawks
7 GP – 2 G – 1 A – 3 PTS – 2 PIM – 44 LB – 9 CTO
A 6’2, 230 pound defender with excellent mobility, a high lacrosse IQ and shut down capabilities, what is there not to like about 2015 second overall pick Hossack? While Hossack might not show up in the weekly highlight reels, make no mistake about it, the rookie from Port Perry, Ontario has been highly effective for Rochester. Hossack is such an intelligent lacrosse player, his ability to anticipate plays allows him to pick off passes, get the jump when help defence is needed and simply provide shutdown 1 on 1 defence against opposing teams’ top players. On a Knighthawks team that possesses defensive stalwarts like Sid Smith and Paul Dawson, Hossack is arguably the team’s top defender already. It may be tough for a defender to out-duel a King or Staats for the league’s Rookie of the Year designation but if ever there was a year for a defender to earn the title, it would be this season.
3. Randy Staats (RF) – Georgia Swarm
9 GP – 19 G – 23 A – 42 PTS – 8 PIM – 38 LB
Sitting twelfth overall in the NLL scoring race, you might say Staats has surpassed expectations through the first half of the season. While that may be true, given the hype the likes of Thompson, Hossack and King received heading into the draft, Staats has always been an elite threat. The highly-decorated offensive gun thrived with the Six Nations Arrows throughout an injury-plagued junior career, then moved on to leave his mark at Syracuse University and most recently with the Six Nations Chiefs of the MSL. Staats has parlayed an excellent 2015 MSL season into an exemplary freshman campaign in the NLL. With bring-you-out-of-your-seat talent, Staats has routinely exploded offensively, producing 6 or more points in four of his nine games while yet to be held pointless in any game this season. Averaging 4.6 points per game, the Six Nations, Ontario native is extremely tough to contain, shows no fear when driving the net and can beat you in so many ways both as a passer and a scorer. Staats shiftiness and versatile offensive repertoire make him an elite offensive talent, one that has the ability to challenge for the designation of Rookie of the Year in 2016.
4. Chad Tutton (D) – Georgia Swarm
9 GP – 6 G – 6 A – 12 PTS – 22 PIM – 39 LB – 15 CTO
When Tutton was picked fifth overall by Georgia in the 2015 draft, some may have questioned if that was too high for a player with his skill set. However, from the moment he stepped onto the floor with the Swarm, Tutton has opened eyes and continues to do so. A versatile, two-way threat who provides above-average defence in his own zone, Tutton has excelled in transition and even contributed offensively at a fairly consistent pace. In the back end, Tutton has provided aggressive and physical defence without crossing the line, shows an active stick and above average 1 on 1 defensive skills. In transition, Tutton gets up the floor extremely well, showing high end foot speed along with strong decision-making and ball skills. Offensively speaking, the Courtice, Ontario native has been able to create space for his skilled teammates to operate, makes sound decisions with the ball, and finishes when the opportunity presents itself. Tutton’s balanced stat line is a direct indication of what he has brought to the Swarm this season.
5. Wesley Berg (RF) – Calgary Roughnecks
9 GP – 12 G – 20 A – 32 PTS – 8 PIM – 45 LB
A potent point producer throughout his junior and collegiate career, Berg has made a seamless transition to the NLL. Berg has found his niche providing quality secondary scoring behind the likes of Curtis Dickson, Jeff Shattler and Tyler Digby. Since Dane Dobbie went down to injury, Berg’s role in the offence has expanded and the touches have become more frequent; he has responded by producing at an even greater pace. Berg is difficult to contain in the offensive end as he uses his elite speed and excellent athleticism to become very shifty and elusive in possession. But what makes Berg so lethal is his ability to create. There are lots of shifty and athletic lacrosse players but Berg’s vision and offensive IQ are what make him stand apart. A quick decision-maker, Berg can beat you to the net with his speed and strength or from the outside with his pin-point accurate shot. Berg’s speed often forces opponents to send help defence, which is when his playmaking and vision comes into play, quickly moving the ball to an open teammate for a high quality scoring chance. Berg has only scratched the surface of his potential this season.
6. Lyle Thompson (LF) – Georgia Swarm
9 GP – 10 G – 20 A – 30 PTS – 4 PIM – 32 LB
With plenty of hype following him both before and after going first overall in the 2015 NLL draft, some may consider Thompson’s first nine games as a professional to be a let down. How can we justifiably call 30 points in nine games from a rookie a let down, though? The problem with Thompson was the hype itself. Thompson is an excellent lacrosse player with elite talents but the hype surrounding him leads people to expect more. But really, what more can you expect ? With so many offensive guns in Georgia and just one ball to go around, it’s actually quite admirable that Thompson has produced as much as he has, given that he’s often not option 1, 2 or 3 in the Swarm’s attack. We’ve seen breakout games from Thompson, we’ve seen quiet games, but we’ve also seen consistent point production, as the Onondaga native has only been held scoreless once this season and is currently averaging 3.3 points per game. While the former U of Albany star may not win the Rookie of the Year trophy this season, a 60+ point campaign from an NLL rookie just scratching the surface isn’t too shabby.
7. Jordan Gilles (D) – Colorado Mammoth
8 GP – 5 G – 0 A – 5 PTS – 2 PIM – 32 LB – 9 CTO
A sixth-round pick, Gilles provided eye-opening performances in his first handful of games, making numerous General Managers wonder how they missed this gem of a player. While Gilles’ offensive production has slowed down in recent weeks, his defensive play remains consistent. With excellent foot speed and impressive athleticism, Gilles is an active and aggressive defender who keeps on opponents’ hands and frustrates them with his tireless and consistent effort. While undersized as far as traditional defenders go, Gilles has not only excelled in the defensive end but in transition as well. The Richmond, BC native’s foot speed and ability to push the pace in transition has allowed him to notch five goals to date and provided the first-place Mammoth with yet another two-way threat. While GM’s across the league are kicking themselves for letting Gilles slip by them to Colorado, the Mammoth are sitting pretty in first place with a Rookie of the Year candidate despite the fact they did not own a draft pick until the fourth round last year.
8. Tyson Bell (D) – Calgary Roughnecks
8 GP – 1 G – 3 A – 4 PTS – 21 PIM – 29 LB -4 CTO
While not the late-round gem that Gilles is, Bell’s inclusion on the Roughnecks opening day roster was somewhat surprising. Not exactly a household name before the draft, Bell has opened the eyes of many with his ability to push the ball up the floor while also providing solid defensive zone play. While the St. Catharines, Ontario native’s play has slowed some in the past couple of weeks, rookies do sometimes hit a mid-season wall before reigniting the flame down the stretch run. With that being said, Bell’s performance through the Roughnecks first half dozen games is deserving of placement among the league’s top rookies. Bell has provided sound 1 on 1 defence, scooped up an ample amount of loose balls and played with a physical and aggressive nature to his game. He’s also taken advantage of his foot speed to make an impact in transition. Not afraid to go to the cage, Bell handles the ball well and makes good decisions in possession while presenting an impressive lacrosse IQ. He’s a long shot for Rookie of the Year honours this season, but Bell should be a solid contributor to the Roughnecks back end for years to come.
9. Jordan Durston (LF) – Vancouver Stealth
7 GP – 8 G – 10 A – 18 PTS – 19 PIM – 18 LB
After getting scratched in the Stealth’s opening game of the season, Durston has found himself as a regular in Vancouver’s lineup since then. He’s made a mark providing quality depth scoring throughout his lacrosse career and Durston has continued to do just that with the Stealth. Playing behind Logan Schuss, Rhys Duch, Garrett Billings, Corey Small and Joel McCready, Durston’s touches have been limited but the lefty out of Wallaceburg, Ontario has still found a way to produce over two points per game. At 5’11, 220 pounds, Durston has the size and strength to get inside on opponents and also displays a powerful outside game. He has also thrived working the pick and roll, getting teammates open and creating second chance opportunities. His 18 points in seven games aren’t going to win him Rookie of the Year honours. They will, however, allow him to remain in the lineup and carve out a solidified NLL roster spot.
10. Reilly O’Connor (LF) – Calgary Roughnecks
9 GP – 4 G – 16 A – 20 PTS – 0 PIM – 31 LB
A month ago, O’Connor likely wouldn’t have cracked this list. Since Dobbie went down to injury, though, O’Connor has really stepped up his game. Throughout his junior career, O’Connor thrived with the ball in his stick, using his elite vision and impressive ball skills to create. That is exactly what he’s begun to do at the NLL level. Just like after his slow start with the Brooklin Redmen of MSL last summer, since O’Connor has adjusted to the pace of play and found his niche he’s begun to thrive. With 14 of his 20 points coming his last five games, it’s clear that O’Connor has his confidence back. It would come as no surprise to me if the former OLA Junior A scoring champ goes on an offensive tear in the coming weeks.