Last year was a step in the right direction, but now the Vancouver Stealth want more.
Of course every team — save for the Georgia Swarm, who won the Champion’s Cup as the 2017 National Lacrosse League champions — wants more.
The Stealth overcame a 2-4 start to win seven of their final dozen games to finish at 9-9 and qualify for the post-season for the first time since moving to Langley for the 2014 NLL season.
General manager Doug Locker admitted it was a disappointing end to the season after Vancouver bowed out in the West Division elimination playoff game against Colorado, despite the Stealth being the higher seed and hosting the game.
The Stealth won’t have to wait long to avenge that loss however, as the will host the Mammoth to kick off the 2018 season at the Langley Events Centre tonight (Friday, Dec. 8). Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Despite last year’s earlier than wanted exit, Locker is confident the team is trending in the right direction.
“I think it is a continuation of some of the things we started last year,” Locker said. “We have been increasing our team speed, we have been running more, we stabilized our goaltending.
“We want to be the most athletic team, the fastest team in the league. That is the style Jamie (Batley) likes to play.”
Under Batley’s watch — the coach took over during the 2016 season — the Stealth have stressed running the floor, playing the game at a breakneck speed whenever possible.
And judging by training camp, the head coach and assistant general manager liked what he saw.
“I think our transition is going to be good (and) I like our speed,” he said.
“(But) it is always hard to tell how good you will be until you start playing.”
The Stealth have gone through a significant make-over since the end of last season, especially on the back-end, with the retirement of captain Curtis Hodgson and the loss of John Lintz for the entire season due to injury.
Despite that, defence is the most experienced position for the squad. Captain Matt Beers is joined by Chris O’Dougherty, Peter McFetridge, Ian Hawksbee and the one newcomer to the group Andrew Suitor. The five have a combined 43 years of NLL experience, led by Hawksbee’s 11 seasons in the league.
Suitor, who is also listed as a transition player, was a late add to the group after getting released by the Rochester Knighthawks. But the former Knighthawks captain was not unemployed for long, quickly agreeing to a deal with Vancouver.
The former NLL transition player of the year plays a tough, two-way game and is not afraid to drop his gloves.
“He is a leader and a guy who battles day in and day out and that is going to rub off on the other guys,” Batley said. “They are going to see a guy who has been in the league for six or seven years and battles hard every night.”
The transition position features returnees Cliff Smith, Justin Salt, Travis Cornwall, Brandon Clelland and Brandon Goodwin. The team’s top draft pick, Ryan Fournier (12th overall) also cracked the final roster.
Both Batley and Locker are encouraged by the team’s potential at that position.
Scoring-wise, Batley wants to see improvement as Vancouver was sixth in the nine-team league with 12.1 goals per game.
Up front, they return four of their top five scorers and the fifth, Jordan Durston, they parlayed into Fournier and Tony Malcom, a right-handed forward, in a draft-day trade.
Malcom has averaged more than a goal a game (29 goals, 26 games) over his first two seasons in the league. He also led the league with five short-handed goals and did so despite suiting up in only nine games in 2017.
Corey Small is coming off a career-year, which saw him score 46 goals and 111 points and he is joined on the left-side by Logan Schuss (35 goals, 76 points) and Evan Messenger. Messenger should fill the void left by Durston’s trade after suiting up in just four games his rookie year.
On the right-side, Rhys Duch managed 38 goals and 94 points, despite battling a nagging injuries for much of the season. He is joined on that half of the floor by jack-of-all-trades Joel McCready (19 goals, 40 points) and James Rahe, who had seven goals and 18 points in 11 games in his rookie season.
After starting as the back-up in 2017, Tye Belanger quickly won the starting job and by season’s end, led the NLL with a .796 save percentage and was fourth in goals against average at 11.28. He will battle for playing time with Brodie MacDonald, who was picked up in an off-season trade.
MacDonald saw limited action last year as a back-up with the Georgia Swarm in 2017, but was the team’s primary goaltender the season before.
To contend for the West Division title, the Stealth will need to play better against their eastern counterparts.
Vancouver was 7-4 within the division, behind only the division-winning Saskatchewan Rush. But the Stealth were just 2-5 against the East while their three division rivals (Saskatchewan, Colorado and Calgary) went a combined 14-7 with neither of the three posting a losing record.
Stealth on the air
All 18 Stealth games will be broadcast on TSN 1410.
Fourteen of the games will be live on the radio station while all 18 will be on TSN 1410 online and on the iHeartRadio app.
The games will be called by Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner.
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