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Talent pool gets deeper as National Lacrosse League set to kick off new season

01/05/2012 01:55 EST | Updated 03/06/2012 05:12 EST
The talent level in the National Lacrosse League is at an all-time high.

With franchises having dwindled from 13 to nine in the last five years, with more and more pro-ready rookies arriving from Canadian junior teams and U.S. colleges, and with an ever-increasing number of players making the sport a full-time livelihood, competition for jobs has never been so intense.

The talent is spread around, too. Some pro leagues like to boast of parity but the NLL is the definition of parity.

"This is my 10th season in the NLL and I've never seen the talent level so high across the league,'' says Toronto Rock defenceman Pat Merrill. "Fans are going to see world-class players every night and every team has a legitimate chance of winning the Champion's Cup.''

The new season begins Sunday when the Calgary Roughnecks visit the 2011-champion Rock.

"We know we have a target on our chests,'' says Rock head coach Troy Cordingley. "That's what happens when you win a championship. But I like the changes general manager Terry Sanderson has made in bringing in some guys with high lacrosse IQ.''

There'll be a full slate of games the following weekend.

"The guys are chomping at the bit,'' says Philadelphia Wings attacker Dan Dawson. "Everyone's excited about getting back at it.''

Indoor lacrosse has no offsides so it has always been a fast-paced game, and the tempo has been further increased by alterations to some of the rules including a reduction to eight seconds from 10 to get the ball across centre. Also, a player must place the ball still at his feet if he has it in his stick upon change of possession.

Rolling it to stall will generate a penalty call.

"The new eight-second clear rule had a noticeable impact in our pre-season games,'' says Merrill. "It really speeds the game up and promotes lots of offensive opportunities in transition play.''

"I think you're going to see a lot more pressure on the clearing teams that is going to create more turnovers and broken play chances,'' adds Washington Stealth forward Jeff Zywicki. "It'll be real interesting to see who can adjust to take advantage of the new rules.''

Dawson likes the crackdown on delaying tactics.

"A lot of guys have tried in the past to slow down the play by rolling the ball when they have to give it up,'' he says. "The change will bring more athleticism into the game. There won't be room for guys who are winded and try to slow down the pace of the game.''

Scoring has slipped from an average of 25 goals a game to slightly more than 22 in recent years so the league has acted to halt the downturn. Goalies' equipment has been shaved by one inch, there's been a lowering to 42 from 46 inches of the maximum length of defenders' sticks with the intent of reducing the number of intercepted or knocked down passes.

In addition, teams can now score as many as three goals during an opponent's major penalty.

"The pads are significantly smaller in certain areas so some goalies may try to come out of their net and cut down their angles a little more,'' says Matt Vinc, who was 2010 and 2011 goaltender of the year with the Rochester Knighthawks. "For myself, my focus during the off-season was on quickness and trying to make up for the smaller pads by working on my reaction time. Overall, the pads may lead to two or three goals a game that a goalie just got a piece of.''

Each team plays 16 games and only one team will miss the playoffs come spring.

There's a salary increase of five per cent for 2012 for veterans, who now can get a maximum of $27,777. A franchise player will see the same increase to a maximum of $33,971. There's a salary increase of six per cent for second-year players to a maximum of $11,846 and for rookies to a maximum of $8,781.

Players can earn additional monies from signing and incentive bonuses as well as from making promotional appearances.

There are no millionaires, which has always prompted many in the mainstream media to turn their noses up at the NLL, but there may not be a more competitive league or dedicated group of athletes — most of whom are Canadian.

"Every player is putting his time in in the weight room and in the gym or just having a stick in his hands because nobody's spot is guaranteed,'' says Vinc. "There are at least 30 players who were playing pro last year who don't have jobs and they want ours. Everyone is working hard to ensure a spot on the 23-man rosters.''

TSN or TSN2 will have 11 Rock games live across Canada and the rest of the games are free to watch at NLL.com. In the U.S., the NLL gets a big boost with a new contract with CBS Sports Network, which is in 44 million homes, to show eight games live including the final.

The withdrawal of the Boston Blazers resulted in a dispersal draft that saw Dawson snatched up by Philadelphia, defenceman Kyle Rubisch grabbed by the Edmonton Rush, goaltender Anthony Cosmo and forward Josh Sanderson selected by the Minnesota Swarm and Casey Powell claimed by Rochester.

The Rock traded with the Swarm to reacquire Sanderson, Cosmo declined to join Minnesota and will sit out the season unless Josh's father and Rock GM Terry Sanderson can swing another deal with the Swarm. The future of Powell, the all-time leading U.S.-born scorer, is uncertain since he hasn't reported to the Knighthawks.

Another huge off-season move was the trade by Edmonton of captain Brodie Merrill to Philadelphia for single-season goal scoring record holder Athan Iannucci, who has declined to join the Rush. But the Rush won't be lacking depth up front after acquiring Rochester captain Shawn Williams.

The Wings not only landed Dawson and Merrill, they also had the No. 1 entry draft pick and got forward Kevin Crowley. He's meshing marvellously with Dawson.

"Philadelphia hasn't been a contender for a long time now and we're determined to instil that pride in wearing the Wings jersey and that winning tradition like it used to be,'' says Dawson. "We want to bring some fans back and with the great ownership the team has I think we can do that.''

Toronto is hoping Matt Roik, acquired in a trade with Washington, can fill a goaltending void created by the retirement of Bob Watson, who went straight into the NLL Hall of Fame.

The Calgary Roughnecks, who were purchased by the NHL's Calgary Flames last June, made a big move in trading with Rochester at the September entry draft to get feisty forward Shawn Evans.

The Knighthawks made room in trading Evans and Williams for No. 2 draft pick Stephen Keogh and No. 5 pick Johnny Powless. At 18, Powless is the NLL's youngest player.

Buffalo will again look to all-time pro scoring leader John Tavares, forever young at 43, to be a key part of the offence. The Bandits averaged a league-best 17,000-plus at the gate last season and will play the Rock in their home opener Jan. 14.

The Colorado Mammoth, second in attendance at close to 17,000 a game, made a significant upgrade on defence, and No. 3 draft pick Adam Jones should provide a much-needed lift to an offence that features the magical stickwork of John Grant Jr.

"There's been a ton of turnover so it will take a bit of time to gel together but, hopefully, that process is quick and we can return to where we were in 2006 when we won the championship,'' says veteran forward Gavin Prout.

There are 27 rookies on the active rosters of the nine teams. Minnesota has eight rookies as it rebuilds around 2011 NLL scoring champion Ryan Benesch.

It's just about time for the first faceoff.

"The sport is fast as is but with the changes we've made it'll be even faster,'' says NLL vice-president of operations Brian Lemon. "We wanted to enhance the game and I think we've done that.''

The players are ready.

"It's always exciting to prepare for a new season,'' says Washington transition star Paul Rabil. "Each off-season we put a lot of work into preparing for the new opportunities that lie ahead. Now we have to cash in.''

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