The depth and stamina of the Vancouver Stealth will be put to the test early this National Lacrosse League season, and could very well determine if they can finally make a return to the post-season.
The Stealth begin the 2017 NLL season with a daunting task this weekend, with back-to-back road games in Calgary tonight (Friday) and then tomorrow in Colorado.
In fact, Vancouver — which makes its home debut at the Langley Events Centre against Calgary on Jan. 14 — will play six games in 23 days for the month of January.
Those six games are one-third of the NLL’s 18-game schedule.
“It is going to be tough, especially the second day; we are flying out at six in the morning with not many hours of sleep,” said head coach Jamie Batley.
“But we sort of made our training camp in tune to the first weekend, where we had Saturday-Sunday events, so maybe guys were a little bit more in tuned to this weekend.
“We should be up to the challenge.”
And after a long training camp, the coach said the players are “gung-ho and ready to go.”
Since moving to Langley for the 2014 campaign, Vancouver has missed the playoffs all three seasons, finishing 4-14 the first year and then 5-13 the past two seasons.
It has taken eight, seven and eight wins, respectively, to make the playoffs in that time and in that middle campaign, a victory in the season’s final game would have qualified the Stealth for the post-season.
The season is short… where every win and every loss is compounded,” Batley said. “They are all important (games).”
This is Batley’s first full season behind the Stealth bench as he was a mid-season replacement in 2016.
“One of the focuses was to change the culture a little bit — no disrespect to anybody else — but just refocus the players. It is really easy after not making the playoffs the last couple of years to just relax a little bit,” he said.
“The culture had to be changed a little bit and we did that. The guys responded in a very positive way and they are in tune to the instructions of the coaches now and we seem to be on a very good path.”
“It is no secret, he likes to run and transition and play an aggressive style, defensively as well as offensively,” said Vancouver general manager Doug Locker.
“And to run that style you need to be in very, very good shape, to run that for 60 minutes.”
Both Locker and Batley are confident the team has addressed those needs and gotten the necessary pieces to accommodate that style.
“We are built to run and we are going to have to utilize that,” Batley said.
One player who has caught the attention of both coach and general manager is second-year forward Jordan Durston. The left-handed forward had 17 goals and 38 points in 2016 to finish fifth among NLL rookies.
Batley was pleased with his training camp, especially considering he had ankle surgery back in September.
“I didn’t expect him to be as mobile and in as good shape as he is. He was a big surprise for us,” the coach said.
Personnel-wise, the offence remains largely the same as last season, with rookie Tommy McKee the only new face.
Leading scorer Rhys Duch (48 goals, 111 points) as well as Logan Schuss (86 points) and Corey Small (37 goals) also return. Schuss was second in points while Small was second in points.
Two off-season acquisitions — top draft pick James Rahe and free agent veteran Cory Conway — begin the season on injured reserve. Garrett Billings, another offensive weapon, also starts the season on the shelf, along with transition player Jarrett Toll.
Locker has said none of the injuries are expected to keep the players out for long.
John Lintz and Peter McFetridge headline the new bodies among the team’s defence, which returns Matt Beers, Chris O’Dougherty, Curtis Hodgson, Ian Hawksbee and Ryan Wagner.
Wagner has one year of NLL experience while the other six have a combined 50 years in the league under their belts.
Travis Cornwall, Justin Salt and Thomas Hoggarth return in the transition role and they are joined by rookie free agent Brendan Fowler, who will serve as a face-off specialist.
In goal, the Stealth are going with the tandem of Tyler Richards and Tye Belanger.
“We have improved our fitness, we have improved our defence and I think offensively, a few guys are a year older … so I think our offence is becoming a little bit more experienced,” Batley said.
And with the league switching to a new three-referee system, the coach said he expects more penalties to be called with the extra set of eyes, so special teams will be even more crucial.
“I imagine the penalties will be higher than they have been so staying out of the box will be a priority,” he said.
Vancouver had the league’s most lethal power play in 2016 with a .543 success rate while their penalty kill came in at third at .490.
Hodgson to wear ‘C’
The Stealth’s leadership group will have Curtis Hodgson serve as captain for a second straight year while Rhys Duch and Logan Schuss will take the roles of assistant captains. Hodgson is the franchise leader in games played at 197 and third all-time with 684 loose balls.
“I challenged the team to be in the best shape possible, when I saw Curtis on the first day of camp I knew who our captain was,” Batley said. “Both Logan and Rhys have done an outstanding job of leading by example and setting a high bar for our guys to aspire to.”
“I think it is no secret that Rhys is one of the best players in the National Lacrosse League, and he has done a fantastic job leading by example. It’s contagious with everyone and sets the bar very high,” Hodgson said.
“Logan is an old-school guy at heart when it comes to work ethic and he brings positive energy to our locker room.”