June 12, 2013

Washburn's MLL Power Rankings: Chasing Denver

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com

Steven Brooks and the Bayhawks have a key matchup this weekend, hosting the unbeaten Denver Outlaws in Annapolis Saturday.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

Over the last two weeks I have been fortunate enough to be in the booth for six of the league's eight games. It has allowed me to get a great feel for what the identity of this season will be.

For me that identity is a class system.

Denver, Chesapeake and Hamilton are the elite. Charlotte, Rochester and New York make up the middle class, fighting for that final spot in Championship Weekend. Boston and Ohio, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times and have their sights set on 2014.

Heading into the season's seventh week, only three of the league's eight teams have a winning record. Barring any blockbuster trades, the way teams look now should hold true through August, meaning that the quality of play will continue to improve with roster continuity and players hitting their midseason rhythm.

1. Denver Outlaws 6-0

The Outlaws are off to their best start in franchise history and have done it in dominating fashion. Last week's win over Hamilton proved that this team is for real, dismantling the previously unbeaten Nationals, 22-9.

The offense has been the headliner, putting up 66 goals in their last three wins. Eight players have double-digit point totals and as a team the Outlaws are shooting an extremely efficient 38 percent.

This week Denver faces its toughest test of the season as it travels to Annapolis to take on the Bayhawks, a rematch of the 2012 championship game. The Outlaws have had the luxury of playing at home the last three weeks and will face a Chesapeake team that is as hot as they are after a dominating 21-8 win over the Lizards last Thursday night.

This game comes down to which defense can rise to the occasion and keep the opposition under 12 goals.

2. Chesapeake Bayhawks 4-2

Much better than their record indicates, the Bayhawks played their best game of the season last week against the Lizards, finally putting it together on both ends of the field.

While the midfield continues to find their way, the attack unit of Ben Rubeor, John Grant Jr. and Drew Westervelt paces the offense with a combined 53 points. Kyle Dixon is struggling to score, hitting only 14 percent of his attempts, but he has continued to produce with 10 assists, two fewer than his total for all of last season.

It's the Bayhawks' "D" that earned it the No. 2 spot this week, as the unit is the best in the MLL with only nine goals allowed per game. The defensive midfield unit has made the biggest difference, with shorts sticks Matt Abbott, Dan Burns, Jeff Reynolds, and Domenic Sebastiani bringing a physicality in the settled 6-on-6 possessions along with great wing play and transitional offensive production.

The Bayhawks host the Outlaws Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

3. Hamilton Nationals 5-1

The Nationals are not the first team to head out to Denver and walk away frustrated after a blowout loss. The biggest concern to come out of the game was the ongoing struggle to win to faceoffs. After an All-Star season in 2012 Matt Dolente is only winning 47 percent of his attempts and against Denver's Anthony Kelly he struggled immensely, only winning 39 percent.

Hamilton is still in very good shape thanks to such a fast start to the season and many of the other issues to come out of the loss to the Outlaws are easily corrected.

The next four weeks will be the most challenging of the season for Dave Huntley and company. They face a desperate and talented New York team Thursday on Randall's Island and then take on Chesapeake and Rochester twice. The magic number is eight, as eight wins almost guarantees a spot in Championship weekend this year.

4. Charlotte Hounds 3-3

A big win over the Lizards in week five was followed by a dominating performance against the Ohio Machine last week. The biggest difference between the Hounds of 2012 and this year is their ability to make adjustments in-game. In those last two wins, Charlotte has outscored its opponents 16-5 in the second half, a testament to both the coaching staff and the personnel that has been assembled.

I love the blend of youth and experience on this team. Eric Lusby and Ryan Young are great additions to an attack unit that no longer needs to rely on Matt Danowski to do it all. On the defensive end Adam Ghitelman is much more consistent in his third season, and in front of him Joe Cinosky and Ryan Flanagan provide great leadership.

I'm not yet convinced this team can compete for a championship, but the postseason is a reality that should be pursued with confidence.

5. Rochester Rattlers 3-3

Winners of two in a row, the Rattlers find themselves in the heart of the playoff conversation despite up and down play throughout the season.

Beating a desperate Boston team at a neutral site in Atlanta, Ga., was the most impressive of Rochester's three wins. The key to success has been balanced scoring and strong goalie play.

Ned Crotty finally has help, most notably from Jordan MacIntosh, who has seven goals in the team's last two wins. Along with MacIntosh, rookie John Ranagan showed the ability that made him a first-team All-American in 2011, recording a hat trick in the win over the Cannons.

Along with the improved offense, goalie John Galloway is playing at highest level of his career. He has had 39 saves in the team's two straight wins and his outlet passes have been the key to success in transition.

6. New York Lizards 2-4

For all the offensive weapons the Lizards allegedly have, only two players have cracked double-digit point totals. After an impressive debut Rob Pannell was limited to just two assists a loss to the Bayhawks.

Chemistry has been the buzzword for this team all season and it really has been lacking on both sides of the ball. The offensive struggles are understandable, but the defensive end though Thursday night was brutal. Off-ball the Lizards looked lost, making mental mistakes that allowed Drew Westervelt to go off for eight goals.

Where to the Lizards go from here? Head coach Joe Spallina admits that this is a work in progress and the goal is to be peaking by August. If this team can't some wins games soon August won't matter.

7. Boston Cannons 1-5

The horrific start to the 2013 season has cost head coach Steve Duffy his job as the team announced Monday afternoon it was replacing Duffy with consultant (and former Bayhawks head coach) John Tucker. The coaching change is not a huge surprise after what this season has looked like through six games.

How did this happen to one of the MLL's most consistent franchises?

While the Cannons have been one of a few teams that has been able to keep the key components of their roster intact each year, the organization did not have an eye towards the future and their lack of focus on the draft is now coming to light. This is an old team that has run out of steam.

The 2013 rookie class has provided some bright spots, but the reality is that for this team to win games, the big guns have to be more productive and consistent and that just hasn't been the case.

Every good organization has that year where the production on the field forces a shift in the new direction and that is this season for the Cannons.

8. Ohio Machine 0-6

The youth movement continues in Ohio, with obvious growing pains. For one quarter against Charlotte, things looked good. Rookie Logan Schuss scored two goals off feeds from Steele Stanwick, showing positive signs for a relationship that must prove productive for this team to win games going forward.

After a going into the locker room tied at four, the Machine were outscored 9-3 in the second half. Once down the Machine returned to many of the bad habits that have resulted in their winless record. Isolation dodging offense and poor team defense became the norm once again.

Ohio now has eight games to avoid the company of the 2006 Chicago Machine, the only team in league history to go winless for the season.

Evan Washburn, the CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network commentator and host of CBS Sports Network's "Inside the MLL," provides weekly MLL power rankings throughout the season for LaxMagazine.comFollow him on Twitter @EvanWashburn.

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