March 18, 2009

Playing for Keeps: Leash Shortens on Goalie Vets

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Goalie Bob Watson's resume -- including five NLL championships -- did not stop the Toronto Rock from dealing for insurance at his position. The Rock attempted to acquire Gee Nash before trading for Steve Dietrich before the league deadline.
© Graig Abel Photography

When the goaltender carousel stopped turning in Toronto on Tuesday night, it stopped at Steve "Chugger,'' Dietrich. The 39-year-old former National Lacrosse League Most Valuable Player will back up 38-year-old Bob Watson, rather than 36-year-old Curtis Palidwor or 30-year-old Gee Nash.

Dietrich arrived from Edmonton on the final day of the trading deadline.

"When you have the opportunity to get an experienced goaltender to support our No. 1 guy Bob Watson, it was a natural thing for us to do,''  Toronto general manager Mike Kloepfer said Wednesday. "It is not an opportunity that comes up often, quite frankly."

The move capped a series of goalie dealings by the Rock, which is 3-7.

The chain of events started Feb. 26, when Colorado traded former NLL Champion's Cup MVP Palidwor to Toronto for a second-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Unknown to all but a few principals, the deal had a second part: if Mammoth goaltender Nash passed a physical a few weeks later, Nash would become a Rock player, and Palidwor would return to Colorado.

Instead, Nash's fragile back did not pass muster -- he is awaiting season-ending surgery -- so Palidwor was returned to Colorado and the draft pick was returned to Toronto.

"I won't comment on what the situation was with Colorado, because the player wasn't named, but it was unfortunate that transaction couldn't be completed," Kloepfer said.

Mammoth general manager Steve Govett said that the deal was contingent on Nash being activated on Toronto's 23-man roster on March 10.

"Gee went to the doctor and took a physical, and they decided they didn't want to go through with it," Govett said of the Rock.

"Now with the luxury of having two outstanding goalkeepers (Andrew Leyshon and Palidwor), we have the luxury of Gee Nash going under the knife. Once he gets his back fixed, we'll have a decision to make with goaltending. When the time comes, we'll decide."

Unlike Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, who remains angry and in trade demand mode upon learning that he was considered in a trade, Nash is taking it all in stride.

"It's a business," he said. "It is part of the process. I can't be picking and choosing where I can play or being upset if I am moved. I wouldn't be upset. I'd look back and be thankful for what I was able to do in Denver."

Nash, a former all-star, admits that the prospect of playing in Toronto, his hometown, is appealing.

"In terms of my career and the amount of time I want to spend with my young family, not travelling so much definitely would have been a bonus," he said. "If it came to that, I would have welcomed it. There would have been tough parts about leaving Denver, but I understand it is part of the business.

"At same time, I love coming out to Denver. I love playing for the Mammoth, and I love playing for my teammates."

Since word leaked of an intent to trade Nash, fans have wondered how he could play for Toronto minus his boyhood friend Gavin Prout. The pair have been teammates since their preteens in Ajax, Ontario, and Whitby, Ontario, including two years with a New York Saints franchise that missed payroll and attracted scant fans.

Since 2004, Nash and Prout been commuting together to Denver to play for the Mammoth, highlighted by the 2006 NLL title.

"One thing I want to straighten out is that Gavin and I are very good friends, but by no means is there a situation where if I go, he has to go, or wherever he goes I have to go," Nash said.

"I think it is funny when people think we're attached at the hip. We're both individuals and both professionals. We understand there's a business side of things and understand we won't always play together."

The pair, who have been likened to Starsky (Prout) and Hutch (Nash), are quite different.

Prout, a bachelor, is gregarious and social. Nash is more reserved and married with a young daughter. Their primary similarities lie in leadership and competitiveness. Nash is a guiding force in the NLL players' union and Prout is the captain of the Mammoth.

When Nash's back heals, they might remain together, or Nash could end up in Toronto after Dietrich or Watson retire.

In the mean time, Dietrich and Watson rank last in the NLL. Chugger is 16th with a 1-4 record, 14.00 goals against average and .742 save percentage.

"For whatever reason, we weren't getting it done with Steve, and he's the first to admit it," said Edmonton coach and general manager Bob Hamley.

Watson ranks 15th with a 13.54 goals against average, .743 save percentage and a 3-6 record, although he is coming off  a 47-save effort in a 9-8 upset over Boston, which ended the Blazers' five-game win streak.

"Bob Watson is always going to play well," Nash said. "People who question Bob Watson's playing ability, regardless of how many games he may have struggled, are out of their mind. All they have to do is look at his five championship rings. When the chips are down on the table, he's going to show up.

"I think all they need is someone comfortable in a support role, and no one is better at that than Chugger. He's got a couple rings himself, and he's got great experience. I played with him personally, and he's a great team guy."

On Wednesday's NLL conference call, a Toronto reporter asked Rock coach Jamie Batley if the acquisition of Dietrich is an indication that Watson is on a shorter leash.

Batley said: "I wouldn't say he's on a shorter leash. I mean, I've pulled him this year already.

"You know, it is a coach's job to recognize when a goalie needs to be pulled, whether he's playing well or if the defense is giving up too many opportunities. It's something you develop over the years, knowing when your team needs a change of pace or the goaltender needs a chance of pace, so there's no shorter leash.

"Obviously, we're going to monitor how he's playing and continue to watch him. He played great last week, so we expect that type of game from him every night."

Indeed, the Boston game could turn the season around for Watson -- or Dietrich might be needed in relief. If so, will he play like he has recently or look more like his 2006 form, when he became the first goaltender to win the league MVP award?

There are lots of questions and eight Toronto games remaining for answers, beginning Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre against Rochester.

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