May 14, 2010

The Perfect Trade: Doyle, Ratcliff Face Former Teams in NLL Champion's Cup Final

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Toronto's new management acquired quality veteran leadership, then admitted the mistake of trading Colin Doyle, the heart and soul of the franchise, and reacquired him from Washington. The teams meet Saturday in the NLL Champion's Cup final.

The win-win trade is so cliché in sports, yet amazingly apt in the National Lacrosse League.

Look no further than the Champion’s Cup final Saturday, pitting the host Washington Stealth against the Toronto Rock at Comcast Arena in Everett, Wash.

On the eve of the season, Dec. 15, Washington traded superstar Colin Doyle back to his proving grounds with the Rock and gained high-scoring forward Lewis Ratcliff and two rising players, Tyler Codron and Joel Dalgarno.

Doyle ran the Rock offense, racking up 62 assists and combining with veteran Blaine Manning and the league’s best rookies, Stephan Leblanc and Garrett Billings, for a run to the Eastern Division title, capped by a 15-10 triumph of Orlando last weekend in the division final.

Ratcliff led the NLL with 46 goals and melded with returning standouts Jeff Zywicki, Paul Rabil and 2009 Rookie of the Year Rhys Duch to lead the Stealth to a wire-to-wire finish in the West. Codron returned from a severe knee injury and Dalgarno, a rookie, worked his way into a competitive lineup to make contributions in the thrilling 12-11 overtime victory against Edmonton in the Western Division final. Rabil scored the game-winner eight seconds into the extra session.

“It has worked out well," said Washington coach Chris Hall, co-winner (along with Edmonton’s Derek Keenan) of the Les Bartley Award for NLL Coach of the Year. “It is a testament to a win-win trade; they can be successful for both teams."

Washington (13-5), which went 7-9 last season, showed late-season improvement and won a playoff game before relocating from San Jose in the offseason.

Out of the gate as the league’s dominator, the Stealth reeled off six consecutive wins. Then, it stumbled with three straight losses, followed by a three-game winning streak, then a 2-2 stretch, ending with the pair of postseason victories.

Toronto (11-7), winner of five titles in seven years (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005), finished in the basement at 6-10 last season. Responding boldly, the organization hired Calgary’s newly minted title coach Troy Cordingley, its third head coach in less than one calendar year.

Cordingley and general manager Terry Sanderson acquired quality veteran leadership, then admitted the mistake of trading Doyle, the heart and soul of the franchise, and reacquired him.

All the moves clicked via a 6-1 start, until the Rock tumbled drastically, losing five consecutive games from mid-February to late March. The turning point proved to be a 9-8 win over defending champion Calgary on April 2. Since then, the Rock has lost only once.

The key to the turnaround from 2009 cellar dweller to the title game appearance stems from personnel moves, according to Sanderson.

“No. 1 was getting quality people with quality leadership back in the dressing room," he said. “That stuck out in our mind about what Toronto was lacking."

Along with Doyle, Sanderson and Cordingley acquired veteran defensemen Phil Sanderson, Pat McCready and Sandy Chapman, who was tabbed NLL Defenseman of the Year on Wednesday.

The next step was success in the draft. With the No. 6 overall pick, the Rock chose Billings out of the University of Virginia. At No. 7, they took Dalgarno (Ohio State) and used him in the three-man package to re-acquire Doyle. At No. 11, they picked up Leblanc, who was named NLL Rookie of the Year.

“They’ve surpassed our expectations as far as points," Sanderson said of Leblanc and Billings. “And I’m totally taken aback by how well they handle pressure situations. Our league is intense. There’s not a game you can take off, but they are acting like they do it every day. And it is surprising to us how fast they learn. They are like sponges; they take everything in."

Both teams have incredibly deep offensive balance, with the Rock boasting four players with 80 points or more -- Doyle (84), Billings (83), Leblanc (82) and Manning (82). The Rock is the only team in the league with three 30-goal scorers -- Leblanc (36), Manning (35) and Billings (33).

“Toronto presents a difficult task," Hall admitted. “You’ve got to play solid team fundamental defense and hope for the best.’’

The top-seeded Stealth led the league with 211 goals. Five players scored 49 points or more -- Ratcliff (97), Duch (86), Zywicki (71), Cam Sedgwick (58), and Luke Wiles (49).

“We’re expecting the strongest test with the firepower Washington has," said Sanderson. “But we’re not going to change. We’re a confident group coming in. We’re not going to change a thing. We’re going to try to apply pressure."

Although the two teams did not meet this season, Washington gained some experiencing facing the pressure defense Toronto employs in games against Calgary and Buffalo, who use similar systems.

Regardless, Hall said, “I think the game comes down to who wins the individual battles."

Goaltenders are historically key figures in the Champion’s Cup, and this matchup of netminders reflects a generational gap.

The Stealth features Tyler Richards, a 23-year-old from Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Toronto counters with the ageless Bob Watson, 40, from Guelph, Ontario.

In the playoffs, Watson owns a 9.75 goals against average and a .771 save percentage. Richards stands at 10.49 and .800, respectively.

Draws can also be critical. Jamison Koesterer will handle most faceoffs for Washington against Toronto’s Stephen Hoar.

Also on the line is a coaching milestone. Cordingley won the NLL title last season with Calgary, affording him the opportunity to win consecutive titles with different teams and joining Les Bartley as the only coach of two different NLL championship teams.

If the game develops a sense of irony, the Doyle vs. Ratcliff comparison will be telling.

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