January 19, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Toughness, Talent Stack Up Well for Swarm

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

"Everybody talks about defense winning championships, but let's face it, the most talented guys in the league are usually 5-foot-8 and play offense," said Minnesota Swarm GM Marty O'Neill, referring to forward Ryan Benesch, a rising NLL star with nine goals in two games.

The Minnesota Swarm has never won a National Lacrosse League playoff game, but this could be the year of the big breakthrough.

The tough, talented Swarm opened with an 11-10 home overtime loss to Rochester on Jan. 8, then trashed the defending champion Washington Stealth 16-8 in the Seattle burbs last weekend. Minnesota will be eager to build on that significant win when it faces the 0-2 Edmonton Rush at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday night.

"We played what I think was the most complete game in our seven-year history last Friday," said general manager Marty O'Neill. "I don't know that we could have done anything any better.

"Other than our faceoff game, which was better than the stats indicate, everything was clicking, which made amends for the weekend before. We want to keep the effort rolling that we had in Everett. We worked every shift on offense. That's all you can ask from your guys."

The 16-goal outburst, spiked by Ryan Benesch's seven goals, is the league high so far this season. The slight forward, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, is a superior shooter in a dynamic offense for head coach Mike Lines.

"Everybody talks about defense winning championships, but let's face it, the most talented guys in the league are usually 5-foot-8 and play offense," O'Neill said. "Guys get bigger every year, or so it seems, and it's harder and harder to get to the net. You've really got to work hard to get your goals, or be really good in transition."

There's no question about the work ethic in Minnesota. There's also no question about team toughness, which is personified by the penchant for Rory Smith and rookie Andrew Suitor to drop the gloves.

"For six years it's been sorely lacking," O'Neill said. "We'd never had a tough team. We've always had a little bit of team toughness. I know when we had a 20-year-old Rory Smith playing elsewhere and running around intimidating our guys, we didn't like it, and now he's on our team. He makes everybody else on the team more confident knowing there won't be any liberties with any of our guys. We don't want to start anything, that's not our style, but we'll be ready when it comes around. Rory and Andrew are here to play lacrosse first. If the other stuff presents itself, we'll turn them loose if we have to."

The Swarm joined the NLL in 2004 when the NHL's Minnesota Wild purchased the rights to the inactive Montreal Express. O'Neill has been GM since day one and won the league award for executives at his position in 2007 and in 2008. He had been GM in Philadelphia previously, and the Victoria, British Columbia, native tended goal for eight NLL seasons. John Arlotta, a top executive in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, bought the Swarm in July 2008.

It's a tough market to crack, considering the popularity of NFL, NHL, NBA and major league baseball clubs, University of Minnesota teams and high school football. Little in the way of local indoor lacrosse talent has emerged. But the fans are loyal.

Home opener attendance was 8,242 at the NHL rink, the Xcel Energy Center. That's nearly enough to turn a profit in the NLL and another playoff berth followed by a playoff win would boost prospects.

"It's had its ebbs and flows," O'Neill said of attendance. "Competition is stiff, but we've got a solid core of fans and we're building on that. Hopefully, by the time the playoffs roll around, we're making a statement and the crowds grow."

Few of the NLL's 10 teams face as big a challenge as the Swarm putting teams together each year.

Five players -- Smith of Toronto, Suitor of Orangeville, Ont., Zack Greer of Whitby, Ont., Callum Crawford of Ottawa and New Jersey native Joe Cinosky -- have relocated to Minnesota for the 16-game 2011 campaign.

The 15 others in the starting lineup last weekend commuted. Many travelled from Ontario. Benesch, Aaron Wilson, Nick Inch and Andrew Watt are all from Kitchener; Matt Giles and backup goalie Kevin Croswell are from Peterborough; Sean Pollock is from Wallaceburg; Kevin Ross is from London and Jon Sullivan is from St. Catharines. The B.C.-based contingent, loving the infrequent short hop, included Tim Campeau of Port Moody, Rich Morgan of Port Coquitlam and Noah Talbot and goalie Nick Patterson of Victoria.

Coordinating it all is a major assignment.

"It's hard to organize a practice," O'Neill said. "The advantages for teams such as Washington, Toronto, Rochester and Buffalo are immense. They have a lot of players living within driving range and they can get together and practice once a week. That's a foreign thing for us in Minnesota. We have to try to do Friday night practices, which are practically no-hitters because we have to play the next day."

Winter weather can also ruin travel plans.

"Last year to start our season in Calgary we flew into Edmonton to practice and we ended up having seven guys, including both goalies, not make it," O'Neill said.

Jobs outside lacrosse complicate things, too. Former NLL defenseman of the year Ryan Cousins is Swarm captain, but won't suit up until mid-March because of firefighting duties. Transition player Ryan Sharp, also a firefighter in southern Ontario, gets to games sporadically.

"Those are just some of the challenges of running an NLL team," O'Neill said.

There's plenty to look forward to, though. Benesch and Crawford, who had a club-record 96 points last season, have become solid contributors after bouncing from team to team.

"Ryan was a top-10 scorer last year and he missed a game with a flu," O'Neill said. "It was quite a coup to get Ryan and Callum in the deals we made for them. We didn't really pay that much for them."

Also up front is Wilson, a 40-goal shooter last year and an established veteran any team would love to have.

"The Swarm had never had a top-10 scorer and, last year, we had three," O'Neill said.

Benesch leads the NLL with nine goals in two games.

"Crawford and Benesch, we view them as future superstars, and Ryan took another step the other night. He has talents you can't teach. We're really excited about that, and adding Giles into the mix is working out well."

If the goaltending (Nick Patterson and Kevin Croswell) remains as consistently good as it's been so far, the Swarm could be a championship contender this year.

Neil Stevens has covered professional and Canadian summer lacrosse since 1971 for various media outlets, including the Canadian Press. He retired from the CP in 2008. That year, Stevens joined the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- as the only media members recognized by the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame. He played from age 5 to 23, including three years in the junior ranks and one year (1969) as a professional in St. Catherines, Ontario.

Check laxmagazine.com/nll throughout the season for more from Stevens and coverage of the NLL.

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