January 26, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Canadian GM Rebuilds Wings Around U.S.-Born Players

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

After a three-goal performance in Philadelphia's win over Colorado, the Wings have moved Max Seibald up front as a full-time forward. "He's going to be someone everybody two or three years from now will go, 'Wow, Max Seibald has really developed into a great indoor lacrosse player,'" said Philadelphia GM Johnny Mouradian.

The Philadelphia Wings have won more professional lacrosse championships, six, than anybody else, but it has been 10 long years since they reigned supreme.

Missing the National Lacrosse League playoffs the last two years drove home the reality that the glory days are long gone. So, the big question looms: Can pro lacrosse's oldest franchise get back to the top sooner rather than later?

We asked general manager Johnny Mouradian, who has been in a good mood ever since his team's come-from-behind, 11-10 victory over the Colorado Mammoth last weekend in Denver.

"We certainly have the player personnel and the talent," Mouradian said.

The rebuilding began last year with owners Chris Fritz, Russ Cline and Mike French opting to reach into the past for a new head coach, John Tucker, the former Wings player, and to bring in longtime NLL executive Mouradian as a consultant. It wasn't long before Mouradian, 58, a 2008 inductee into the NLL Hall of Fame in the builders' category, was named general manager.

He's well aware of the team's history. The Wings were one of the four original teams in the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League that began in 1987. The other three are long gone. It was renamed Major Indoor Lacrosse League in 1989 and National Lacrosse League in 1998. Philadelphia is the only pro lacrosse franchise to have participated in all 25 seasons in the same city.

It was with that history in mind that the ownership-management group began piecing things together.

Dave Stilley was brought in as assistant GM and Tom Slate (defense) and Blaine Harrison (offence) were named assistant coaches.

"With Tuck, Stilley and Slate, we have three Wings alumni who have won championships with the team," Mouradian said. "The ownership group made a conscious effort to bring back into the fold some of the Wings who have the experience of being successful in Philadelphia."

Players were then assembled.

"They always had a tough, gritty team," Mouradian said. "They had talent, too, but it was that grit we needed again."

There are 14 players on the roster who weren't there last season, including rookie defenseman Ryan McClelland and two rookie goalies. The rest had NLL experience.

"We looked at players who we felt would give us a high probably of immediate chemistry -- players who had relationships with one another previously, whether it be college or Team USA involvement," Mouradian said. "We looked for talent, but also at chemistry within that talent."

The Wings missed the playoffs the last two years, slipping to 5-11 and last in the East Division last season when two of the team's offensive stars, Athan Iannucci and Merrick Thomson, were unable to play due to injuries. Iannucci is back, and improving every game, but post-concussion syndrome has kept Thomson on the shelf.

Of the 19 players who have seen game minutes so far, 14 are Americans.

"We've made a conscious effort to have as many American players as we can, because we feel that is where we want to go," Mouradian said.

The motive is to have players living within commutable distance to Philadelphia so the team can practice. The only players flown in from Canada for games are goaltender Brandon Miller and defenseman Paul Dawson, who scored two goals (including the game-winner) in the Wings' victory over the Mammoth. Most of the others are within driving distance.

"We practice on Thursday nights in Philadelphia," Mouradian said. "We wanted to keep our number of fly-ins down so we could hold practices. They've got to play physical in practices in order to get out there and play physical in games. We're getting that accomplished this year."

McClelland, fellow defenseman Taylor Wray and forwards Iannucci, Alex Turner and David Mitchell are Canadians playing for the Wings and living in the United States.

Drew Westervelt, former UMBC teammate Brendan Mundorf, Ryan Boyle, Bill McGlone and second-year pro Max Seibald are Americans on offense. Westervelt, Mundorf, Boyle and Seibald played for Team USA's field outfit together last summer.

"We haven't scored a lot yet but feel we'll get there," Mouradian said.

Seibald was moved up from the back end last weekend, and Mouradian said that after watching him score three goals, the plan now is to keep him on the attack.

"A bad ankle kept Max out of camp and this is the second straight year he's not had the benefit of a camp, but he's a phenomenal athlete," Mouradian said. "He is quick and he is smart. He can play leftie or rightie. He's the complete package. He's going to be someone everybody two or three years from now will go, 'Wow, Max Seibald has really developed into a great indoor lacrosse player.'"

Kyle Sweeney is the team's main transition threat and Dawson, Wray, Pat Heim, Steve Holmes, Shawn Nadelen, Matt Alrich and Joe Smith provide solid defense. Sweeney and Nadelen were also on Team USA.

The first three games -- the Wings are 1-2 --have been a discovery process.

"We're seeing who needs to be in what role," Mouradian said. "We're getting everybody into the lineup and reassessing as we go."

Westervelt, Mundorf, McGlone and Seibald have been named to the U.S. team for the world indoor lacrosse tournament in Prague, Czech Republic, May 21-28.

The irony is that Mouradian, intent on packing the Philly roster with Americans, is GM of Team Canada, as well as of the Wings.

"It is special," he said. "We played against some of them last summer during the world field tournament in England, and I've known them over the years. Ryan Boyle and Matt Alrich have played for me before.

"Some of the others I didn't know as well -- Mundorf, McGlone, Westervelt, for example -- and getting to know them has been great. They are very competitive. They want to be successful against teams filled with Canadians. They're putting their bodies on the line every game."

Mouradian can't say enough about Miller's play so far.

"He's been spectacular," Mouradian said. "These first three games, he's given us an opportunity to win every one of them.

"When you can hold Boston to 10 and Buffalo to 9 -- and one of those was an empty-net goal -- you can't ask for more than that."

Miller, 31, is the oldest player in the Philly lineup. He had the second-best save percentage among all NLL first-stringers going into this weekend's games.

There's a long way to go for the Wings. Nobody promised an overnight transformation.

"We're never going to be satisfied, but we feel we've addressed our major needs," Mouradian said.

Hardcore fans who have stuck with the Wings through the lean years hope to be rewarded. With the plan that is now in place, that seems probable rather than merely possible.

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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