January 31, 2012

Smith, Rebuilt Defense Looking Good for Mammoth

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

First-year Mammoth defenseman Rory Smith is part of a unit that was revamped this offseason through a series of trades and signings.
© Michael Martin

Rory Smith is thriving with one of the National Lacrosse League's premier franchises.

''It's great,'' the Colorado defenseman says four games into his first season with the undefeated Mammoth. ''It's the first time in my pro career that I've been given the opportunity to play for a team that has such a tremendous following. The lacrosse knowledge of our fans is very high, which just adds to the intensity on the turf.''

Smith is spending less time in penalty boxes this season -- six minutes so far, and no fights -- and that's the way the coaching staff prefers it.

''He's a key defender for us, very physical and intimidating,'' says assistant coach Sean Ferris. ''Rory is determined to be one of the best D-men in the NLL and we want him on the floor instead of in the penalty box. He has a lot of intangibles people don't know about.''

The intangibles include being such a force that opposing forwards are reluctant to cut into his section of turf, and being so aggressive that he forces opponents into turnovers and penalties such as the one Calgary's Shawn Evans took in OT that led to Colorado's winning power-play goal Jan. 21.

The YouTube videos of Smith fighting Geoff Snider and Paul Dawson could fool some into guessing he's merely a goon. Not true. As Ferris points out, Smith is much more than that. His selection to Canada's team for the 2011 World Indoor Championship in Prague shouted it out: this guy has become a premier defenseman.

Smith earned a gold medal in a lineup that included fellow Mammoth players Jon Sullivan and John Grant Jr., and he also lost a front tooth to a high-sticking Englishman.

''I've had to get it replaced three times since Prague,'' he says.

While he has not scored a goal in his 58 regular-season NLL games, Smith potted a beauty in Prague. Set up on a breakaway in a one-sided, preliminary-round game, he dove to emphatically swing the ball into the net before landing in the crease. He's eager to do the same for Mammoth fans, and it'll happen sooner or later.

Smith, 25, is from the Toronto lakeshore neighborhood of Mimico. He's living during this NLL season with six teammates in downtown Denver, where they work out together in a state of the art sports facility. They credit Mammoth strength and conditioning coach Joel Raether for having a huge impact on their readiness to play.

''Every week, Joel supplies us with workout regimens and important recovering techniques,'' Smith says.

With a 16-game schedule, there's no room for complacency.

''Every game is a playoff game,'' says Ferris. ''That's what the coaches keep telling the guys.''

While Grant and the other offensive stars get most of the media play, the defensemen and goalie Chris Levis have been key contributors on a team that was transformed in the offseason by numerous trades and signings.

''We've gotten younger, stronger and more physical,'' says Ferris.

The defense corps is comprised of Smith, John Gallant, Jon Sullivan, Ian Hawksbee, Jarett Park, Creighton Reid, Dan Coates and Cam Holding. Capable veterans Mac Allen and John Orsen continue rehab from injuries.

Ferris on John Gallant: ''He's the leader on our defense and was recently named to the All-Decade Mammoth team. He's not a flashy guy but he gets in your face and he knows what he needs to do. He battles in the trenches. He's a smart defender.''

Smith's one-word description of Gallant: ''Intelligent.''

Ferris on Jon Sullivan: ''Jon was chosen by his teammates as an assistant captain to be one of leaders on the team. He's a Steady-Eddy defender. He leads by example. He's been a major factor in our success.''

Smith on Sullivan: ''Reliable.''

Ferris on Ian Hawksbee: ''An injury kept Ian out of training camp so he's just starting to get his legs going. He's a big contributor. He's a vocal leader for us. He's become a mainstay.''

Smith on Hawksbee: ''Trusted.''

Ferris on Creighton Reid: ''He's adjusting to the style of defense we've incorporated. He's taking some time to transition from the pressure D he was used to in Toronto. He's a big, strong, athletic kid who can push the ball up the floor. He's fitting in perfectly.''

Smith on Reid: ''Gamer.''

Ferris on Jarett Park: ''Jarett is a very athletic and good in transition. He's really brought up his D game in the last couple of years. He did a good job on Dobbie and Shattler when we played Calgary.''

Smith on Park: ''Aggressive.''

Ferris on Dan Coates: ''He's a pleasant surprise. We knew when we drafted him last year that he's a good player but he's so well-conditioned that he's one of the top defenders on our team. He's a future leader of the Mammoth defense.''

Smith on Coates: ''The Weapon.''

Ferris on Cam Holding: ''He's a great young defender, a free-agent signing. He's very physical, very fast, and good in transition.

Smith on Holding: ''Energy.''

Those are the mainly stay-at-homers that rarely receive the credit they deserve.

Also fundamental to the team's success is the play of transition or two-way players Ilija Gajic, Scott Stewart and Jed Prossner

Which brings us to Chris Levis, the winningest goalie in the NLL through four weeks.

Rochester outshot Colorado 55-38 on Saturday and the 44-save performance by Levis was a big reason why the Mammoth held on to win it.

Who could have imagined two years ago that Levis would be such an important player in the scheme of things in Denver?

Levis was on teams in Buffalo, New York and Columbus before joining the Mammoth in their early years when he was a backup to Gee Nash. He left as a free agent and signed in 2008 with Edmonton, missing the playoffs the two years he was planted on the bench watching Matt Disher tend goal. He was released. Calgary picked him up but when they got Mike Poulin they offered him around the league. GM Steve Govett offered a second-round draft pick, the 'Necks jumped at it, and Levis was back in Denver in February 2010.

Last season, finally getting No. 1 status in the crease, he posted the fourth-best goals-against average in the league and Govett rewarded him last September with a two-year contract.

Levis is 35. His time is now. You've got to admire the way he's persevered.

Yes, the back end is looking good in Denver.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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