February 29, 2012

New Coach Sullivan Tapped to Lead Young, Fluid Swarm Lineup

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Joe Cinsoky is one of the few veterans that have stayed with the Swarm through a transition period where they released a former all-star goalie in favor of playing two rookies and fired former coach Mike Lines after a 3-3 start.
© Alex Carroll

They released their veteran goalie after giving him just one start.

They fired their head coach when they were a respectable 3-3.

Believe it: the Minnesota Swarm are in a hurry to get somewhere.

A 15-7 slaughter of the Washington Stealth in Everett, Wash., last Friday night showed they are well on their way. They are 4-3 now, which is pretty good given that a flood of changes in the offseason induced most observers to predict they would be sinking in the National Lacrosse League's West Division basement by now.

Joe Sullivan, the associate general manager and new head coach, hopes there are still doubters out there. It's a stance all coaches love to take.

''We're still the underdogs,'' Sullivan insists. ''That's not going to go away.

''People are going to pick us to lose because of the unknowns in our lineup.''

There were nine rookies among the 20 Minnesota players who dressed in Everett. This is the level of wholesale change rarely seen in any pro sport but rolling the dice can be a viable option for a team that is 0-5 in franchise playoff history.

Sullivan has emerged as a major Swarm influence. He has an impressive background as a box lacrosse coach in Peterborough, Ontario, where he's been an assistant to Jamie Batley with the city's senior team for three Canadian amateur titles in the last six years. Players from around the NLL spend their summers staying in shape with the Lakers and other teams in what is known as Major Series Lacrosse.

Sullivan also was an assistant to Batley with NLL teams in Chicago in 2008 and in Toronto in 2009, and he struck out on his own to apply for an assistant's job as defensive co-ordinator with the Swarm when one came up in 2009. He got it, and he was soon given the added title of associate general manager, in which he aides owner and president John Arlotta in the franchise's behind-the-scenes tasks.

Mike Lines was the incumbent head coach at the start of the 16-game 2012 schedule.

Minnesota, despite a 55-50 advantage in shots on goal, lost its Jan. 14 opener 20-14 in Colorado with veteran Nick Patterson in the nets.

Rookie Tyler Carlson was given his first pro start at home against Buffalo on Jan. 28 and the Swarm won 19-11 despite being outshot 50-48. Carlson was outstanding. He got the start Feb. 4 in Rochester but things didn't go as well and the Swarm, outshot 54-46, lost 16-14.

Lines stuck with Carlson at home Feb. 10 against Edmonton and the Swarm outshot the Rush 51-41 and won 10-9 on Ryan Benesch's overtime goal.

There was another home game two days later and Evan Kirk, having patiently watched from the end of the bench as the backup through four games, got his first NLL start. Despite a 52-44 shots edge for Rochester, the Swarm won 9-6. Kirk was sensational -- so sensational that the team decided that it would release Patterson.

''That was very tough,'' says Sullivan. ''Nick has had success in his career and as recently as last year he was on the all-star team.

''No one likes to have that conversation. I'm sure Nick is still bothered by it, as am I, but it's no different than it's always been. When you bring new people in, you have to move people. We're a young team looking for a new direction and we have two capable rookie goalies.''

Carlson was back in the nets and Kirk back on the end of the bench Feb. 18 when Minnesota lost 12-7 at home while outshooting Colorado 47-38.

Four days later, Lines was fired and Sullivan was promoted to head coach.

''There was really nothing wrong with what Mike was doing,'' Sullivan explained during an interview this week. ''We were 3-3. We just needed to find some of the smaller attributes that would be good for the team.

''The approach we needed was for someone who could talk these young players through tough situations. You can't get too down on people. You have to make sure you can pick them back up again.''

Kirk was given his second start last Friday in Washington and, with the Stealth outshooting the Swarm 50-39, the first-round 2011 draft pick was a wall across the goal line in a 15-7 Minnesota win in Sullivan's first game as an NLL head coach.

''Evan is a real, quiet, mature goalie,'' says Sullivan. ''He was a leader with his NCAA team [Hobart] and with his Kitchener team in the Ontario senior league. He's a quiet guy who gets the job done.''

Teammates get a kick out of Carlson, who made the team as a walk-on candidate.

''He's one of the favorite guys in the dressing room as far as camaraderie goes,'' says Sullivan. ''He's thrilled to death to be where he is, and his work ethic is second to none.''

In deciding going forward which of his rookie netminders will start a game, Sullivan says that before making the call he'll assess opponents and try to match his goalies' strengths against the habits of shooters.

As for the runners, Sullivan has challenged each player since training camp to be prepared to outwork opponents. Every team asks its players to work hard, of course, but Sullivan likes to take the approach one step further.

''It's really about driving for perfection,'' he says. ''We have good practices and make sure we call [players] out with a 'Hey, I think you have more to give' when they're not working hard enough.''

''There was really nothing wrong with what Mike was doing. We were 3-3. We just needed to find some of the smaller attributes that would be good for the team."

-- New Swarm coach Joe Sullivan
on replacing Mike Lines

There are 18 Canadians on the 23-man active roster. Of the 20 men who dressed last weekend, 11 are fly-ins and nine live in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Benesch, one of the Canadians living in Minnesota this winter, was NLL scoring champion last season and leads his team with 18 goals so far this winter. But the stress on offense is on ball distribution so as to avoid giving opponents one man to key on to smother the Swarm attack. It takes unselfish players to buy in to make it work, and Sullivan is getting just that from key forwards Benesch, Callum Crawford (10 goals) and Kevin Ross (11 goals).

Sullivan says Benesch ''is probably the most humble player I've ever come across.''

''His skills are as good as those of anybody in the league,'' he says of the fifth-year pro. ''He's a great leader.''

Crawford is a six-year vet who never stops getting better.

''People can say his stats are down from a couple of seasons ago but that's because he shares the ball,'' says Sullivan. ''He sees the ball so well in anticipating where it's going. He's a great mentor for rookies Corbyn Tao and Jay Card on the right hand side of the floor.''

As for Tao (eight goals) and Card (five goals), ''We couldn't be happier with them,'' says Sullivan.

As for Ross, ''He's a vocal leader, an experienced winner, and a great body on the left-hand side of the floor to do the dirty work for us.''

Rookie Joel Henry chipped in with a goal in Everett. Jamie Shewchuk didn't play last weekend but has five goals to his credit.

The transition players have been getting it done, too.

Captain Andrew Suitor is in only his second pro campaign but one would think he's a 10-year vet by the way he asserts himself. He's best known for his checking but he's scored seven big goals.

''There's not an obstacle he's not willing to overcome,'' says Sullivan.

Suitor is called upon in all situations.

''He's done everything for us. We almost have to try to slow him down because he tries to do so much. He's a leader on the floor, which is why he is our captain. He's vocal and he's positive. He holds all the players accountable and the coaching staff, too, which is great.''

Breakaway threat Jordan MacIntosh, one of the best of the team's many rookies, is an unbelievably hard worker. He has scored 10 goals and has had such an impact that he has to be a serious contender for NLL rookie of the year.

''He works hard to get himself and his teammates open for scoring chances. The professionalism that oozes out of Jordan is a great thing to see.''

Greg Downing, Andrew Watt, Rich Morgan and David Earl, who scored his first NLL goal in Everett, are doing their part in transition roles, too.

The six-foot-eight Morgan is an intimidating presence.

''He knocks bodies around,'' says Sullivan. ''We use him as a shut-down defender. He can run, too. People look at him and guess he's slow but he is fast. Once he gets going, you don't want to be anywhere near him.''

The defense has done remarkably well considering all the name players the Swarm traded away.

One they kept, American defenseman Joe Cinosky, is a sponge when it comes to soaking up what the coaches are saying.

''He's a student of the game,'' says Sullivan. ''He asks questions all the time. He pulls the staff aside to get clarity. He's a quiet leader who leads by example. His confidence continues to build.''

Jeff Gilbert, with a 2011 championship ring from his days with the Toronto Rock, has fit in effectively. Sullivan has coached him in Peterborough.

''He's got size and great vision of the floor,'' says Sullivan. ''He reads picks and directs traffic for us. Having guys with the experience of winning the Champions' Cup, we need that.''

Mitch Belisle, Dan Ball, Nik Bilic and Matt Kelly were the other defensemen helping to shut down the Stealth last weekend.

Minnesota hasn't had the injury woes that have hampered the progress of teams such as Washington. Tyler Hass has been out for a month with an arm injury, and that's it. Rather than say his team has been fortunate in avoiding serious injuries, says Sullivan, say they've been well prepared for games.

''We've worked hard with conditioning right down to having a nutritionist work with the guys.''

Minnesota is at Calgary on Saturday with a chance to move into a tie with the Roughnecks for second place in the West.

''It's nice to be 4-3 but we let a game against Colorado slip away,'' says Sullivan. ''We should really be sitting 5-2 and playing Calgary this weekend with an opportunity to rally for first. We're content but not so content we don't look back and see the opportunities that have passed us by.''

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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