March 14, 2012

Stevens: Wings Defense Deserves More Recognition

by Neil Stevens |

''I don't know if there's enough one can say about Brodie,'' Philadelphia Wings defensive assistant Blane Harrison said of Brodie Merrill, a central figure in the Wings' underrated defense, according to Neil Stevens.
© John Strohsacker/

Dan Dawson will challenge for the National Lacrosse League scoring title and Kevin Crowley will get strong rookie of the year consideration, but look beyond the rave reviews for the playmakers and the scorers and you'll find out that there is something else going on with the Philadelphia Wings.

Throw out that Week 1 aberration in which Rochester scored 22 times and you'll discover that the Wings' defense has been as statistically good as any in the pro loop. To top it off, Brandon Miller has been awesome in the nets.

Technically, the Wings are eighth among the nine teams in goals-against average at 12.2.

''Take that first game out of the equation and we're a 10th of a goal out of being the best,'' says Blane Harrison, the assistant coach in charge of the defense. ''And ever since that first game we've got great goaltending from Brandon Miller. The defense is feeling more confident by the week.''

Here's another thing: American talent is getting it done on the back end. In Toronto last Friday, when Philadelphia won 12-10, six defenders were American.

''Those guys are very athletic and win a lot of the one-on-one battles,'' says Harrison. ''We think we can win the one-on-ones all day long. There's still room for improvement. Off ball, we still tend to get spread out. We'll keep working on that.''

Harrison is from Whitby, Ontario, and he won Canadian championships as a player with his home city's Brooklin Redmen. He attended Michigan State University and settled in the United States. He lives in New Jersey now. Prior to joining the Wings staff, he was with the Orlando Titans before they went belly up.

We asked him if it is easier for U.S. college defensemen to adapt to indoor lacrosse than for forwards to adapt.

''It is easier if the footwork is there,'' he says. ''The indoor game is all about playing defense with your feet rather than with your stick.

''You have to be quick and agile. The hardest part for American kids after they get past the footwork is understanding the two-man system of picks that offenses use. They've all played basketball growing up but picks in basketball aren't that physical. In lacrosse, a guy throwing a pick can unload on you pretty good. So you have to communicate constantly with teammates.

''American forwards can be more patient adapting to the indoor game because if they make a mistake it's just a turnover or loss of possession. A defenseman makes a mistake and the ball is in the net.''

Brett Manney, 26, a Pennsylvanian out of the University of Delaware, is a key defenseman for the Wings.

''Brett is a tremendous athlete,'' says Harrison. ''He's probably one of the more athletic guys on the team.

''He really works at that. He's one of our strongest guys. We look at him as one of our shutdown defensemen. When we need to put a big body on somebody who is big, Brett is the guy we assign that role to.''

Canadian Paul Dawson, 26, the younger brother of former NLL MVP Dan Dawson, has a multilevel skill set. He was actually drafted into the NLL, by the Stealth in 2006 when they were in San Jose, Calif., as a goaltender.

''Paul is big and rangy and is not afraid to protect or stand up for his teammates,'' says Harrison. ''He's deceivingly fast.

''In certain situations, he can run the floor fast. He's a multitalented guy who's gritty and adds a lot of sandpaper to the team. He's a great locker room guy, too. The other guys love him.''

Tom Hajek, 34, a former Wings captain, is the grizzled vet and at five-foot-10 is the shortest of Philadelphia's defensemen. But he's long on lacrosse insight. He was born in Slovakia, grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, and graduated from the University of Vermont, where he was captain of the hockey team.

''Where Tom helps us most is in on-floor leadership,'' says Harrison. ''He helps the young American kids walk through certain situations and reminds guys on the bench to watch for certain players and situations. He's kind of like a coach out there.''

Pat Heim, 26, is from the Philadelphia area via Penn State and came on board as a free agent to score his first pro goal in his very first game in 2008.

''Pat is a very versatile guy for us, mostly a transition player,'' says Harrison. ''He's solid defensively and gets opportunities to move the ball up the floor. He's also our backup faceoff guy.''

Steve Holmes, 29, is another Pennsylvanian and starred at the University of Virginia.

''Steve is constantly working on his game,'' says Harrison. ''He's tremendously fast.

''He can use his speed getting loose balls in the defensive zone and one of his jobs is to get to the bench as quickly as possible on player changes by using his speed so we can spring an offensive guy for a fast break to take a pass from Miller.''

John McFadyen, 25, is a Duke University grad from New Jersey who at six-foot-six is the tallest of the Wings' D men.

''His learning curve continues to shrink as he adjusts to the basics of the indoor game,'' says Harrison. ''He's turned into a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman. His upside is tremendous.''

Joe Smith, 31, a Towson NCAA product, has had an odd season. The 2011 Team USA world indoor tournament player was released by the Wings, picked up by Rochester when it had five players suspended, released by the Knighthawks when the five were reinstated, and re-signed by the Wings.

''That was a bit of a goofy situation but kind of an all's-well-that-ends-well scenario,'' says Harrison. ''Joe is a good stay-at-home defenseman who became very valuable to us when one of our rookies, Eric Hoffman, went down with a season-ending injury.''

Dave Brock and Brodie Merrill are the transition D men who get the green light to attack out of the back end. Both are Canadians.

Brock, 25, is a punishing checker. He was an attackman at the University of Albany, which explains why he's suited to the transition role in the NLL.

''He's turned into a very solid defenseman who when he gets an opportunity to run the floor is very effective scoring goals,'' says Harrison. ''He's on our man down unit and it's faring better than 50 per cent on kills.''

Merrill, the Wings' captain, has won league awards for his transition play since his all-America days at Georgetown Univesity. Coming over in an offseason trade with Edmonton, his mere presence makes Philadelphia better.

''I don't know if there's enough one can say about Brodie,'' says Harrison. ''I'd coached against him and was aware that he does so many things.

''He's got a knack for knocking down balls and picking up loose balls and running into the offensive zone. He's scored nine goals already this season. Brodie does so many things so well that as a coach you run the risk of overusing him. I really try to work with Brodie during games to monitor his minutes in certain situations. We've got him on faceoffs, man down, all the special units.

''Brodie also is a superb leader. Words cannot describe that component of his presence.''

Jeff Reynolds, 26, a University of Maryland grad, has become the Wings' main faceoff man. He's closely watched his MLL Bayhawks teammate Alex Smith and has attended Smith's camps and clinics. At the 2010 world field lacrosse tournament in England, Smith and Canada's Geoff Snider had epic faceoff showdowns and Smith more than held his own.

Snider, playing for the Calgary Roughnecks, has the most faceoff wins in the NLL through Week 10, younger brother Bobby Snider of the Washington Stealth is second and, amazingly, Reynolds is third with no experience in the difficult task prior to high school.

''I've somehow been able to be successful,'' says Reynolds. ''It's all about timing the whistle and having quick hands. If you're going to get the ball, you've got to get in and get out. It's fundamentals and repetition.''

Reynolds became a regular with the Wings last year and is getting more playing time this winter as the team becomes more and more confident in leaving him on the floor to check after faceoffs.

''It's great,'' he says of the added responsibilities. ''I'm an American guy so I've been accustomed to the outdoor game.

''The 1-on-1 defense is something I feel very comfortable with. Adjusting to the indoor game's 2-on-2 checking style is something a lot of Americans find difficult to adjust to. I've got better at it. I want to be a well-rounded player.''

Says Harrison: ''Last year we tried to get him off the floor as quickly as possible. Now we're asking him to stay on. He's earning the extra time. He's a tremendous athlete who has good footwork.'

As for goaltending, Miller thrives with a heavy workload.

''We rely on him so heavily and we have so much confidence in him that we leave him in even in the dark times,'' says Harrison. ''If you go back to the opener against Rochester, we probably should have pulled him earlier, which now would make his stats look better.''

Miller couldn't care less about his stats. The 32-year-old Canadian just wants to help get a premier NLL franchise back to the top of the heap after three years out of the playoff picture.

Ditto for the defense as a whole. It's a group that is earning more recognition. The Wings are first in the East Division and the contributions from the players on the back end have been vital.

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