April 25, 2012

Stevens: What Went Wrong With the Stealth?

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

The Washington Stealth reached the last two NLL championship games, winning in 2010, but will miss the 2012 playoffs. Stealth coach Chris Hall describes his mood as "frustrated."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

For me, the biggest surprise of the National Lacrosse League season is the Washington Stealth missing the playoffs.

When I looked at that lineup last December and saw the names of many of the same players who won the 2010 league title and lost the 2011 final by only one goal, it seemed entirely logical to predict they'd be battling for first place in the West Division and maybe even retake the Champion's Cup.

Throw that one out the window. Only one of nine teams misses the playoffs and it is going to be the Stealth, who are 4-11 going into the closing game of their 16-game schedule. Head coach Chris Hall can't figure out why it happened.

''Grumpy,'' Hall replied when asked during a telephone interview how he's feeling. ''I am very disappointed.

''To be perfectly honest, it's the most disappointed I've been in my coaching career in the NLL.''

It is the first time since 2002 when he coached Calgary and the expansion Roughnecks went 4-12 that his team will finish with a losing record.

Washington lost its first three games, was 1-5 when Hall rejoined the team following treatments for throat cancer, and went 3-6 the rest of the way.

''I did as much as I could to resurrect it and get us back on track but it was frustrating,'' he says. ''I'm bitterly disappointed that I wasn't able to get us back on track to get to the playoffs.

''When only one team in the league misses the playoffs and there's still a week to go in the season and you're it, after being to the championship game the last two years . . . ''

He trails off. Same core of players, yet, different results.

''It's bitterly disappointing and frustrating,'' he says.

After the 0-3 start, Washington would have to go 8-5 the rest of the way to equal last season's 8-8 record. Trouble was, ''Out of the entry draft and the dispersal draft, all of the teams strengthened themselves. All of the teams were better and we were about the same.''

The Stealth could not put a run of wins together and became mired in the West basement.

''I could never really put my finger on what entirely led to our collapse,'' says Hall. ''There were injury issues that hurt us and that would account for some of the losses but that's not unlike any other team.''

Washington goes into its last game with 40 fewer goals than it scored last year. Rhys Duch and Lewis Ratcliff have each scored 29, which is down from 42 and 41, respectively.

''Our offense seemed to get going at times but it was never consistent,'' says Hall. ''The offense would play stellar and the defense would sputter and then the defense would have a good game and the offense would fall apart.

''Some of the veterans you would depend on to make sound decisions would be having terrible games. It kept bouncing around like that.''

Nobody can point a finger at goaltender Tyler Richards because, overall, he's had a solid season and is among the league leaders in save percentage.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the team's decline is the league-worst 2-5 home record. The home wins: 11-8 over Colorado on March 11 and 20-13 over Minnesota on March 25.

''All season, we got one stellar performance and that was the win over Minnesota,'' says Hall. ''We were up and down all year. We could never put two good games together. I've tried to figure out what was causing us to play so poorly and I still haven't put my finger on it.''

The road record was 2-6. The road wins: 11-10 in overtime in Buffalo on Feb. 4 and 14-9 at Toronto on March 3.

Two trades come back to bite the Stealth. Both were made as favors to players asking for moves back east for personal reasons.

Luke Wiles was getting married and expecting a child. A deal was done. He then winds up scoring 38 goals for Buffalo, while Washington's offense sagged without him.

Paul Rabil has East Coast business interests that weren't enhanced by constant commuting. A deal with Edmonton yielded Athan Iannucci, who helped but not enough to achieve a playoff berth, and the first-round entry draft pick given up with Rabil winds up being No. 1 overall so projected top pick Mark Matthews, the University of Denver's Canadian star, will probably wind up with the Rush instead of with the Stealth.

''We had to do something because there was the potential we wouldn't get anything for him,'' Hall says about the Rabil deal. ''At the time, did we expect to finish last in the league?

''No, absolutely not. Given the talent we felt we had and the veterans we had, did we think we'd be the only team eliminated? Absolutely not. At the time, it didn't even enter into consideration.''

Maybe the answer to Washington's demise is simple: parity in many sports is so pronounced that it is improbable for the same team to get to the championship game year after year. We're seeing that in the NHL where the Vancouver Canucks couldn't make it out of the first round of this spring's playoffs after getting to the 2011 Stanley Cup final and where the 2010-champion Chicago Blackhawks were first-round casualties the second year in a row.

Hall was asked which playoff-bound NLL teams have most impressed him.

''I would have thought Calgary was the most dangerous team but they have goaltender issues with Mike Poulin being out,'' he says. ''But I think they have the most dangerous offense.

''Minnesota and Colorado have surprised. John Grant Jr. has just been phenomenal for the Mammoth and they've developed some marvelous chemistry, and Levis is playing very well in goal. They're a team I would not have picked at the beginning of the year to have the record they have.

''When only one team in the league misses the playoffs and there's still a week to go in the season and you're it, after being to the championship game the last two years . . . ''

-- Washington Stealth coach Chris Hall

''Toronto is healthy now. We played as hard as we could (in a 16-13 home loss) last Friday. Mind you, we made some glaring defensive mistakes again, but Toronto is as tough as anybody. If their goaltender holds up, and if their offense remains this powerful, they'll be hard to beat. We put up 13 goals but we couldn't stop them.

''Our defense just hasn't been able to stop people when we need to stop them. Some of our veteran defensemen are getting beat in fundamental areas of the game.''

The positive news out of the Stealth camp is that Hall's health is good.

''There's no evidence of a tumor or cancer in my throat anymore,'' he says. ''It's gone.

''I won't gain weight for a year so I'm still down 50 pounds. I'm still getting my strength back. It'll take me another six months to feel totally normal again. I'm still in the recovery stage.''

He has asked himself if he came back to coaching too soon.

''Did I have enough energy to try and right our ship? I think so. I've come through it OK. I'm frustrated, yes. I take a lot of pride in being successful and being able to get the best out of players and out of a team so it's obviously disappointing that I wasn't able to do that this season. Was it because of my health? I don't think so.

''I couldn't get .500 out of the team and not being able to get there was tough. But we'll try to win one more lacrosse game.''

Injuries and a sputtering offense were key factors but, in the end, there are no easy answers to completely solve the mystery of what went wrong with the 2012 Washington Stealth.

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