February 19, 2013

Stevens: Matthews Can Be All-Time Great Rookie

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Barring injury, Edmonton rookie Mark Matthews should score at least 40 goals this season, which would be the most since the NLL went to a 16-game schedule.
© Dale MacMillan/Edmonton Rush

It is highly unusual for a rookie to be leading the National Lacrosse League in goals halfway through a season but that is exactly what Mark Matthews is doing.

The Edmonton Rush forward's 11-goal weekend barrage in victories over Washington and Colorado pushed his output to 23 in seven games, which led us to ask his coach, Derek Keenan, if there is a former or established player he is reminded of in watching Matthews play.

''More than anybody, John Grant Jr., just because of Mark's size, his power and his ability to create space by pushing off opponents,'' Keenan said. ''The stick skills are similar. John is a better passer. That's one thing Mark needs to get better at.

''Junior has evolved his game. He's really paid attention to his fitness the last few years. That's another thing Mark has to work at. He's OK but he needs to be better at it and he knows that. He continues to work at it.''

Grant was rookie of the year in 2000 when he scored 37 goals for Rochester in a 12-game schedule. In 16-game schedules in the last 10 years, four who earned rookie-of-the-year honors scored more than 30: Ryan Benesch, 33 for Toronto in 2007; Rhys Duch, 35 for the Stealth when they were in California in 2009; Stephan Leblanc, 36 for Toronto in 2010; and Curtis Dickson, 33 for Calgary in 2011.

Barring injury, Matthews should score at least 40.

Keenan is reluctant to heap excessive praise on his rookie star because he's only played seven NLL games, but anybody who watched him victimize defenses during his sensational weekend will agree on some obvious talents possessed by Matthews.

''He's a fabulous shooter with fantastic stick skills,'' Keenan said. ''He's obviously drawing a lot of attention and when that happens he's going to make guys around him better. What really impresses me is what he's doing without the ball. I'm not going to call him a premier player yet because he's just starting.''

Matthews, who turned 23 on Jan. 27, took five games to adapt to the speed of the NLL and he switched into overdrive last weekend.

''He shot the ball better,'' Keenan replied when asked what brought on the 11-goal outburst. ''He really paid attention to some shooting plans we'd put together for the guys in terms of who we'd be facing. He flat out shot the ball extremely well. He picked some corners, he made some plays at the crease, and he dove from behind the net for a goal — he really mixed it up.''

Edmonton had a reputation as an offense-challenged club until Matthews arrived.

''Our team has always been knocked for our offense but we've got a good group now,'' Keenan said. ''We've got six new guys on offense so it's taken a little time to gel and find chemistry but it's starting to come.''

So, is Matthews getting a swelled head yet?

''No. He's a pretty easy going, almost to a fault, fun loving kid,'' Keenan said. ''He loves the game and he's a winner. He's proven that.

''He's got a ways to go. He's still young. He's imposing because of his size but he's not going to come in and be a John Grant right away. He continues to work hard trying to get better. The NLL is a hard league to play in. He's facing the best defenders in the world shift after shift.''

Landing in Edmonton provided Matthews with the perfect scenario to fulfill the lofty expectations heaped on him as a No. 1 overall draft pick.

Having a history with Keenan is a big part of the scenario. He played during a recent summer for the Keenan-coached junior team in Whitby, Ontario, that won a Canadian championship. Also, he's learning from a man who has first-hand knowledge of what it takes to make it in the pro indoor league.

It was 21 years ago, back in 1992, that Keenan got the nod as rookie of the year playing for Buffalo in what was then known as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. It was the Bandits' first year in the pro league and experienced indoor players from Canada were brought in to fill the roster. Keenan was 31 and had already won three Canadian senior amateur titles. He scored 26 goals in an eight-game schedule.

Times have changed, of course.

''The game is a lot different today,'' Keenan said. ''We played both ends of the floor back then. I would have had more transition scoring opportunities than Mark gets today.

''The goalies are a lot better today, too. The nets are three inches wider today but the goalies are a lot better. Goalies, in general, are fitter today and they watch a lot of game film. [Bandits coach] Les Bartley back then in '92 was the first guy to start collecting and watching game film. That was all new to us. It was kind of when the game started to evolve into what it is now.''

Keenan: 26 goals in eight games.

Fast forward.

Matthews: 23 in seven, with a shot at matching his coach's '92 total in a home game this Friday night against Minnesota.

Can he do it?

Regardless, Keenan will continue guiding Matthews and the other Rush rookies as they find their way in the NLL. He'll keep them grounded.

''We had a good weekend but we've got a tough road ahead,'' Keenan said of his Rush. ''The last thing you want to do in this league is think you're special. No one team is clearly the best team in the league. We're certainly not. We'll keep grinding away at what we're trying to do.''

That sounds like the kind of message Bartley would have delivered back in '92.

Attendance has been disappointing so far this season so the message Rush owner Bruce Urban would be hoping Edmonton sports fans get is that his is an exciting lacrosse team that includes a rookie so good that he's leading the league in goals scored. He's so good that he's being compared to one of the sport's all-time greats. If they don't respond now, maybe they never will.

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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