The Premier lacrosse League’s 2020 Championship Series was a fitting ending to a great summer of live lacrosse. Yet, the league’s second season left fans with a handful of questions in regards to player movement, expansion and overall roster construction. Here are five burning questions facing the PLL this offseason.
1. How does the rest of the league catch the Whipsnakes?
The Whips are on another level. This team lost Ben Reeves, Connor Kelly, Drew Snider, and Ryan Drenner, and I’m pretty sure the offense actually got better. Adding the league’s top goal scorer via expansion in Zed Williams helps – Zed scored 20 goals in the PLL Championship Series, the next highest goal scorer had 13. Brad Smith stepped right in and was more than impactful as the third leading scorer on the team. Juicy Jay Carlson showcased his off-ball skills and ridiculous game IQ all summer (seriously, rewatch some Whips games and just watch Carlson. It’s a master class).
So the offense stayed awesome, surely there must be deficiencies somewhere? Nope. You can make an argument that the Whips have the best player in the league at just about every spot on the field. Joe Nardella, Kyle Bernlohr, Matt Dunn, Michael Ehrhardt, Ty Warner, the list just keeps going and I haven’t even mentioned Matt Rambo yet. That’s the MVP, Attackman of the Year, Defenseman of the Year, Faceoff Athlete of the Year, LSM of the Year, SSDM of the Year and Goalie of the Year finalist, all on the same team. The all-tournament team had 10 spots and half of them were Whipsnakes. The betting odds for MVP of the PLL at one point had Whipsnakes as four of the top five favorites.
Combating this team in summer 2021 must be an offseason focus for the rest of the league. It isn’t as simple as adding some two-way guys and offensive depth and rolling the ball out again. The question is how you compete with a team that has a top-2 player in the world at just about every spot on the field. You can’t trade for or draft an elite defender to cover Matt Rambo and think you’re ready for a shot at the title. PLL teams need to somehow find a weakness and a way to attack it this offseason when building their roster. The only spot this team didn’t crush awards and production was at midfield, and that’s a little deceiving. They have the top two-point threat in the league in Mike Chanenchuk and a stable of two way talent. Even with Ty Warner presumably departing to become Ty Warner, M.D., the midfield talent on this roster is still some of the best in the league. Coach Stagnitta can do what he did in the college draft last year, simply say out loud that this team doesn’t have any voids to fill, get back to work, send his squad out and let everyone else take their best shot.
2. Is it time for Atlas to blow it up?
After two years of looking at the roster that screams “this team can’t lose!”, and then watching that team lose, it might just be time to make a whole bunch of roster moves for the Atlas. Atlas LC added Rob Pannell in expansion, traded for Romar Dennis and drafted Bryan Costabile to a roster that, on paper, is a monster. This group is loaded with Team USA talent and many of the personalities that get most of the media billing for the league. But it was another summer near the bottom of the table for Atlas.
New PLL head coach Ben Rubeor and his squad finished 1-4, with a league worst -12 goal differential. Paul Rabil, while he showed that for my money he can still dodge and free his hands as well as any midfielder playing, had an absolutely woeful year at just 5% shooting. Rabil also has the unique responsibility of being a C-suite officer and face of the league. As hard as he works and prepares, it just has to have an impact on play at times.
Rob Pannell had a poor shooting year, but a decent point total, although a look through his career will tell you he doesn’t often shoot for a high percentage. Connor Buczek had a miserable shooting summer as well. The defense outside of Cade Van Raaphorst was bad at just about everything except on-ball defense and against most of the league that’s a major problem. The influx of offensive weapons to a team that already had quite a few meant productive role players like Joel Tinney saw limited playing time, even as the offense struggled. This team, for me, just needs a hard reset. The player I’d build this roster around right now is honestly Bryan Costabile. I’m keeping Costabile, Concannon, Baptiste, Law and CVR, while taking calls for just about everyone else on the roster. Just blow the whole thing up and rebuild in the draft. Speaking of which…
3. How will teams approach the deepest draft…ever?
What a nice segue. One of the reasons it makes sense for the Atlas to be sellers right now is acquiring draft picks for 2021 gives you more opportunities in an absolutely ridiculous draft. Thanks to COVID-19, a number of pro ready college players returned to school for an extra year. On top of that, the class that followed what should have been the 2020 seniors was stacked as well. You’re looking at a draft where someone like Tehoka Nanticoke could fall to the third round. And Tehoka is a monster talent; he was a standout at the World Games in Netanya as a college underclassman.
Consider this list: Michael Sowers, JT Giles-Harris, Jared Bernhardt, Ryan Terefenko, Tre Leclaire, Peter Dearth, TD Ierlan, Kyle Gallagher, Dox Aitken, Jared Conners, Nakeie Montgomery, Mac O’Keefe, Chris Fake. That is, in no particular order, two rounds of players and they are all first round talents. A team looking at a rebuild or a new identity has a once in a generation opportunity this year, barring further COVID impacted spring seasons that change eligibility. The thing is, every team in the league knows this.
Draft picks, even in the late rounds, are going to cost a fortune. Coaches will need ask themselves if they are ready to accept a reduced return for a star, in terms of draft pick value, if they want to accumulate assets in a generational and potentially franchise changing draft. Personally, I can’t wait for that first trade that involves draft picks, as it should set the market and let fans know just how much dealing might happen before April.
4. Who will Connor Fields play for next season?
Connor Fields was a SportsCenter mainstay and an MVP finalist in PLL year one. In the PLL Championship Series, he absolutely dropped off the map. Totaling just seven points and a single assist over four games in the group stage, with four of those points coming in one game, Fields had a tournament to forget.
Fields just never looked comfortable, and neither did the Chaos offense. He was famously benched late in the year, and then the Chaos offense took off behind Josh Byrne, Curtis Dickson, Austin Staats, Dhane Smith, Sergio Salcido, and a myriad of others. A critique has been leveled against Fields at times that the ball simply gets stuck in his stick, and with a short shot clock in the PLL, there were too many possessions where he got the ball and tried to do too much on his own, exhausting the clock for low percentage opportunity.
As the Chaos found their comfort zone on offense entering the playoff round, hanging 19 on Chrome and then 13 on Archers despite getting the worst faceoff play in the league, it became clear that the roster, as built, plays better without Fields. The elimination game against Chrome saw nine players register at least one point. That’s not a knock on Fields, it just means he probably can do more on another roster better suited to him. The Chaos are fortunate in that they have a former MVP candidate, albeit with his stock down a bit, and an all-world goalie in Dillon Ward, who they could and probably should trade this offseason. The Waterdogs, to me, make sense as a landing spot for one or both players, but we’ll see how things play out.
5. Is it time for more teams?
The answer is, to me, clearly yes. But that’s not really the whole question. Let’s start with the easy stuff. The depth of talent in the PLL means that world class players are left on inactive rosters or getting minimal shifts in PLL games (again, I see Joel Tinney as a prime example of this). There is enough talent in this league to support at least one more team. But that’s not the only part of the equation.
The PLL did a great job at coming up with ways to recoup some revenue they lost by not having a typical season. Memorabilia auctions, event posters, more jerseys, gear collaborations, cheese ball stuff, PLL Beans, new major partnerships, all sorts of other gear releases in their store, fan cutouts for Utah, the list goes on. It’s all money in, which is hard to come by for sports leagues right now. I feel pretty confident it doesn’t replace ticket sales and the revenue they would have had otherwise in a typical summer, but it mitigates the blow (PLL feel free to let me know I’m wrong on this, I’d love to be). Where I’m going with this is that further expansion might be a tough sell to investors in a country still dealing with COVID and the uncertainty that comes with it.
The good news is that even at 8 teams, the league would still be still pretty nimble. The venue selections don’t really change, nor does the timing; it would still be two games a day over a weekend. Or get nuts and try and do Friday night, two Saturday, one Sunday morning for some of the smaller venues. An eighth team still probably leaves the league in a place where it’s small enough to run another bubble tournament if need be. But there are plenty of expenses that come with an eighth team, and again, in a year where just about everyone is losing money, some investors might prefer to stand pat.