Compiled and written by “Muffler” Mike Kostiuk
2019-2020 Record: 8-3, 1st place East Division
F Jacob Ruest, F Michael Sowers, F Grant Ament, F Brad Smith, D Adrian Sorichetti. D Johnny Pearson
F Callum Crawford, F Stephan LeBlanc, T Joel Tinney
Many would argue that the former New England Black Wolves may have been the team hurt most by the cancellation of the 2019-2020 season due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They held the best record in the league, thanks to decisive road victories against Saskatchewan, Toronto, and Philadelphia, plus a solid home win against Halifax that made clear their intent to be on the short list of favorites to capture the NLL Cup. However, despite the abrupt end to the season, which saw their General Manger depart, and the subsequent sale and relocation of the franchise to Albany, the team remarkably managed to retain all but three of their active roster players through not one, but two free agency periods. Let’s look at how the newly-monikered Albany FireWolves stack up for the 2021-2022 season…
As with the “legit contender debate, many will argue the offense took a significant hit with the free agency departures of two future Hall of Famers in Callum Crawford (to New York) and Stephan LeBlanc (to Halifax). But a closer look at the numbers and personnel moves since the team last hit the floor may tell a different story. The team ranked 5th in the league in goals scored, only 16 behind the top-ranked Philadelphia Wings, but having scored their total in three fewer games than the Wings.
While league MVP candidate Crawford was responsible for almost 25% of those goals, he also ranked 4th in the NLL in assists. This serves to dispel the notion that the offense ran solely through Crawford, but following his departure from the team, it may be tempting to ask whether scoring can continue at the same pace as it did in 2019-2020.
Enter the 2020 draft and personnel moves made during 2020 and 2021.
On the right side, the FireWolves re-signed Joe Resetarits (himself a proven #1 scorer, and the only American-born player in NLL history to record a 100-point season) and Dave Emala. On the left side, Reilly O’Connor, Jordan Durston, and 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Kew were also re-signed. The team then acquired 4-year veteran righty Jacob Ruest (188 points in 67 career games) from the Colorado Mammoth in a 2020 draft-day trade.
Additionally, Grant Ament (Penn State’s all-time leader in points and assists) and Michael Sowers (Princeton’s all-time leading scorer) were drafted to the team in 2020. Albany also inked Brad Smith (PLL Whipsnakes) in free agency. While Ament, Sowers, and Smith are primarily field lacrosse players, their respective skillsets should allow them to transition to the box game relatively easily.
Albany retained its entire defensive unit from 2019-2020, though not without a major scare, as the team had to match an unexpected Restricted Free Agent offer from Halifax to reigning Goaltender of the Year Doug Jamieson during the 2020 free agency period in order to retain his services. The stellar play of Jamieson helped contribute to the team ranking first in the league in 2019-2020 with a Goals Against Average below 9.00.
In front of Jamieson, the defense is anchored by a trio of hard-nosed veterans in captain Brett Manney, Greg Downing, and John LaFontaine, Nick Chaykowsky, entering his 4th year with the team, has steadily improved his play each year to the point where he looks to be a future perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Albany’s transition game is also among the fastest in the league, with speedsters Colton Watkinson and Jackson Nishimura joined by Tony Malcom, who thrived in moving to a transition role (7 goals, 6 assists in 11 games) after previously playing forward for two other NLL teams in 4 years. At the X, field transplant Joe Nardella exceeded expectations, helping the team rank 3rd overall in Faceoff Win Percentage. New free agent acquisitions Johnny Pearson, Adrian Sorichetti, and Zach Goodrich are certain to improve the defense’s ability to cause turnovers, and in the case of Sorichetti, add crucial transition goal scoring capability.
We all know the old adage that defense wins championships, and the tangible skills of this defensive unit are impressive. However, intangibles such as the chemistry and continuity that accompany a 100% player retention rate from one year to the next are equally as important. In the FireWolves’ case, it may be these intangibles on defense that ultimately prove to be the difference in their quest to finish what they feel they were already poised to accomplish in 2019 2020: hoisting the NLL Cup as League Champions.