The NLL opening weekend is upon us! Five games of action, and it all gets going on Friday night. I will be making the trip to Long Island to take in the New York Riptide home opener against the Philadelphia Wings. Opening weekends are the best times in sports. Every team is still in it. Everyone has something to be excited about. The grim darkness that comes with realizing your team is bad, or the jubilation of realizing your team might make THE run this year, hasn’t hit yet, it’s all just promise and opportunity. At the end of the year only one team wins the title, but that first weekend in December, it could still be anyone.
The Weekend Primer serves as a place to come for you to see who is playing, when, where, how you can watch, and maybe a little bit about the matchup with some picks. There is a caveat to this, which is that I still very much consider myself a box novice. When it comes to NLL picks, my only goal is to be better than Adam Levi’s infant child, Preston. I grew up around field lacrosse, it’s my first lacrosse love. But the indoor game has been growing in popularity in recent years, particularly among Americans, and I am very happy to say it has fully roped me in. I enjoy every minute I watch, even as I am still learning what makes good box scheme, what makes a good box player more than a good field player, and all the other intricacies. That said, and you’ve probably figured this out by now, the takes you get here will not be as well informed as you might get from established NLL pros (the people you definitely should be listening to). But if you’re new to this like me, then let’s have some fun and learn it all together.
Here’s the rundown for opening weekend.
Note: all lines are taken from DraftKings when this is written, and may change. If you are serious about picks and wagers, definitely line shop across multiple books.
SASKATCHEWAN RUSH VS HALIFAX THUNDERBIRDS
When: Friday, December 1st, 7pm EST
Where: ScotiaBank Centre, Halifax
How to Watch: TSN, TSN+, ESPN+
The Spread: Halifax favored by 1.5, total set at 24.5
The Rush aren't all that far removed from winning it all. But the roster has turned over a ton since then. This offseason, Mark Matthew, Adam Jay, and Dan Lintner all joined Toronto. Young forward Austin Madronic was traded to New York. Some very good pieces joined the club as well, like veteran goalie Frank Scigliano and scorer Patrick Dodds. The Rush still feel like a young team. Robert Church is the top player on the roster for me, and he's 32. Mike Messenger, a fan favorite in the outdoor game, also crushes transition indoors. Even with those quality vets, that's a lot of turnover, and a lot of young pieces to bring into the fold and get comfortable.
Halifax, on the other hand, are looking to make their deep playoff run a reality this year. They keep losing early in the playoffs, to Toronto in each of the last two seasons. They are always in the mix, but just can't seem to get over the playoff hump. This year, they all but ran it back roster wise. Cole Kirst comes in via the draft, Chris Boushy goes to Toronto. That's it. Both important moves, but those are the only two moves. Graeme Hossack will lead the defense yet again as he is arguably the best defender in the lacrosse, indoors or outdoors. The tough news for Halifax fans was the moves to the PUP list. Randy Staats, Cody Jamieson, and Eric Fannell are all currently on PUP, a major blow to the offense. Kirst will have to have an impact right away. Ryan Benesch still has it at age 38, nobody better for Kirst to learn under. Jake Withers and Ryan Terefenko, two more former Buckeyes, devour loose balls and own transition. Halifax, if they can get healthy, are a contender yet again.
The big names on the PUP list make me think about it for a second. But only for a second. Halifax is just too talented, and even with the offensive holes, the defense and transition is solid. Hossack, Withers, Terefenko, Tyson Bell, it just goes on and on. Halifax -1.5 is my pick even with serious juice, and I'll take under 24.5.
ALBANY FIREWOLVES VS LAS VEGAS DESERT DOGS
When: Friday, December 1st, 10pm EST
Where: Michelob Ultra Arena, Las Vegas
How to Watch: TSN+, ESPN+
The Spread: Las Vegas favored by 1.5, total set at 22.5
Albany has some work to be done this year. Kieran McArdle retired from the indoor game, as did Brett Manney, and Connor Kelly is now with Colorado. There is a clear rebuild happening for the Firewolves. There are some exciting young players on this team that came in through the draft, specifically Alex Simmons and Tye Kurtz. There are some players I’m very excited to watch on this team, specifically Jeff Trainor, who has an outdoor game that looks, to me, the novice, like it would be a great fit in the NLL in transition. Joe Nardella is healthy, and that should help Albany with possessions and transition play. The Albany future is bright, number one overall pick Dyson Williams joins next year. This may be the year for Firewolves fans to be patient, cheer for the development of their young stars, and see the big picture.
Vegas enters their second year as a franchise, going 5-13 in year one. Like Albany, it’ll be about getting the young guys comfortable and building the team core. Dylan Watson joins the club this year as does Jake Saunders. Jack Hannah and Charlie Bertrand are other key young pieces. They’re balanced well by vets like Rob Hellyer, Zack Greer, and Casey Jackson. Hellyer was the key to the team a year ago, and should be their offensive leader yet again. Assist machine a year ago. Vegas also has two Kirsts, Connor and Colin, although Colin will start the year on the PUP list. They just drafted Adam Poitras, another star in the making who will join the club but not until next season. Watching Jacob Ruest in transition has been fun as I learn more about the indoor game too. If you're newer to the NLL, despite the teams probably not being contenders, this is a game to watch for the young stars.
The real winner here is the fans.
Both teams are building young cores. I know I said opening night everyone is still in it. These squads are in it, but they’d be incredible stories if they made a run through the playoffs. But in this game alone you have Hannah, Bertrand, Saunders, Griffin Hall, Jon Gagliardi, Zach Cole, Tye Kurtz, Alex Simmons, Sam Firth, Marshall Powless, Nathan Grenon, Nicholas Volkov, and Zach Young. That’s all players on these two teams who are under 25. Ethan Walker is 26 and the second oldest player among Albany forwards.
I’m going to take Vegas here, I like their veteran group a bit more than Albany’s. But this is a game that should be fun even if the teams aren’t the elite of the elite on paper. Desert Dogs -1.5 at plus money, and over 22.5.
PANTHER CITY LACROSSE CLUB VS VANCOUVER WARRIORS
When: Friday, December 1st, 10pm EST
Where: Rogers Arena, Vancouver
How to Watch: TSN, TSN+, ESPN+
The Spread: Panther City favored by 1.5, total set at 22.5
Three games last year between these two, and Panther City won all three. A big change though, Panther City traded their leading scorer from a year ago, Patrick Dodds, to Saskatchewan for draft capital. This is clearly Jonathan Donville’s team, and it’ll be up to the reigning Rookie of the Year to lead the offense early in his career. They have plenty of other weapons like Will Malcom, another young star, and veteran Callum Crawford. They used the draft capital in the Dodds trade on Ryan Sheridan, who has been excellent early on. The young core is clearly in place for this team on offense.
Vancouver had the second worst record in the league last year behind Albany, winning just four games. They surrendered more goals than anyone. As you can imagine, after a year like that, changes were made. Curt Malawsky was hired as head coach and GM, a huge move pulling him away from Calgary after 15 years. On the offensive end, I’m excited to watch Keegan Bal, last year’s team leader in points. Adam Charalambides is who I’m most interested in watching in this one. He was a first round pick a few years ago, had a solid point total last season. As a top lefty on the team, I'd like to see him make a leap to the game’s elite levels this year.
Vancouver made big changes to get the team to get things turned around, and I think they’ll be improved this year. Panther City’s young stars have this team ready to compete to be a playoff team already, a testament to how well they are built. Both teams will be trending up this season, but I like Panther City to trend up more steeply. Give me PCLC -1.5 on the road, and the game goes under 22.5.
CALGARY ROUGHNECKS VS ROCHESTER KNIGHTHAWKS
When: Saturday, December 2nd, 7pm EST
Where: Blue Cross Arena, Rochester
How to Watch: TSN+, ESPN+
The Spread: Calgary favored by 1.5, total set at 22.5
Rochester was a very fun story early last season. They won their first six games of the year, as every weekend it felt like we said, “this is the weekend they fall off,” and they never did. Well, eventually they did. They lost six of their last 10 games, and then were destroyed by Buffalo in the playoffs. But the play those first six games is undeniable. That said, two major reasons for that play, Thomas Hoggarth and Holden Cattoni, are gone. Still in town, though, is Connor Fields, who was a revelation last year both indoors and outdoors. He posted a ridiculous 112 points, destroying his previous career high, and scored 50+ goals. Joining him is Rookie of the Year favorite Thomas McConvey, the top overall pick a year ago who looked solid in his first outdoor season, and now will take his talents indoors. Which is the real Rochester, the Knighthawks of their first six games last year, or the Knighthawks of their last 10?
Calgary, on the other hand, is loaded. They won 13 games a year ago, falling in the conference finals to Colorado. They have the reigning MVP, Christian Del Bianco, in net. They have arguably the best loose ball player, or just overall player period, in lacrosse in Zach Currier. Thomas Hoggarth joins the team, Jesse King and Tanner Cook are back off excellent seasons. The Roughnecks really don’t have much you can point to as a weakness. The question will be behind the bench. As mentioned above, Curt Malawsky isn’t coaching Calgary anymore. Josh Sanderson is the new head coach, helming a team that will have sky high aspirations on the season given their talent level.
Calgary will want to make a statement that their ready to contend and play with their new coach. Rochester will battle with Fields, and McConvey will make some plays that get your eyebrows raised, but in the end, the Roughnecks are too talented and they get it done. I’ll take Calgary -1.5 on the road even with heavy juice, and over 22.5.
NEW YORK RIPTIDE VS PHILADELPHIA WINGS
When: Saturday, December 2nd, 7:30pm EST
Where: Nassau Coliseum, New York
How to Watch: ESPN2, ESPN+, TSN+
The Spread: Philadelphia favored by 1.5, total set at 24.5
I’m excited to be in the barn for this one. The Riptide spent the offseason making a ton of moves to try and position themselves for their first foray into the postseason. The left side for the Riptide is rock solid. Jeff Teat is an MVP conversation mainstay, with some pundits suggesting this could be a year he sets the single season points record. Larson Sundown and Reilly O’Connor fill out the left side, and the offense really starts coming together. The right side got the overhaul. Connor Kearnan is back, but joining him on the right is Kiel Matisz, acquired from Philadelphia, and Austin Madronic, acquired from Saskatchewan. There’s a balance of youth, experience, and reliability productivity in this group that should lead to being on the right side of more close games for New York. On defense, top draft pick Callum Jones starts the season on the injured list which is unfortunate, but there are still quality defenders out there. Brent Noseworthy and Matt Marinier return, as does veteran leader and captain Damon Edwards. This is a team that clearly became tired of spinning the wheels and made some moves to gain real forward momentum.
For Philly, one story will be who ISN’T there. Trevor Baptiste was traded to San Diego, and Matt Rambo is on the holdout list. For field fans like me, those are two big names that won’t be on the floor, and they are significant impact players. The name I have come to be very interested in isn’t a field player though, it’s Mitch Jones. Third in a points a year ago behind only Dhane Smith and Teat, and absolutely cooked the Riptide in their matchups last season. A few more knowledgeable folks consider Jones to be an MVP dark horse, or not even dark horse but legit contender. I have also come to enjoy watching Blaze Riorden, offensive weapon; that only can happen indoors. The Cattoni’s have been united on Philly this year, with Holden joining the squad. I’ve come to appreciate Holden’s game more as I watch more summer box lacrosse.
Opening night, ESPN2, New York and Philly, there’s a lot to like in this and a lot to be excited about. It’s a good early test for New York’s defense, and an opportunity to see what kind of damage can be done with their rebuilt right side. Philly is a 1.5 goal favorite on the road and at a plus. Riptide getting a goal and a half with some serious juice, but I think they start fast out of the gate and set the tone for a big year early. Give me the Riptide +1.5, and the under.