For a team with title aspirations that ended last year, it’s hard to look at Atlas and not be puzzled. They finished last season with Chris Gray and Jeff Teat both in the Top Eight in the PLL in points. Cade Van Raaphorst and Danny Logan were tied for 2nd in the league in two pointers, with Romar Dennis and Koby Smith both right behind them. They had the third most efficient offense in the league, and while their defensive efficiency wasn’t great, they entered the offseason with two of the top three picks in a college draft that was packed with defensive talent. And, of course, they had the league MVP in Trevor Baptiste.
Let’s look at the way this roster has changed since last season.
I consider this to be one of the more critical changes from last year to this year that really hasn’t been talked about enough. Crawley did not pile up points for Atlas, he was not a primary weapon. He finished with just five points. But he was an every game player for Atlas, because of the way he sees the game and serves as another coach. Crawley is the Offensive Coordinator at Johns Hopkins, go ahead and look at the leaps forward that team took with him there as the full time OC and consider just what he can bring to a sideline. Missing Crawley on the field, on the sideline, and in the locker room is apparent. The Atlas offense is still good, with their raw talent it’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t be. They still have an excellent veteran leader in Eric Law, but Crawley is in a class of his own.
FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: Tucker Durkin, Peter Dearth
FREE AGENT DEPARTURES: Max Wayne, Jake Phaup, Kyle Pless
RELEASED TO PLAYER POOL: Cade Van Raaphorst, Craig Chick, JD Colarusso
PLAYER POOL ADDS: Zak Lanoue (released again), Peyton Smith, Chet Comizio, John Geppert, Grant Ammann
DRAFTED: Gavin Adler, Brett Makar, Payton Rezanka
INJURIES: Koby Smith, Payton Rezanka
That’s a lot of movement. And this is where most time should be spent, because it’s clear that defense was where Atlas struggled the most this season. Just to create a timeline: free agency happens first, and the Atlas sign back Tucker Durkin and Peter Dearth to new deals. Kyle Pless doesn’t get a new deal, Max Wayne signs with the Cannons, as does Jake Phaup. They did sign Cade Van Raaphorst to a one year deal as well, but we’ll get to his fate in a second. Durkin is the captain and has started every week, but is in the twilight of his career. He has had some rough games this season, beginning in week one where Ryder Garnsey gave him nearly a half dozen goals before Atlas had to change the matchup. Durkin is a first ballot Hall of Fame player and one of the best to ever play the position, but when a teams clear weakness and issue is their transition and help defense, it’s fair to look at the player who the coach has said is the organizer on defense and ask some questions. The other free agent signing on the defensive end, Dearth, has played in six games this year, and just one since the All Star break. The Atlas have instead opted to use Danny Logan, Chet Comizio, and Jake Richard as the SSDM trio. Payton Rezanka picked up an injury at the end of the college season and has not played this year.
The departures were what raised the most eyebrows this year for the Atlas, so let’s start by looking at those. Vap Raaphorst got a new one year deal, but was released early in the season by Atlas. He is still considered one of the better off ball defenders in the league, and in the last two years, has emerged as a serious two point threat. No sooner did he hit the player pool than Cannons snatched him up. With the Cannons this year, Van Raaphorst has four two pointers, 23 ground balls, and seven caused turnovers. If he was still on the Atlas, that would lead the team in twos, be second in ground balls among non faceoff players, and be third in caused turnovers, with the caveat that those numbers are in just seven games for Van Raaphorst and he’s being compared to the stats of players with ten games.
Another Atlas departure, Max Wayne, who was drafted a year ago, made his way to the Cannons in free agency. Wayne has played seven games, but emerged as an every game starter for them around the midway point. He has seven caused turnovers and 22 ground balls. On par with Van Raaphorst, and so right about the same place when compared to the defenders the Atlas are using every game.
Players are shooting 20.51% when Cade Van Raaphorst is the closest defender. They are shooting 33% with Wayne as the closest defender. Neither is an earth shatteringly good mark. Compared to the Atlas defenders. Players are shooting 38% with Gavin Adler as the closest defender. They are shooting 35% with Brett Makar as the closest defender. 33% with Durkin as the closest. I’ll offer the context that I find this stat to be a bit deceiving. Adler held Tom Schreiber goalless. He held Zed Williams to 0-6 shooting as a dodger. The number definitely sells short just how good he is individually. But it’s the metric we have, and the one PLL tends to lean on.
The numbers aren’t all that different between the players, other than CVR being clearly ahead of the others. The difference is, the Cannons got Van Raaphorst from the player pool and Max Wayne on a one year deal. The Atlas spent the first and third overall picks in the draft on Adler and Makar, and opted to stay with Durkin while releasing Van Raaphorst.
They also released Craig Chick after making the move to Koby Smith about a month into the season. Smith brings more to the table offensively, and provided a spark for the team in transition. But an injury ended his season, which presumably would have put Chick back into the lineup regularly. Instead, the Atlas went with undrafted rookie John Geppert, and following an injury to Gavin Adler, chose to dress just four poles, let Jake Richard use a pole at times, and send Chick to the player pool.
Chick is a year removed from a season with 38 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers, which measured up statistically with anyone who was up for LSM of the Year in 2022. He plays well between the lines, is smart in transition, and can steal a few possessions because he’s so adept at causing turnovers. He is, after all, the NCAA DI all time leader in that stat. Choosing to give a short stick a pole instead of dressing him is certainly worth questioning. The Atlas added Grant Ammann, a late round draft pick who was released to the player pool, in his place, but Ammann has not yet dressed.
Last year, the Atlas defensive efficiency in settled situations was 32%. In transition, it was 26% and they faced the lowest transition opportunities in the league. Overall, they were at 31%.
This year, in settled situations it is 31%, the worst in the league but nearly the same as last year. But in transition it’s 41%, the league worst, and they’ve faced the third most transition chances of anyone in the league. That adds up to a total defensive efficiency of 33.1%. The PLL average is 27.2%, so the Atlas defense is well below that and worst in the league by a decent margin.
That transition number is stunning. From 26% a year ago to 41% this year, that's falling off a cliff. The defense got cooked in transition and in unsettled opportunities all year, which really doesn’t come down on the individual player talents. It comes down on the ability of those players to be organized and play as a group. In transition and in unsettled opportunities, having a bunch of guys who can cover doesn’t help you. There’s more of them than you, you need to play together to guard areas and defend the goal until the offense takes the shot you want to give up, or defensive reinforcements arrive, and the Atlas struggled to do that all year. When you look at the off ball prowess of the players they let go, coupled with leaning on two rookies to be their top defenders, it’s not surprising to see the numbers dip, but this fall has been stunning. The roster moves absolutely share some blame.
FREE AGENT DEPARTURES: Dan Bucaro, Jake Phaup, Jake Carraway
FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: Justin Guterding
PLAYER POOL ADDS: Quinn McCahon, Stephen Rehfuss, Mark Cockerton
RELEASED TO PLAYER POOL: Clarke Petterson
DRAFTED: Xander Dickson, Kyle Long
TRADES: Acquired Myles Jones for Romar Dennis
INJURIES: Dox Aitken
Bucaro played major minutes last year and was an every week player, scoring 12 points on the year. Otherwise, this mostly were role players or occasionally active players. Jake Carraway signed a new deal with the Waterdogs, where he gets occasional run at attack but has warmed to the role of running out of the box. He’s appeared in 8 games this year, has 15 points on 11 scores, including a pair of twos, and two assists. He’s shooting 34%. He’d be third in the Atlas midfield in points right now.
Really, this is an offense that basically ran it back this year. The Atlas bread is buttered by the attack group of Jeff Teat, Chris Gray, and Eric Law. They’ve always been the most dangerous part of the offense, and the additions of this team all are players who would work well with them. Xander Dickson had 20 points in the regular season, growing into a pro version of the player who caught feeds from Connor Shellenberger at UVA and beat goalies from all over the field. Kyle Long is a pass first midfielder, but didn't stick on the roster after training camp. Dox Aitken has missed the season with injury. The Myles Jones trade has been successful for Atlas, as Jones has been productive and impactful in each game with the Bulls.
The Atlas offensive efficiency this year is at 25.3%, which is below the league average of 27.2%. In transition they are 28.2%, which is below average, and in settled they are 25%, which is right at the league average. Last year, they were 28.9%, right at the league average, and right at the league average in settled situations while above average in transition. So what happened to this team on offense? Part of it is the 32 second clock. While Trevor Baptiste delivered possessions at a record setting pace, the Atlas struggled with those possessions. Since off faceoff wins they had just 32 seconds to play offense, they were often rushed, or without all their personnel. Early in the year especially, the Atlas did not handle the new look Faceoff Prevent defense well. Their efficiency in the 32 second clock is 21.29 %, better than only the Chrome and Redwoods. On all other possessions, they are at 28.63%, still not great, but much closer to the league average. Couple that with the fact that the Atlas defensive efficiency in the 52 second clock is the worst in the league, and you can see how games would get away from this team. Win a faceoff, play inefficient offense in the 32 second clock, and then play to a league worst defensive efficiency in the following 52 second clock.
The changes to the roster for Atlas this year came on the defensive side of the ball. The offense is capable and has done enough this year to win games. They have the second best shooting percentage in the league, and they average 12 goals per game. Six teams in the league gave up 12 or fewer goals per game. But that sort of brings us to where the Atlas struggle. The Atlas give up 14 goals per game. No one else is at or above 13. They have given up 33 transition goals, meaning three plus times a game they get beat in the sub game or an unsettled situation. There are four teams in the league who have given up fewer than 20 transition goals this year. Last year, the Atlas gave up 18 transition goals. Nearly doubling that number from one year to the next is stunning.
It may seem like a narrow viewpoint to focus so specifically at one aspect of the defense. But in the PLL, the margins are just that thin. 15 more transition goals from one year to the next coupled with a number of defensive personnel changes. That’s all it can take to go from title contender, even favorite, to a 2-8 team.