What was the biggest factor in the New England Black Wolves turning around so precipitously, from a league-worst 4-14 in 2015 to 10-8 and battling for the National League’s East Division title this year?
The most obvious answer is their trade for superstar forward Shawn Evans, who should be at least a finalist with a chance to win his third league MVP award in four years. You could make a strong argument, though, for hiring Glenn Clark as the head coach, keeping Tracey Kelusky on as an assistant and having Jim Veltman fill the other assistant slot.
Those were huge moves, but even with them the Black Wolves wouldn’t have been as successful as they were this year without some further changes to the team. Kevin Crowley was re-acquired from Toronto, Derek Suddons and Dan Ball were signed to boost the defence and Jordan Hall was brought back from Rochester part way through the year.
All of those transactions added up to New England being the biggest surprise in the league but should leave little doubt why the Black Wolves’ Rich Lisk is IL Indoor‘s GM of the Year.
Which makes it a bit funny that he isn’t even listed as the team’s GM on their page in the 2016 NLL Media Guide, where Chris Sienko’s picture appears for that role. Given the fairly low profile that Lisk keeps, I had to call Black Wolves’ owner Mike French just to make sure it was clear that Lisk is indeed the GM.
He is: Sienko is the GM of the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA and is technically in the same role with the Wolves, but Lisk is the guy calling the shots. And what a job he did of calling them this year.
It seems so obvious in retrospect that the moves New England made were smart ones, now that they’ve tied a franchise record for wins and look to be set to compete for several years. But at the time, they couldn’t have all been easy ones.
Even the trade for Evans was kind of a scary proposition. Remember, New England send Garrett Billings to Vancouver for Tyler Digby and a second rounder, then shipped Digby to Calgary for Evans. But they also had to include their first round picks in both 2018 and 2019; that’s a daunting deal. If it hadn’t worked out, it would have looked terrible. But Lisk believed in the deal and pulled the trigger, and bringing Evans to Connecticut made so much of what else happened possible.
There have been other changes, both on and off the floor. The team now practices mid-week in Grimsby, Ontario, which helps with cohesiveness and allows the coaches to push the players harder than they could on the nights before games.
One thing that Lisk and his coaches didn’t change was giving American players a chance to play in the NLL. It wasn’t really about them being American any more, though. It was about them being the best players for the job. Brett Manney has become an elite defender with the lacrosse IQ of a Canadian. Kevin Buchanan is a superb depth lefty. John Ranagan is turning into an impact player before our eyes.
Lisk also gave a young native player a chance to show he could transition from football star to lacrosse difference-maker. It took a couple of years for Bill O’Brien to really find his game, but now he’s a fixture on the team’s penalty kill and proof that not all of Lisk’s decisions that helped the team win this year were actually made this year.
But this is the year that everything really came together for the Black Wolves, and as a result Lisk stands at the top of the GM pyramid for 2016.
|GM of the Year voting||First||Second||Third||Fourth||Fifth||Points|
|Rich Lisk||IIII (20)||II (8)||II (6)||I (2)||36|
|Steve Govett||II (10)||I (4)||II (6)||I (2)||22|
|Steve Dietrich||III (12)||II (6)||I (2)||20|
|Derek Keenan||I (5)||I (4)||I (3)||I (2)||I (1)||15|
|Mike Board||I (5)||I (4)||I (3)||I (1)||13|
|John Arlotta||I (5)||I (4)||II (2)||11|
1) Mike Board – Replaced 6 starters from last years lineup with 4 full time rookies. Roughnecks gained a win plus lost multiple one goal
games which says a lot about how far this team transitioned in one year.
2) Steve Dietrich – Reaping the benefits of sticking to their guns last year and the year before converting forwards to defensive tranny opportunists. Sometimes you gotta plant the seeds and let them grow.
3) Rich Lisk – Lisk’s organization made swift changes in the off season and created a winning culture QUICK. Hall trade was a steal and upgraded the offence to dangerous.
Turning Billings into Digby and then Shawn Evans worked out rather well for the Black Wolves. Bringing Kevin Crowley back was also a good move and picking up a vet like Derek Suddons solidified their back end.
Steve Govett loves to play the wires and boy does he do it well. Before the season even started he was able to sign Callum Crawford, Greg Downing, Mike Mallory, Josh Sullivan, Chris Wardle and Ilija Gajic. Then with just three picks in this year’s entry draft he was able to get Bryce Sweeting in the 4th round and the steal of the draft in the 6th round selecting Jordan Gilles. All that before January 1st and the Mammoth head honcho had done an incredible job filling holes and finding players that fit into his coaching staff’s system.
Lisk: Being a GM in any sport can be tricky, but even moreso in the NLL. Outside job factors and travel are very real issues, and they can certainly work against a team. But those issues also work for a team and the Black Wolves discovered that this season when they got Kevin Crowley back and then landed Shawn Evans, who wanted to play closer to home. That’s not to say New England’s success is the result of pure luck, because Lisk clearly did his homework and added other parts to a Wolves team that turned itself around and got to the East finals.