With the Stealth announcing its final rosters for the start of the 2012 regular season last week, it only seems fitting that we continue with the 2012 season previews by position. Goaltenders were covered prior to the start of training camp and since then, the Stealth coaching staff has made the decision to go with rookie Chris Seidel as the backup to fan favorite and rising star Tyler Richards.
But what about the boys playing defense in front of Richards and Seidel?
Here’s a look at the names playing defense for the Stealth in 2012:
Right-handed: Matt Beers, Curtis Hodgson, Kyle Sorensen, Chris O’Dougherty and Kyle Ross. Left-handed: Jeff Moleski, Mike Grimes, Eric Martin and Chris McElroy.
Defense was a point of emphasis for the Stealth coaching staff during the offseason. During the 2011 regular season, the Stealth allowed the second-most goals in the National Lacrosse League (198).
Injuries throughout the season to key players on the back end contributed to that statistic, with assistant captain Sorensen missing twelve games, McElroy missing four, Martin missing three and several others missing games and playing at less than 100%.
“Injuries were a big issue for us last year on defense,” said Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall. “We were relatively deep, but we never seemed to have the same group consistently. You miss a couple key guys and it changes the game plan.”
Once the Stealth reached the playoffs however, the defensive unit that allowed over twelve goals per game cut that number down to eight in three postseason contests. Hall credits the team’s improved health – in particular the return of Sorensen – to the turnaround in the postseason.
“When (Sorensen) came back, he really rallied the troops,” Hall said of the 25-year old defenseman, who enters his sixth NLL season in 2012. “He’s a fantastic leader and really helped us gel at the right time as we finally got healthy.”
Sorensen is just one of the major pieces of the Stealth’s defensive puzzle, which includes a lot of veteran leadership. That leadership makes the entire unit stronger as the young guys on defense watch and learn from the wily vets.
“We have a lot of guys that lead in a lot of different ways,” said Chris O’Dougherty, a third-year member of the Stealth that started his career on the practice roster before becoming a regular in the game day lineup. “(Sorensen) is our inspirational leader with the way he plays with so much passion and heart. (Eric Martin) is our energy guy and leads by example with his constant hustle. (Chris McElroy) is a great team guy and picks everyone up when we need it. (Curtis Hodgson) is one of the smartest defenders I’ve played with. Those are just a few examples. All of the older guys have been so willing to help me learn and grow.”
The 2012 version of the Stealth defense not only has that veteran leadership, it has a ton of versatility and depth as well. It’s a big, strong, fast and athletic unit that can push the ball up the floor in transition. The entire back end is full of guys that are exactly the type of player coach Hall loves to have on his roster.
“We have guys that can do a little bit of everything,” he said. “They all can play shut down defense with an edge, then grab a loose ball and lead a fast break to the other end. They create opportunities on offense and put pressure on the opposition. There’s more to a ‘D’ guy than making a stop and getting off the floor.”
The prime examples of that on the Stealth roster are lefties Mike Grimes and Eric Martin. Grimes led the NLL in scoring by a defenseman a year ago with 21 points (11g, 10a) while Martin finished fourth with 17 points (5g, 12a) in just 13 games. Joining Grimes and Martin in the top ten was Jeff Moleski, who is primarily known as one of the world’s toughest and hardest-hitting defenders, with 13 points (3g, 10a) to finish sixth amongst the league’s top-scoring defensemen.
Also adding to the importance of defensemen in transition is the institution of some rule changes by the NLL for 2012. With quicker restarts and the center timeline reduced to eight seconds from ten, it’s even more important for defenders to be confident with the ball in their stick.
“With the new rules, defenders have to be well-rounded with size, athleticism and speed,” said seven-year NLL vet Chris McElroy, who was acquired by the Stealth prior to the 2011 season. “I think those rules play right into our strengths and there’s no reason we can’t be the best defense in the league.”
While the offensive potential is a bonus for the Stealth defense, defensemen get paid to play defense first and foremost. The person most excited about the defensive personnel on this year’s Stealth roster is the one that relies on the group more than any one else: goaltender Tyler Richards.
“We really have an all-star lineup of defenders,” said the fourth-year net minder. “It’s really a luxury for me as I know what type of shots I am going to see in a game. I know they won’t allow opposing offenses to get on the crease and keep shots to the outside. Most of us have been together for years now; we’ve developed a great relationship and trust in one another.”
Aside from the usual suspects on the Stealth defense, here are some other players to watch in 2012:
Kyle Ross: The new guy on the Stealth ‘D’, Ross was acquired from the Toronto Rock in a trade for goaltender Matt Roik. At 6’3”, the 28-year old has made his mark as a big, physical presence in the defensive end. Ross has spent time in Boston and Minnesota as well, recording 37 points (10g, 27a) and 315 loose balls in his five-year career. His play caught the eye of coach Hall over the years playing in the NLL and in the Western Lacrosse Association in British Columbia.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in our back end, but Kyle Ross isn’t here to play second fiddle,” said Hall. “He epitomizes what we are looking for in our defensemen and will make a definite impact this season.”
Chris O’Dougherty: After beginning his NLL career on the Stealth’s practice roster in 2010, O’Dougherty worked hard to become a regular in the Stealth lineup last year, appearing in 14 regular season games. The former Rutgers University standout has made the transition to the box game with flying colors, utilizing his strength and speed to develop into a solid one-on-one defensive force.
“Chris O’Dougherty is a tremendously hard worker both on and off the floor,” said Hall. “He has become a reliable and sound defensemen with the drive and potential to become a lot more.”
Matt Beers: OK, so Beers is one of the usual suspects on the Stealth defense, having been a starter in each of his first two NLL seasons. But last season, injuries plagued the 2010 All-Rookie team member. He proved his toughness by playing through the pain, but a healthy Matt Beers is something that has the coaching staff salivating.
“We saw what Matt Beers did as a rookie in this league,” Hall said. “He was a big part of our championship run in 2010 and even playing hurt was a big part of us getting back to the Championship Game last year. But having him back and healthy to start the season is something that we really look forward to.”
On paper, it’s hard to argue with the talent coming out of the back door for the Stealth in 2012. But games aren’t won on paper. The one thing that paper can’t quantify that may set this defense apart however, is chemistry. Just as in all sports, chemistry can be the difference between a championship and missing the playoffs entirely (just ask the Boston Red Sox).
“With a few exceptions, this team has been playing together for a few years now,” said McElroy. “We genuinely get along on and off the floor and there’s no doubt in my mind that each and every guy in the locker room is going to do everything they can to win a game. Having that trust in one another is probably the biggest thing we have going for us.”
“Defense is an attitude,” he added. “We’re hungry to bring the championship back to Washington and in camp, the guys have shown that.”