January 25, 2012

In Early Season, Grant on Record Scoring Pace

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

"He's playing arguably better than he's played the last four or five years," Colorado general manager Steve Govett said of John Grant Jr., who, through three games, in on pace to shatter the NLL single-season points record.
© Colorado Mammoth

John Grant Jr. could obliterate single-season NLL scoring records.

He's amassed 30 points in three games for the undefeated Colorado Mammoth, which puts him on pace to finish the season with 160 points. Reaching that total would seem impossible but it is realistic to say that the single-season points record of 115 set in 2001 by Buffalo's John Tavares will fall if Junior keeps this up.

So, what is the explanation for Grant's sensational start?

''It's got a lot to do with his health and conditioning,'' general manager Steve Govett said. ''He had some issues last year that he had to deal with and he was able to get through that with the help of a competent medical staff.

''He's in fantastic condition because of that. You're seeing a dedicated and focused player right now. I'm real proud of what John was able to do this past offseason in getting ready to play. He's playing arguably better than he's played the last four or five years. He's happy. He loves playing with the young kids he's playing with.''

Grant just became the fifth player in pro lacrosse history with 1,000 points, and he has given Govett the milestone ball in appreciation of what Govett has done to allow him to thrive in Denver. Gary Gait gave Govett his 1,000-point ball, too. The balls are on display in Govett's home bar and will go into an NLL Hall of Fame if a physical structure is ever built, he said.

Grant is 18 goals shy of joining Tavares (730) and Gait (635) as the only players in pro lacrosse history with 500. Gait led the Mammoth to new heights as a player in their early years and stuck around to coach them to the 2006 championship. Wouldn't it be something if Grant could do the same, on the floor at least.

''It certainly would,'' Govett said. ''I would love to see John Grant win another championship.

''He's said it: he doesn't care about the personal accolades. Winning is the key. He's excited about the guys he's playing with and we're excited he's playing at such a high level. We're excited about where we're going and about the guys we've put around him to play. ''

Grant spent his first NLL decade in Rochester where he earned league MVP honors in leading the Knighthawks to the 2007 NLL title. He sat out 2009 after surgery to remove a knee infection, and the 'Hawks opted for radical change when they missed the 2010 playoffs. They wanted Matt Vinc, the 2010 NLL goalie of the year who Colorado had selected with the first pick in the dispersal draft of players from a folded Orlando, Fla., franchise. Vinc informed the Mammoth he wouldn't report and offered a list of teams to which he'd agree to be traded. One of them was Rochester, and Govett was surprised when Grant was offered up.

Govett acquired Grant on Oct. 27, 2010, along with defenseman Mac Allen and Rochester's first-round 2011 and 2013 entry draft picks for Vinc, Brad Self, Matt Zash and Colorado's first- and third-round 2012 picks.

''We were thrilled and excited,'' Govett recalls. ''I had the opportunity to play with John in the 1988 world games.

''He's a special talent, a franchise player among the elite players in the history of the league -- Gary and Paul Gait, John Tavares, John Grant, Colin Doyle and a limited number of other guys, that's an amazing group. Any time you have a chance to get a guy like that you go for it because it represents an amazing opportunity.''

While Grant has a lot to do with Colorado's January joy, he hasn't done it alone. Grant leads the NLL with 13 goals and rookie teammate Adam Jones is next with 11.

''I can't say enough about him,'' Govett said of Jones. ''His work ethic helped him recover from that knee injury he had (two years ago).

''To have the type of success he's having so early in his career is tremendous. I don't know if anybody could have predicted this type of success. We kept telling him it as a marathon and not a sprint but he's certainly got out of the gate pretty quick for a marathon.''

The West Division leader's defense has been strong, and the successful rally to that thrilling 13-12 victory on Gavin Prout's OT goal in Calgary last Saturday would not have been possible without the fourth-quarter heroics of goaltender Chris Levis.

Like Govett said, Grant's focus is not on personal stats but on winning the Champion's Cup.

''I've never been 2-0 in this league in my 10 or 11 years let alone 3-0 so I'm pretty pumped for this season,'' Grant said in a video interview provided by Mammoth media relations director Josh Gross upon the return from Alberta. ''I'm just lovin' being part of the Mammoth right now.''

Next game is at home Saturday against Rochester (1-1). In attendance will be the team's All-Decade Team: Gary Gait, Brian Langtry, Pat Coyle, Jay Jalbert, Dave Stilley, Josh Sims, Jamie Hanford, Gee Nash, John Gallant and Gavin Prout.

Two-Game Weekend for East Leaders

The collective confidence of the Buffalo Bandits is soaring after their 12-9 win in Rochester last Saturday. They'd beaten Toronto 14-10 in their opener the previous weekend.

''We've obviously got to be very happy being 2-0 this early in the season without having any pre-season contests,'' said forward Tracey Kelusky. ''We've played two good teams and won them both so we're happy.''

Buffalo lost the 2011 division final to Toronto -- things might have turned out differently had an injured John Tavares been able to play -- and they are determined to make amends.

''We were a very good club last year and this year we've added some good pieces in Kevin Buchanan, Mat Giles and Luke Wiles,'' Kelusky said. ''Role identity has been big for us -- guys understanding what their roles are and how (coach) Darris (Kilgour) wants them to fit in and on offense that means doing stuff like setting picks.

''Our defense continues to play well and Mike Thompson, well, Mikey got broke last spring when he tore his knee ligaments and a lot of people were speculating whether he could recover and be as good as he was last year but it seems every time he gets injured he comes back better than ever. He's just playing phenomenal in goal for us.''

Tavares has a team-high six goals and Wiles is next with five. Kelusky has scored only once, but he's sure more will start falling in for him.

''I'm getting some good looks,'' Kelusky said. ''I had five or six in Rochester. I've got to bear down on my chances but if we're winning I'm not complaining. We've got a lot of depth up front, and we've got Johnny Tavares. It's early in the season. I'm getting a little frustrated but we're winning so it's good.''

The East Division leaders have a two-game weekend coming up with a home date Friday with Philadelphia (1-1) and a Saturday trip to Minnesota (0-1).

''We're preparing for Philadelphia, a division rival, first and foremost and they're coming off a huge win so we've got to be ready for those guys,'' Kelusky said. ''That's the task at hand. We'll worry about the other game when the first one is over. We had some success on doubleheader weekends last year so we're looking forward to that continuing.''

Knighthawks Brought Back to Reality

Rochester was flying high in opening with a 22-12 win in Philadelphia but came back to earth with a thud in losing 12-9 at home to Buffalo. So, what changed?

''They are an athletic team that outworked us, which resulted in second chances for them,'' offers 'Hawks captain Pat McCready. ''Penalties played a role and Buffalo capitalized on its power play.''

A highlight of the Saturday tilt was the goaltending battle between Rochester's Matt Vinc and Buffalo's Mike Thompson.

''Both goalies played great,'' McCready said. ''The game was back and forth but a four- or five-minute stretch in the fourth ultimately was the difference.''

The 'Hawks play the winless Rock in Toronto on Friday and the undefeated Mammoth in Denver on Saturday.

''The Toronto-Colorado series is a huge challenge,'' McCready said. ''It's hard enough to play one of those teams on one weekend let alone both.

''Toronto is the defending champion and will be coming off a weekend off and Colorado is red hot with its new lineup. To face both within 24 hours with travel thrown in makes it tough. Our job is to focus on one game at a time. Physically, it means getting enough sleep and eating and drinking properly.''

Wings' Improved 'D' Evident

Philadelphia's defense stepped up: after being blown away by Rochester in the season opener at home, the Wings rebounded with a 10-9 home win over Washington to improve to 1-1.

''It was a big confidence booster for us,'' forward Dan Dawson said. ''It is critical that you win the one-goal games in order to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth.''

Next up is the first road game of the season against the undefeated Bandits.

''We must continue to improve our consistency for a full 60 minutes heading into Buffalo,'' Dawson said. ''It is a tough place to play and they have a very good team. If we don't play a full 60 minutes, they will make us pay.''

Dawson has 10 assists as he feeds Kevin Crowley to help him adjust to the pace of the pro game. They are a potent combination. Crowley has eight goals in the Wings' two games.

GM-coach Johnny Mouradian couldn't be happier about Crowley's knack for scoring.

''We expect big things from Crowley and he's shown he can come through when big things are expected,'' says Mouradian.

Dawson (779) has moved past retired Philadelphia star Tom Marechek (773) into ninth spot on the all-time points list.

''Dan is playing really well,'' Mouradian said. ''He needs to shoot a bit more. He's so unselfish he passes the ball. If we see him shoot more often, we'll see his goals production rise.''

Rock Face Tough Challenge

One of the toughest tasks in pro sport is to beat a good team coming off an aggravating loss, and Toronto (0-2) has to do it twice this weekend: against Rochester (1-1) at home Friday and in Calgary (2-1) on Saturday.

The offense has been disappointing. Josh Sanderson has scored only one goal. Stephan Leblanc has none. Leblanc was NLL rookie of the year in 2010 when he scored 36, and he potted 33 in 2011, which makes the 0 under the goals column beside his name look downright ugly. To top it off, the ever-reliable Blaine Manning has had surgery and is gone for two months with a broken left collarbone.

''I don't think Steph has struggled any more than a few of our other guys offensively,'' GM Terry Sanderson said during the NLL's weekly coaches' conference call. ''Things just aren't falling for Steph right now. Hopefully it's this weekend that he starts putting some numbers up for us. He's a good lacrosse player. He will find his game and he will be adding to our offense.''

There's no panic in Rockville.

''We had a very spirited practise (Tuesday night) and we're looking to get back at it,'' Sanderson said. ''The only people who might panic would be the ones who don't know what we've got in our dressing room. It's just a matter of time before we break out.''
It's a pivotal weekend for the Rock.

''If we don't grab a win this weekend we ask a few more questions than we have to date,'' Sanderson said.

Roughnecks Ready

Calgary spoiled Toronto's home opener 12-9 and looks to beat the Rock again Saturday night.

''We have to be better than good because good isn't good enough against that team,'' Calgary coach Dave Pym said.

Forward Daryl Veltman has been impressive.

''He came into camp in phenomenal shape and he's just carried that forward,'' Pym said.

Stealth Look for First Win

Winless Washington (0-2) plays at home against Edmonton (0-1) on Saturday, and coach Art Webster admits he's concerned about his offense. Rhys Duch has four goals on 22 shots on goal, Lewis Ratcliff has two goals on 28 shots and Jeff Zywicki has one goal on only seven shots. Webster declines to zero in on Zywicki for criticism.

''I'm concerned about Lewis Ratcliff, Duchie, all of them,'' he said of his attackers. ''They're underperforming right now. They're not in sync. We've got to get to the dirty areas. Staying outside is not working. Hopefully they'll all be stepping up this weekend.''

Difficult Schedule for Rush

The schedule doesn't do Edmonton any favors.

They lost their season opener 13-12 at home last Friday when John Grant Jr. scored with 14.5 seconds left, and now they face the prospect of playing four straight on the road -- Washington, Colorado, Minnesota and then Calgary. That's like trying to climb a ladder when the first rung is missing.

Athan Iannucci's reluctance to join the Rush hurts. GM-coach Derek Keenan figured he'd upgraded his offense by acquiring the NLL's single-season goal scoring record holder from Philadelphia. It cost him his captain, transition star Brodie Merrill. It was a heavy price to pay, and it gets heavier every game that Iannucci remains a holdout. Keenan could try to trade the rights to Iannucci but it's unlikely he'd find any takers.

Swarm Prepare for Home Opener

Minnesota (0-1) is coming off a bye week as it heads into its home opener against Buffalo.

''We're concentrating on our back end,'' head coach Mike Lines said. ''Our communication needs to be better. It'll be better with time.''

Minnesota is 2-13 all-time against Buffalo.

Visitors Have Upper Hand

Visiting teams won six of the first nine games.

What?

Yup, home floor hasn't been much of an advantage. Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, Edmonton, Calgary and Rochester all lost their home openers.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.


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