The Halifax Thunderbirds look to pick up where they left off last season as one of the best teams in the NLL. When the 2019-20 season was abruptly suspended on March 12th, 2020 and cancelled a month later, the Thunderbirds sat on top of the North Division and third in the league with eight wins and four losses. Only the New England Black Wolves (8-3) – now Albany Firewolves – and the Saskatchewan Rush (7-3) had stronger seasons. The Thunderbirds thought they could have won the NLL Cup last year and will enter this season hungry to complete that mission.
The Thunderbirds roster is a little different from last season. Their main loss was Ryan Benesch, who was their second-leading scorer. Panther City claimed him in the expansion draft. However, Halifax added some new faces. Veteran forwards Rhys Duch and Stephan Leblanc look to replace some scoring left by Benesch. They also added veteran defenders David Brock and Tyson Bell to solidify an already deep defence. Finally, they brought in Aaron Bold to serve as the back-up to Warren Hill in net.
The Thunderbirds are a deep team filled with veteran talent; they have no glaring weaknesses. Halifax is undoubtedly a championship-contending team.
Last season, the Thunderbirds were fifth in the league with 11.58 goals per game and second in shots with 55.42. Cody Jamieson led the offence in goals (26) and points (59) and tied with Ryan Benesch for the team lead in assists with 33. Benesch was the second-best Thunderbird with 51 points. They were the only two in the top 20 in league scoring. Halifax’s following best five scorers fell between 39-25 points, making the Thunderbirds attack deep.
Losing Benesch will hurt them, and it will be fascinating to find out who takes charge as the second-leading scorer. Leblanc and Duch were stars in their primes, but both are now in their mid-30s and had down years last season. But they are one season removed from LeBlanc scoring 93 points and Duch 74. Can they bounce back? My money would be on Duch since most of his issues last season had to do with only playing six games.
Two players to watch are 24-year-olds Chris Boushy and Clarke Petterson. Boushy scored 22 goals and 36 points in his first year two seasons ago. However, he only played four games last season. He has the skill and youth to not only bounce back but take a step forward. Petterson was third on the team in points in 2019-20 with 38 and will look to grow this year. Both these players becoming prominent players will breathe new life into this offence.
There is certainly no lack of star power on the defensive side. Graeme Hossack leads the back-end as the reigning three-time defensive player of the year. Hossack can do anything. He can manhandle forwards, grab loose balls, create turnovers and chip inoffensively. He was the team’s eighth leading scorer with 18 points in 12 games. They also have Jake Withers, the best faceoff player in the league and great defensively.
The Thunderbirds were good defensively last year. They allowed the sixth-fewest goals against per game and the fourth-fewest shots against. They were also the best team at snagging loose balls and were average at causing turnovers.
The defence got a little better in the offseason. Halifax brought in David Brock from the Toronto Rock, a solid defender. They also traded for Tyson Bell from the Calgary Roughnecks, who can defend and transition the ball up the floor. They will join the main cast of Hossack, Withers, Scott Campbell, Luc Magnan, Brad Gillies and Trevor Smyth as the regulars on the floor. Second-year Nonkon Thompson is also a strong breakout candidate.
Last season, starting goaltender Warren Hill was sixth in the league in save percentage (.809) and goals-against average (9.65) among goalies in his first season as the team’s bonafide starter. He had a .810 save percentage in six games the previous season, so he should continue those numbers into this year. Hill is a strong starting goalie who gives the Thunderbirds a chance to win every night. He can also steal a win when he needs to.
Behind him is veteran 36-year-old Aaron Bold, who comes from the Vancouver Warriors. He will bring mentorship to the younger Hill. Bold usually has a save percentage in the .750-.775 range and a goals-against average in the 12s. At this point in his career, he is an average goaltender and can hold his own if he needs to go in.
The depth and talent of this team puts them into the championship contender conversation. Halifax will fight for the top spot in the Eastern Division against the Albany Fire Wolves, Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock. Halifax is positioned to be the beast of the East and finish on top.