It’s remarkable how different two 8-10 seasons can feel. Based solely on record, it would be easy to say nothing has changed, but when you look closely, the 2018 Calgary Roughnecks are a significantly improved group. Understanding this year’s team requires a look back into recent events in club history. Not only does that tell us where the Roughnecks are, but where the team is heading (spoiler alert: Calgary’s future is bright).
One year ago, the Roughnecks found themselves outside the NLL playoffs for the first time since their inaugural 2002 season. As expected, every aspect of the Roughnecks organization was scrutinized, perhaps none more so than head coach Curt Malawsky and general manager Mike Board.
When you look deeper into the Calgary Roughnecks roster over the past three years, you begin to appreciate the challenges faced by the head coach and general manager. In October 2015, team captain and long-time Roughneck Andrew McBride retired. Days later the club traded away league MVP Shawn Evans. Add to that the departures of Geoff Snider, Mike Poulin, Karsen Leung, Jon Harnett, Jeff Shattler and Scott Carnegie and you have a tremendous loss of veteran leadership.
The past few years have seen Calgary rebuild their roster with talented young lacrosse players. Wes Berg, Christian Del Bianco, Tyson Bell, Holden Cattoni, Zach Currier and Tyler Pace were all added via the draft, while Tyler Burton, Riley Loewen, Mitch Wilde and Creighton Reid were acquired via trades and player signings. Add new defensive coach Rob Williams to that list and you have a substantial number of new faces on the team over a short period of time. Inconsistency is a typical trait of young teams with players that haven’t played together for very long and it was inconsistent play that summarized the 2017 season.
As 2018 got underway, it looked like Roughnecks’ fans were in for another long year. Through six games the team had a 1-5 record and were tied with Vancouver for last place in the Western Division. Despite the losses, there was something different and exciting starting to emerge from the Roughnecks that wasn’t there in 2017. Led by Tyson Bell, Mitch Wilde and rookie of the year candidate Zach Currier, Calgary’s transition game began to to establish itself as one of the most dangerous in the NLL. Secondly, the play from back-up goaltender Christian Del Bianco was starting to turn heads as he displayed a level of athleticism not typically seen from the goaltender position.
On January 27, the Calgary Roughnecks hosted the Saskatchewan Rush at Scotiabank Saddledome. At the half, Saskatchewan held a 10-4 lead and were in complete control of the game. During the halftime speech, Malawsky told his players to trust and believe in each other. The Riggers responded to their coach and promptly scored six goals in a row to tie the game. The teams would trade goals down the stretch but it was the Rush holding a 12-11 lead late in the game. Once again, the home team rallied and managed to find a way to tie it up with only 59 seconds left.
Although the Roughnecks eventually lost that game in overtime, it marked a turning point in the season and led to a passionate post-game interview from the head coach.
“We talked about trust, we talked about belief, we talked about playing together,” said Malawsky. “I understand more than anybody that it’s a performance based business, but I’d be an idiot to stand up here and hang our heads after a game like that. You battle and you compete like that, you have to take that as a turning point in the season.”
Following that emotional game, another major piece of the puzzle fell into place for Calgary when they traveled to Toronto to face the Rock. It marked the first career start for goaltender Christian Del Bianco and the young net minder didn’t disappoint. He won that game and usurped Frankie Scigliano as Calgary’s starter for the remainder of the season. He posted an NLL leading 10.50 GAA and .793 save percentage, but most importantly helped his team go 7-5 in their last 12 games.
On the offensive side of the ball, Calgary came into the season with a solid mix of veterans and young talent. However, with the departure of Jeff Shattler and the late signing of Wes Berg, the Roughnecks struggled to find chemistry early. Despite the slow start and intense scrutiny, Calgary forwards stuck to the process and the offense ultimately found their groove. Second-year leftie Holden Cattoni had a break-out season with 76 points, a 50- point improvement over his rookie year. Berg continued his rise up the ranks of elite offensive players as he put up 86 points and Riley Loewen added a career best 46 points from the crease position. Rookie Tyler Pace showed potential when given the chance to come out the front gate and registered 19 points in his first NLL season.
The heart and soul of Calgary’s offence continued to be assistant captains Dane Dobbie and Curtis Dickson. In his 11th season with the Roughnecks, Dobbie became the club’s all-time scoring leader, surpassing Jeff Shattler’s 684 points. The battle-hardened forward finished with 85 points, his third-highest career total.
Ever since Shawn Evans was traded three years ago, Curtis Dickson has led the Roughnecks in scoring. “Superman” tallied 47 times while adding 45 assists for a total of 92 points. His one handed behind-the-back goal against Dillon Ward of the Mammoth on March 10 was yet another jaw dropping moment from the 29-year-old Port Coquitlam native.
On the back end, second-year defensive coach Rob Williams really hit his stride. With the Roughnecks making a concentrated effort to improve their transition game, Williams was able to transform his unit into an athletic two-way team. Standout rookie Zach Currier had an immediate impact in every area of the floor including leading the league in loose balls. His chemistry with Tyson Bell and Mitch Wilde produced instant results that were an unexpected but much welcomed bright spot for the team. Led by captain Dan MacRae, the Roughnecks’ defense finished fourth in the league, allowing an average of 11.72 goals per game—an improvement of 0.5 goals per game over 2017.
With consistent play in the final two thirds of the season, the Roughnecks erased their slow start and clinched a spot in the NLL playoffs. The Western Division semi-finals were in Denver against a familiar playoff opponent. The Colorado Mammoth finished ahead of the Roughnecks in the standings and had taken two of the three regular season contests. Colorado was ready to play and promptly scored six in a row. By halftime, the lead was 7-3 for the Mammoth as they looked to close out the Roughnecks in the second half. Facing adversity, just as they had on January 27, the Riggers refused to quit and stormed back scoring 12 goals in the final two quarters to win 15-12.
The Roughnecks season came to an end on May 13 in Saskatoon. In a hard-fought game contested until the final whistle, the Saskatchewan Rush defeated Calgary 15-13 to advance to the NLL Championship. Saskatchewan proved again to be the class of the west and a team that Calgary will aspire to beat if they want any chance at future playoff success.
The Calgary Roughnecks and their fans can view the 2018 season as a critical step forward for the organization. The old saying, “you have to lose before you can win,” summarizes the year that was and lends optimism towards the future. With trust, determination and belief in each other already instilled in them by coach Malawsky, the 2019 season has the potential to be a break out year for the Calgary Roughnecks.