NLL: Halifax Thunderbirds roster taking shape for 2022-23

Halifax, Nova Scotia – Apr 01, 2022: National Lacrosse League game between the Halifax Thunderbirds and Rochester Knighthawks at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

At the end of the second quarter of their 2022 quarterfinal, the Halifax Thunderbirds appeared to be done. They were trailing the Toronto Rock 9-3, and it was all but certain that Toronto would move on. But the Thunderbirds turned it on in the second half and tied the game at 13 to send it to overtime. However, they couldn’t complete the comeback, and Challen Rogers scored to end the Thunderbirds’ season. 

The game was a microcosm of Halifax’s year, but in reverse. The Thunderbirds started the season red hot, winning eight out of their first nine games. However, they dropped six of their next nine. Consistency was an issue for the team all season. Even when they were winning, Halifax would play well for some of the game but drop off a bit to give the opposing team a chance to get back in. 

Even with the rocky way the season ended, it’s easy to forget that Halifax had the third-best record in the league last year. They were a formidable team that led the league in shots for and allowed the third-fewest. 

Halifax’s offence was good last year, finishing seventh in goals per game. However, they struggled to find chemistry, usually needing a big game from someone to carry their offence instead of everyone chipping in. This resulted in the team shipping out Kyle Jackson and Stephan Leblanc and bringing in Shawn Evans and Dawson Theede. Both Evans and Theede played well but didn’t move the needle.

Halifax addressed their need for more firepower this off-season by acquiring Randy Staats and signing former Thunderbird Ryan Benesch. These two add to a deep Thunderbirds forward group. It’s a good mix of quality veterans like Cody Jamieson, Stephen Keogh, Rhys Duch, Staats and Benesch, combined with young talents like Clarke Petterson, Austin Shanks, Chris Boushy and Eric Fannell. They lost Evans to the Vancouver Warriors in free agency.

There are a few questions with Halifax’s offence. The first is: can they drastically improve the power play, which was dead last in the league last year. Another question mark is, how does the team balance the right and left sides? The right side is ridiculously deep with Staats, Petterson, Shanks, Boushy, Keogh, Duch and Connor Watson. It’s doubtful that there’s enough room for all of them. The left side can use some depth. They lost Brandon Robinson in free agency, and Dawson Theede might be in and out of the line-up if he decides to play hockey at Saint Mary’s University again this season. They added Bo BowHunter with their first-round pick at the 2022 draft to help with left-side depth. 

Halifax had a good defence last year. They gave up the sixth fewest goals per game, allowed the third-fewest shots per game, and had three of the top five games in the league for grabbing loose balls. Like the power play, their penalty killing was no good, finishing third-last. 

The Thunderbirds took a bit of a hit on defence during the off-season. Scott Campbell retired and became their assistant general manager. David Brock and Brad Gillies left in free agency, and James Barclay was claimed by Las Vegas in the expansion draft. But they are in good shape even with the departures. They still have the three-time defensive player of the year Graeme Hossack, face-off and loose ball wizard Jake Withers, transition threat Tyson Bell, and the emerging Colton Armstrong. Halifax will also elevate the roles of Ryan Terefenko, Luc Magnan, Nonkon Thompson and Trevor Smyth around them. They signed their 2021 first-round pick Max Wilson and drafted Jerry Staats in the second round last year, which will help with depth. 

With the incredible depth of the team’s right-shot forwards, don’t be surprised if the Thunderbirds trade one of them to increase depth for their left-shot forwards or defence. 

In goal, the tandem of Warren Hill and Aaron Bold stays the same. Like the team, Hill had an inconsistent year last season. He was great during the first eight games, having a save percentage of .810. Hill missed a win against Vancouver due to being placed on the COVID list, and he struggled when he came back, finishing with a .728 save percentage in his final eight games. He’s been excellent for most of his tenure as Thunderbird, so it’s safe to assume he will bounce back. Aaron Bold was dependable as the backup last year, winning both games he started.

The Thunderbirds should roll into next season with a veteran team once again. Their offence is more dangerous, and their defence and goaltending should be solid. If they fix their consistency, special teams and offensive chemistry issues, they will be serious contenders for the NLL Cup.