NLL Season in Review: Saskatchewan Rush

Most teams would consider finishing the regular season in first place to be a success, especially after a bit of upheaval in the organization. But most teams aren’t the Saskatchewan Rush.

The 2019 season saw the Rush miss the NLL finals for the first time since 2015 when they won their very first title while still located in Edmonton. This year they were bounced from the postseason in the first round, when the Colorado Mammoth took them out in overtime, 11-10. But in a year where the team struggled on a semi-regular basis, this outcome shouldn’t have been too surprising.

The Rush stumbled out of the gate, dropping a 12-11 decision to the New England Black Wolves in their season opener, but they followed up with three straight wins to get themselves back on track.

That’s where the inconsistency kicked in as they then lost their next three, including a 17-12 drubbing by their arch-rivals, the Calgary Roughnecks. At home, in front of a Saskatchewan crowd, no less.

And that pretty much summed up their season—win a couple, lose a couple. When all was said and done. their 11-7 record was good enough to take the division crown in the regular season, but they certainly didn’t look like the 14-4 squad who won it all in 2018. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a Rush squad with a worse record.

A significant drop-off in offensive performance seems to be a big part of the equation, in spite of having basically the same unit coming out the front door. Ironically, the thing that killed their offense may have been the absence of two key defencemen—Jeff Cornwall and Ryan Dilks.

For those who don’t know this, lacrosse players generally aren’t paid enough to make it a true career, so most of them hold down regular jobs to pay the bills. In the case of Dilks and Cornwall, they are both firefighters in their probationary periods who simply weren’t able to take weekends off to play “professional” sports.

While neither Dilks nor Cornwall post flashy numbers, they are both athletic, energetic, and fit extremely well into the Saskatchewan defensive system. Their abilities to scoop loose balls and turn the ball up the floor quickly were missed in 2019—the team lost almost two goals a game of offense with them gone, while they only gave up six more goals year-over-year.

Getting those two players back for the 2020 season could very easily turn the team’s fortunes around in one fell swoop.

Highlight of the season

Mark Matthews. (Photo credit: Cliff McCaig)

Mark Matthews’ play has to be considered the highlight of the season. He became just the second player in NLL history to record five consecutive 100-point seasons, demonstrating a level of consistency that elevates the Rush offense every time he steps on the floor.

While his overall output was down slightly from 2018 (105 points in 2019, compared to 116 in 2018), he scored 41 goals—his highest total since 2015—and he had a career-best shooting percentage of .201. Additionally, he turned the ball over just 55 times, the fewest since his rookie season in 2013, and picked up 70 loose balls, the second-highest total of his career.

Matthews continues to show himself to be the centrepiece of the franchise and an almost certain lock for the Hall of Fame when he decides to hang ’em up. Easily the MVP of a very good team, he’s the proverbial straw that stirs the drink.

Biggest disappointment

Obviously, the biggest disappointment of the season has to be Saskatchewan’s early exit from the playoffs. The last time the Rush missed the championship game was 2014 when Calgary knocked them off in the Division Finals. Four straight trips to the finals—with three trophies to go along with it—is an extremely high standard for any franchise and anything less has to be considered a failure.

The Rush will certainly be seeking a deeper playoff run for next season.

Possible expansion draft losses

Saskatchewan will lose a couple players in the upcoming expansion draft to the new Rochester Knighthawks and New York Riptide. And withthe depth of talent on the team, they’ll be a couple quality players.

Forwards Jeff Shattler, Curtis Knight, and Matthew Dinsdale were all left off the protected list. Shattler is of an age where it seems unlikely for him to get selected. But eastern-born sniper Knight might be a target for an expansion team.

On the other end of the floor, after performing admirably while filling in for an injured Evan Kirk, Adam Shute might get a close look by a team looking for a reliable goaltender. Also left available are faceoff specialist Jeremy Thompson, defenceman Scott Campbell, and tough guy defender Nic Bilic. Brothers Jeff and Travis Cornwall were left unprotected, but both are BC kids, so getting picked to go east seems unlikely—espcially so for Jeff who just lost a season to his day-to-day job and probably won’t want to jeopardize it with that big a change of scenery for the lacrosse season.

2020 outlook

Assuming Jeff Cornwall and Ryan Dilks are back—and that the rest of the core remains intact after the expansion draft—this is a team that could easily bounce back to form for the 2020 season. Their depth at every position is arguably the best in the NLL and they’ll probably get better again after the entry draft (general manager/head coach Derek Keenan has shown a real knack for getting the most out of the draft year after year).

So don’t be too surprised if the Rush take another run at the championship next season.