The 2018 season is probably one the Vancouver Stealth would just as soon forget.
Winning a franchise-worst two games, the Stealth struggled all year long to find any momentum. Losing three one-goal games must have added to the frustration.
Injuries plagued the team all season long, with players such as Joel McCready, Tye Belanger, Chris O’Dougherty, Travis Cornwall, Justin Salt, Peter McFetridge and Cliff Smith missing time along the way. A total of 30 players saw time with the Stealth in 2018. leaving the roster in a permanent state of flux, making consistent performance difficult.
Belanger’s absence may have been the hardest of all. After a 2017 campaign that saw him post career highs in wins (7) and save percentage (.796), it was expected that Belanger could finally provide steady, quality goaltending on a team that had been searching for it for a couple seasons. Instead, Belanger wound up out of commission for two months and had a terrible year when he could play. In eight appearances, he went 0-3 with a 19.68 goals against average and a .663 save percentage. He only had two games where his performance could be considered good—on December 29 he stopped 28 of 35 shots in 43 minutes of action against the New England Black Wolves; on April 13 he saved 10 of 13 shots in just over 12 minutes of play against the Saskatchewan Rush.
The rest of the goaltending squad was no better. Eric Penny took the bulk of the minutes, earning the team’s two wins. His 14.55 GAA was the worst in the NLL for qualifying goalies. Brodie McDonald was slightly better (13.51 GAA) in limited action, but not enough to earn regular playing time.
Overall, the Stealth gave up 277 goals, the worst total in the league by 35—almost two goals per game worse than the New England Black Wolves (242).
With the weakest netminding in the league, Vancouver’s offence needed to be much better. Instead, they struggled as well. After averaging 92 points a year in his first nine seasons in the NLL, Rhys Duch had the worst year of his career, scoring only 19 times (his previous worst was 33) and adding only 46 assists for 65 points. Corey Small led the team with 77 points after a huge 111-point season. Logan Schuss also posted a career-worst with just 62 points.
Pretty much across the board, offensive numbers were down for the Stealth, resulting in the worst offensive production in the NLL at 186 goals for.
So now it is time to start rebuilding for next year, although it might not be easy. First, they’re going to have to surrender a couple players in the upcoming expansion draft for the Philadelphia Wings and San Diego Seals. This might not be too painful for them, but restocking the roster after that might be a challenge if they hope to do anything in the entry draft—they don’t have a pick until the third round.
Likely, the team will make some changes via trades and free agency. Players with some trade value like Duch or veteran defenceman Andrew Suitor might be shopped around to stockpile draft picks or to get a couple younger players with potential. They might try to snag a free agent like Brad Self or Kyle Buchanan. And don’t be shocked if head coach Jamie Batley doesn’t make it to the 2019 season.
The good news is that things will almost certainly get better if they simply avoid the injury bug. If Belanger plays a healthy, full season, he should return to being at least a middle-of-the-pack goalie. There’s no reason to believe that Smalls and Schuss can’t bounce back. And some of the younger guys, like Tony Malcom have some good upside. Those factors alone should result in an overall improvement in their results. Also, having a couple of expansion teams out there to compete against should provide them with a few more opportunities for wins.
But don’t expect the Stealth to become contenders for the NLL Cup overnight—it might still take a couple years for this team to make the playoffs again.