Lerch: Changes signal new era for Cannons

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By Bruce Lerch

New faces, new look, new home…new era?

It has been a busy offseason for the Boston Cannons to say the least. The longtime face of the franchise, as well as Major League Lacrosse, is no longer playing in Boston. The team itself is no longer playing within the confines of Boston, at least for the upcoming season.

New uniforms are on the way, and thanks to a bushel of draft picks acquired through a number of offseason trades, a number of new faces will be filling them.

Change is difficult, but change can also be a good thing. Let’s break down some of the major changes the Cannons have undergone, both on and off the field.

REMAKING THE ROSTER

The Cannons logo appears on the Gillette Stadium video board for the first time (photo credit: Bruce Lerch)

The Cannons pulled off certified blockbuster of a deal, trading two-time MLL MVP Paul Rabil and two-time All-Star Mike Stone to the New York Lizards in exchange for veteran midfielder Max Seibald, defenseman Brian Karalunas, first and second round picks in the 2016 collegiate draft and another first-rounder for 2017.

The Cannons then dealt Karalunas to Ohio in exchange for defenseman Chad Wiedmaier and the Machine’s top pick in this year’s collegiate draft, No. 5 overall. A month ago, the team acquired attackman Ryan Young (an MLL All-Star in 2013) from Charlotte for a second round draft pick. Monday, the team also traded for veteran goalie Adam Ghitelman. The Cannons also added (or in some cases, returned) a number of faces through the supplemental draft and, barring any other major moves, will add several more through the collegiate draft on Jan. 23.

The team also said goodbye to veterans Ryan Boyle and Stephen Berger, both of whom retired during the offseason, as well as midfielder Matt Poskay, who was taken by New York in the supplemental draft.

The Rabil trade, simply put, is huge. This is the universally recognized “best player in the world” and Rabil has been a staple of the Cannons both on and off the field since being drafted out of Johns Hopkins with the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 as the centerpiece of the franchise not only on the field, but off of it as well as the fulcrum of the Cannons marketing strategies. He also was a main contributor to Boston’s lone MLL championship in 2011

Trades are often made in MLL for different reasons than on other sports. Because most players in the league maintain full-time employment in the real world, they often request to play for teams located near their jobs and homes. While Rabil has managed to make lacrosse his fulltime gig and his home is in the Baltimore area, rumors dating back to the end of last season suggest that he was in fact the driving force behind the move. It should be noted that neither the Cannons nor Rabil himself have confirmed these rumors on the record.

When New York found out that the Cannons were shopping Rabil (presumably to Chesapeake), Lizards head coach Joe Spallina put together a package that the Cannons simply couldn’t refuse. That package is reminiscent of an NFL deal in which the Dallas Cowboys built a 1990s dynasty by dealing Herschel Walker to Minnesota for players and a haul of draft picks.

Boston now has four of the top 19 picks in this year’s collegiate draft, plus the extra picks acquired for the next two years. Given the team’s recent successes in the draft – notably Scott Ratliff and Will Manny in 2013 and Scott McWilliams last year – there is a reasonable expectation that these picks will be put to good use.

There is also the possibility that some of those picks may be used to continue acquire proven veterans that will help trend toward the franchise’s one true goal of winning MLL titles.

A NEW HOME IN 2015

Cannons General manager Kevin Barney announces the move to Gillette Stadium (photo credit: Bruce Lerch).

Impending construction plans at Harvard Stadium scheduled for the summer left the Cannons in need of a home for the upcoming season. In stepped Gillette Stadium, who has plenty of experience with lacrosse, having hosted the NCAA Mens Championship three times in addition to a number of other lacrosse events.

Boston will play five of its seven home games on Sundays, working around Saturday matches on many of those weekends for the New England Revolution.

You can also point to the various venue changes – from Cawley Stadium to Nickerson Field to Harvard Stadium and now Gillette –  made by the Cannons through the years as a symbol of lacrosse’s growth in the region.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal. For starters, Gillette Stadium should provide a pleasant alternative for fans in the suburbs, as well as those in Rhode Island and possibly eastern parts of Connecticut, who found traveling to Cambridge less than appealing. Even those coming from the northern parts of the state will find travel on 495 far easier than dealing with the Expressway and taking 95/128 toward Boston.

The typical events of a Cannons gameday experience will not change; in fact, they may be enhanced. Youth teams will still be able to play before home games, there will be plenty more room for tailgaiting and access to both parking and seating will be eons easier. Cannons and Gillette Stadium executives, as well as several players, have all said that enhancing the fan experience is one of the major benefits of this move.

Let’s not forget how it will affect the players too. Only one team, Denver, in MLL plays in a professional stadium similar to Gillette, and that experience is not lost on the players.

“For me personally, that game last year in Mile High Stadium, that was the first game I played in out there and what an experience that was,” Cannons midfielder Martin Bowes said during the team’s media event at Gillette Stadium Tuesday. “It was the July Fourth game, they had the fireworks afterwards, I think they had near 30,000 fans for that game. It really made me feel like a professional athlete.”

In a league where players still have to maintain full time jobs and practices generally only occur within a 24-hour window of each week’s games, being able to achieve a level of “feeling like a professional athlete” will go a long way.

THE VERDICT

Cannons jerseys hanging in the Gillette Stadium locker room (photo credit: Bruce Lerch).

While Rabil’s greatness is not being argued, the fact remains that the franchise won just one MLL title with (and without) his services. In years past there may have been a tendency for players to stand around and wait for Rabil to make something happen, whereas now, a number of different players will have the chance to step up, many of whom are hungry for such an opportunity.

Seibald will help the fill the void left by Rabil in the midfield and when healthy can be one of the top talents in the sport. The team is hopeful for big contributions from Young and Wiedmaier is a solid addition to a defense that has been gotten much younger the last two years. Ghitelman, who is also an assistant coach at Harvard, is a strong backup to starting goalie Jordan Burke.

The Cannons can also expect players such as Manny and Kevin Buchanan to take on starring roles even bigger than they already have been, and Manny in particular has quickly become a player that the team’s younger fans gravitate toward off the field. All-time great defenseman Brodie Merrill assumed a leadership role from the minute he set foot in Boston last year, which alleviates any worries about the loss of so many veterans from the locker room.

“I do think that we’re going to be, not just because of the moves form this trade, but also through retirement, that we’re going to be different,” Cannons coach John Tucker said on Wednesday’s conference call announcing the Rabil trade. “I was happier with the way we defended last year. Even though I felt it was still not a championship level defensive group, I thought we improved a great deal from the year before. I think we cut that number down by more than 30 goals overall.

Our goals and our goals for were effectively even so I think the cultural shift will occur through the acquisition of younger guys and our locker room because we’re just going to be a lot younger. On average, our team will be 25-26 years old at the high end and lower.”

Playing in Gillette Stadium, even if just for one year, should bring new fans to the team and the sport, as well as changing the gameday climate for the current loyalists for the better. And while the current plans have Boston returning to Harvard, who has been a terrific home for lacrosse, next year, who knows? If things go well enough, Gillette Stadium could become the team’s permanent home.

What the team does with all of its draft picks will tell the ultimate tale but for now, on paper, change certainly seems like a good thing for the Boston Cannons.

Bruce Lerch is the Editor-in-Chief of BostonLax.net.