For the past five Western Lacrosse Association seasons, the Maple Ridge Burrards, New Westminster Salmonbellies and Victoria Shamrocks have all made the Senior A lacrosse league’s playoff round.
That has left the remaining four teams – the Langley Thunder, Burnaby Lakers, Coquitlam Adanacs and Nanaimo Timbermen — to battle it out for the last post-season berth.
And Langley Thunder head coach Rod Jensen has no doubt in his mind that judging by those three teams’ off-season moves, they are loading up for another run at both the WLA title and the right to host this September’s Mann Cup.
“I am a realist, this league is going to be very tough this year, but I am optimistic we can build on the last couple of years,” said Jensen, who returned to the team in 2018 for his second stint behind the bench.
The Thunder showed great strides last season, increasing their win total from four to seven games as they went 7-10-1.
“We were inconsistent. We were very young – and are still young – so we are going to have some difficulties,” he admitted. “If we can play consistent, we are going to have some success. And if we can’t then we are going to have some problems.”
One area which will need addressing is the team’s record away from Langley Events Centre. At home, the Thunder were great, posting a 6-2-1 record. But as the visitor, the team struggled at 1-8. And winning at home is key for any team’s success as the three clubs who missed the playoffs combined to go 2-15-1 as the visitors.
Offensively, Langley boasted the league’s third-most potent attack, averaging 10.17 goals per game. A large part of their offensive success was a potent power-play which clicked at 46.58 per cent, second-best in the league.
Tyler Pace and Connor Robinson – the top overall picks in 2017 and 2018 respectively — are back and expected to build on solid rookie seasons.
Pace won the WLA Ed Bayley Memorial Trophy as top rookie following a 30-goal, 65-point season, leading the Thunder in assists and points. Robinson was third on the team with 22 goals and 51 points.
Each player anchors one side of the floor on offence with Garrett Billings, Aidan Milburn and James Rahe also on the right-side alongside Pace, while Robinson is joined by Dane Dobbie, Andrew Garant and the Thunder’s first round pick in 2019, Brad McCulley.
Billings and Dobbie suited up in six games apiece in 2018 with Dobbie scoring 16 goals and 35 points over that stretch and Billings tallying 18 assists and 23 points.
Billings is signed for the upcoming WLA season while Dobbie is expected to join the team at some point. He is currently with the National Lacrosse League’s Calgary Roughnecks playing for the NLL Cup and is coming off an MVP-calibre season where he set career highs with 47 goals, 68 assists and 115 points in 18 games. He led the league in the latter two categories and finished just one goal back of leading in goals scored as well.
Pace will also be absent from the Thunder for the start of the season as he is also on the Calgary roster.
Milburn (10 goals, 19 points in 13 games) and Garant (seven goals, 21 points in 12 games) will look to build on their rookie seasons with increased roles in their sophomore seasons while Rahe looks to bounce back to his 2017 form when he scored 24 goals and 47 points in 17 games. Those numbers dropped to eight goals and 21 points in a dozen games last year.
McCulley scored 88 goals and 202 points over three seasons (54 games) in the BCJALL with the Victoria Shamrocks and Jensen is excited about the left-hander’s athleticism.
While those players will be tasked with carrying the lion’s share of the offence, the job of coming up with the clutch save will come down to a trio of goaltenders: Jake Sundar, Steve Fryer and Dan Lewis.
Sundar handled the bulk of the goaltending duties in 2018, appearing in 11 games where he went 4-5 with a 10.62 goals against average and a .793 save percentage.
Just how important is goaltending? The league average save percentage was .802 and all four playoff clubs were above that mark and the three who failed to qualify, below.
While Sundar played well in his rookie season, he will battle a couple of veterans for playing time in the crease. Fryer returns to Langley (he was with the team in 2012) from Major Series Lacrosse and has also been in the NLL the past two seasons with the Colorado Mammoth.
The third netminder is Lewis, an off-season acquisition from the Coquitlam Adanacs. In 2018, Lewis was fifth in the league with 437 saves while posting an .802 save percentage and 10.40 goals against average for Coquitlam as the team finished a league-worst 2-16.
And Jensen feels that trio will make a difference as Langley looks to improve defensively.
“I think that is going to make us a stronger defensive team. I think that is going to the backbone of our team,” he said.
The defence and transition game sees the return of Kai McDonald, Cody Teichroeb, Jake Taylor, Reece Callies, Preston Lupul, Brodie Porter, Tanner Rennich and Ryan Sinkie, although Callies is away to start as he wraps up the NLL Cup with Calgary.
Joining McCulley as first-year players on the Langley roster will be Dalton Lupul, Dylan Kinnear, Tanner Riley and Brandon Del Grosso, while previous Thunder players Brandon Bull and Markus Mattila are back for a second round with the Thunder after spending a couple of seasons away.
Following a two-game road trip, the Thunder home opener is set for Wednesday, May 29, against the Burnaby Lakers.
It will be a Celebration of Langley Lacrosse with the Langley Minor Lacrosse teams invited to attend the game and take part in a pre-game skills clinic. The Langley A&W will be serving up Root Beer Floats with all proceeds benefiting KidSport Langley.
Game time is 7:30 p.m. and for tickets, click here.
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