While the 2020 National Lacrosse League regular season was recently retired due to the entire world being put on pause, the pandemic can't prevent us from shining a spotlight on the spectacular performances players put on over the past handful of months.
As part of USBOXLA.com’s Best in Box series, we checked in with 65 players from across the NLL (five active players from every one of the league’s 13 teams) and asked them who this past season’s absolute best were in a ton of different categories. We also picked their brains about future expansion, the NLL Hall of Fame, the Premier Lacrosse League, plus more.
There were a few rules, however, largely to keep things as fair as possible. Participating players could not vote for themselves, for a current NLL teammate or coach, or their own team for the few franchise-specific questions that came up.
Players could submit as many as three names max for any one question if they felt a player (or other response depending on the category) was deserving. Most did.
Responses were 100% anonymous, allowing players to vote freely without the worry of being chirped for their honest opinions, unless they themselves decided to publicizes that they took part of course.
A range of players were included too: American players, Canadian players, Native players, forwards, defenders, goalies, players that have played more than a decade, those that have played less than a decade, and even a handful of rookies. We tried our best to ensure the pool of players taking part represented the NLL’s current locker-room landscape as closely as possible.
So, below are names you’d expect, some that will surprise you, those that are regularly celebrated, and many that are long overdue for recognition. Agree, disagree or otherwise, the players in the league have spoken (we also mentioned the "next five" top vote getters listed in order of votes received). Here is USBOXLA’s 2020 NLL Player Poll…
Callum Crawford, New England Black Wolves (Photo: New England Black Wolves/Khoi Ton)
Winner: Callum Crawford (New England)
Callum Crawford appeared on over 60% of possible player ballots and had a full 15 votes more than the next nearest player, Vancouver’s Mitch Jones. After last year’s suspension likely cost him the NLL’s MVP nod, it looks like the pandemic will do the same a season later – unless the league does end up handing out individual hardware. In a recent NLL interview, Crawford admitted to not even knowing how to set a seal when taking part in the Calgary Roughnecks’ 2006 training camp. To go from that to the pro player he is today might make Crawford the NLL’s all-time greatest success story. His willingness and dedication to constantly push the creativity envelope, dynamic change of direction, unique shooting angles, and maybe most impressive of all, his next-level IQ, has allowed Crawford to do things offensively this year that had just never been done before in any arena, from any era, by anyone. He was most definitely most valuable in 2020.
Winner: Tyson Gibson (New York)
The league’s 2019 first overall pick largely lived up to the hype, not always an easy feat in an expansion environment. Sure, a first-year franchise provides the opportunity to do more, but not always much else in way of additional support. New York’s Tyson Gibson led the expansion Riptide in assists and points, was their biggest power-play punch, and even held down a pretty impressive loose-ball tally. Needless to say, he was the only rookie to rank that high on his team’s statistical 2020 totals. With that said, the Riptide’s rook finished just a single vote ahead of New England’s Andrew Kew, and even Halifax’s Clarke Petterson was just five votes behind Gibson. The players taking part in the poll nominated twelve different rookies. While this year’s first-year pros might not have come into the season as highly regarded as other recent regular season classes, their impact this year was certainly significant.
Tyson Gibson, New York Riptide (Photo: New York Riptide/Alex McIntyre)
Winner: Dillon Ward (Colorado)
A handful of disgruntled Mammoth fans might had tried to get the #tradeward hashtag humming earlier this year (and honestly, current and former teammates jumping in for simply the comedy of it was what kept it going), but today’s pro players know Dillon Ward’s real worth. Along with Ward, Zach Higgins and Doug Jamieson all appeared on about half of the submitted surveys. With the Mammoth getting younger in recent years, it’s been Ward’s consistent, crafty and composed play between the pipes that kept Colorado relevant in 2020, the Mammoth sitting second in the West Division behind only the always successful Saskatchewan Rush. Nine of the league’s 13 teams had a vote cast for their keeper.
Graeme Hossack, Halifax Thunderbirds (Photo: Halifax Thunderbirds)
Winner: Graeme Hossack (Halifax)
As defensively outstanding as all the players are above, this one wasn’t even close. Graeme Hossack, whose name appears in the NLL Player Poll more than anyone else, was again, a defensive dynamo this year. Halifax’s Hossack is a freak of an athlete, is as crushing and he is cunning, and has virtually all the other required tools to be the league’s most complete defensive package. And while appreciated for his defensive ability in this question, he was a legitimate contender in the offensive defenseman category too. When was the last time an NLL defenseman was as respected and revered for what he did on D, on O and everywhere in between, especially at the high-performing level Hossack has operated at? Hmmm, Brodie Merrill obviously comes to mind, but Hossack's pure defensive ability has already landed him two to Merrill's one Defensive Player of the Year nods. So how many? Maybe none. He truly is that good - a frightening thought, because Hoss has yet to hit his prime.
Winner: Challen Rogers (Toronto)
Jim Veltman, Brodie Merrill, and now Challen Rogers. The Rock’s new defensive leader may not be at Veltman’s or Merrill’s legendary level just yet, but Toronto’s captain is definitely next in line to fill their iconic kicks. All three are tall, athletic, smart, and superb on the press, Rogers sitting fourth in Rock scoring this season, all while playing a bulk of his minutes behind centre. Last year’s NLL Transition Player of the Year, players picked Rogers to win it again a year later, while Calgary’s Zach Currier, a TPOY finalist the last two seasons (Joey Cupido won it in 2018), was eight votes shy of Challen here. And in just his second season with the Calgary Roughnecks, Steel City speedster Shane Simpson has impressed his peers enough for them to inject his name into this category’s convo too. High praise for the high-impact up-and-comer.
Challen Rogers, Toronto Rock (Photo: Ryan McCullough)
Winner: Shayne Jackson (Georgia)
It would have been easy for players to simply look at the goal scoring race and vote for either Callum Crawford or Rob Hellyer. Two deserving players that sat first and second in the goal column, but it’s pretty interesting that Shayne Jackson (third in league goal scoring) jumped them both in this category. Take a further look at the scoring charts, and you’d notice that Jackson’s shooting percentage just pops off the page in comparison to the league’s other top goal-getters. His .214 is the best of anyone in the league’s Top 20 goal scorers. Only Cody Jamieson (7th in league scoring) and Jordan McBride (tied for 12th) are above that .200 threshold from those same potent point-producing pro players. He was on pace for a career best 47 goals this year, but the smart money was definitely on Jackson topping 50. His string of hat-tricks in the Swarm’s first seven games (a new NLL record), probably didn’t hurt his goal-scoring stock this year either.
Winner: Lyle Thompson (Georgia)
Sure, there are A LOT of wickedly talented offensive wizards in the league right now, and the responses for this question were most definitely not one sided by any means, but honestly, how do you compete with Lyle Thompson...
Winner: Mark Matthews (Saskatchewan)
Although he’s been a 30+ goal scorer his entire career, since setting the single season standard for assists a few seasons back, Mark Matthews has gained a rep as being the pro game’s best playmaker too. And clearly, today’s NLL players agree. His helpers/game average this year likely would have seen him challenging for that assist crown during the 2020 campaign had the pandemic not wiped out the rest of the regular season. The powerful yet precise playmaker took this category pretty easily, owning nearly 20 more votes than Georgia’s Lyle Thompson.
Winner: Holden Cattoni (Rochester)
Back in the day, Cory Bomberry could rip it heavier than anyone. There were a few others that would whip at a crazy-high speed, but Bomberry's outside bombs were the best. He won this category many times when similar polls were run over a decade ago, typically by a pretty hefty margin. Today, Rochester’s Holden Cattoni has earned that honor, owning more than double the number of votes than the next nearest NLLer. Leading the expansion Knighthawks (still weird to say) in goals and points, the fire-flinging Cattoni was on pace to match career best offensive numbers this year too, highlighted by a filthy five-goal effort in Toronto against a very good Rock side.
Steve Priolo, Buffalo Bandits (Photo: Buffalo Bandits)
Winner: Steve Priolo (Buffalo)
This was a pretty hotly contested question, with players popping up in the top spot all throughout the poll process. Buffalo captain, Steve Priolo, ended up snagging six more votes than former dance partner, Andrew Suitor, to be named the league’s toughest. In fact, although fighting is far from as regular an occurrence in today’s NLL as it was several seasons ago, most of the names up top have had some pretty memorable scraps between one another (hit up YouTube if that’s your thing). The other thing to note about each top vote getter; all six vets are also outstanding in their field, are legit locker-room leaders, and some even with a C sewn on their sweater.
Winner: Shane Simpson (Calgary)
He got props earlier in the poll when players voted him one of this past season’s top offensive-minded defenders, and likely a big reason for that is that uber-athlete Shane Simpson is ridiculously fast racing up the floor on Calgary’s potent press. He grew up watching Toronto Rock speed demon, Steve Toll, and now, well, Simpson is pretty much today’s Toll. His offensive stats have all for the most part doubled since his rookie season in 2019, and the potential he’s shown at the pro level has been impressive to say the least. Will he be another expansion draft selection for a future franchise? Gotta believe moving forward Shane Simpson will be protected at all costs.
Winner: Jake Withers (Halifax)
One vote fittingly separated face-off phenoms Jake Withers and Trevor Baptiste. The two dot dominators received more votes for a single question than any other player in any other category. Last year, Baptiste beat Withers in their lone regular season meeting at the middle of the floor. A season later (this year), Withers (.781) had a reasonably significant lead over Baptiste (.732) in their end-of-season statistical totals. With still so much of their careers ahead of them, the face-off rivalry between these two could end up being pretty lively, lengthy and legendary.
Winner: Matt Rambo (Philadelphia)
Matt Rambo registered a really strong rookie season in 2019. He took it up a notch in 2020, and clearly his fellow NLLers noticed. The Philadelphia fan fave had either already bettered or was one pace to push past every single stat from a season ago. He rocked his first sock-trick (six goals in one game) in a ridiculous effort against the New England Black Wolves in their own barn. Plus, without a single second spent in the sin bin, you’d have to think Rambo was a frontrunner for the league’s Sportsmanship Award in 2020 too. The fact that 15 different Americans received a vote in this category, and upwards of double that number competed in the NLL this year, is significant. During the 2016 NLL regular season, just 13 Americans total played in the box big leagues, some with just a few appearances that winter. With 400 American collegiate roster spots available in National Collegiate Box Series leagues in Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio and New York this summer, the surge of state-side players going pro indoors surely won’t slow down anytime soon.
Those 13 dedicated and determined American players from 2016, about half of which still play in the league today, included: Mitch Belisle, Kevin Buchanan, Greg Downing, David Earl, Ryan Hotaling, Mike Manley, Brett Manney, Brian Megill, Chris O’Dougherty, John Ranagan, Joe Resetaritis, Joe Walters and Joel White.
Trevor Baptiste and Matt Rambo, Philadelphia Wings (Photo: Alex McIntyre)
Winner: Mike Accursi (Halifax)
Next Five: Derek Keenan (Saskatchewan), Glenn Clark (New England), Matt Sawyer (Toronto), Paul Day (Philadelphia) and Curt Malawsky (Calgary)
Although this poll was completely anonymous, we can tell you that the Thunderbirds that took part – even though they couldn’t vote for their own coach – made sure to note how big a difference Mike Accursi and his new staff have made when the franchise flew from Rochester to Halifax this past summer. The rest of the league seemingly took notice too, voting Accursi this years’s best bench boss. Accursi finished a single vote ahead of 4-time Les Bartley Award winner, Derek Keenan, while New England’s Glenn Clark wasn’t far behind either. The creativity, freedom and fun Accursi has shown in a series of tremendous TikToks featuring himself and his adorable daughters dancing while social distancing at home, are the exact traits his T-bird players showcased both on and off the floor this winter. In addition to a spike in the standings, Halifax is easily one of the most exciting teams to watch today, and Accursi unquestionably has a lot to do with that.
Winner: Saskatchewan Rush
Next Five: Halifax Thunderbirds, New England Black Wolves, Toronto Rock, Buffalo Bandits and Georgia Swarm
Even though they owned the league’s highest win percentage (.727), the New England Black Wolves received 22 fewer votes than the Saskatchewan Rush (.700) as this year’s best team. Recent success, reputation and consistency definitely mattered to the players, who overwhelming felt the Rush were this season’s most impressive side. With three NLL Cup wins on their resume over the previous five seasons (2015, 2016 and 2018) and a roster that is always so stupendously stacked at every possible position, it is hard to bet against the Rush. Although they carried the Philadelphia Wings’ trophy-loaded legacy with them to Uncasville, it will likely take a Wolves Cup clinch to win over the rest of the league. Could that have happened this year? With the NLL still hoping to potentially play some sort of postseason, hopefully we’ll find out soon. Although, the Halifax Thunderbirds (.667), who also received more votes than New England, will likely ensure they're involved in that Cup-worthy conversation too.
Winner: San Diego Seals
Next Five: Colorado Mammoth, Saskatchewan Rush, Toronto Rock, Halifax Thunderbirds and Calgary Roughnecks
Sunny skies, no snow, and the chance to play alongside Austin Staats doesn’t seem too bad, huh? It feels a bit odd for players to want (if they “had to” of course, as some players felt weird answering this one) to play for a franchise in just their second big league season, but with an impressive roster, phenomenal weather, a strong bench, proven front office leadership, and of course Joe Tsai, playing pro lacrosse in San Diego actually sounds better than almost anything. Swap the warm sunbeams for snow squalls and salt stains, and the Colorado Mammoth franchise, who finished second here, check a lot of those boxes too.
The two Steve Govett-built pro box teams also made history this year when they squared off in Sin City, the first-time pro lacrosse has ever been played in Las Vegas.
Next Five: Las Vegas, Winnipeg, Dallas, Montreal and Boston
Two cities garnered most of the attention in this question: Nashville and Las Vegas. The two NHL-loving hot spots appeared on nearly 70% of the surveys players submitted, while larger Canadians cities like Winnipeg, Montreal and Edmonton (finished with seventh most votes) were popular too. Believe it or not, even Peterborough was mentioned three times – an Ontario lacrosse hotbed that regularly supports their Senior ‘A’ side, the Peterborough Lakers, to record-setting heights. While their local arena sits a max of only about four thousand fans, no matter where they sit in the standings, Peterborough would be four thousand strong for every home date. Guaranteed.
Jake Bergey, Tom Carmean, Troy Cordingley, Anthony Cosmo, Colin Doyle, Chris Gill, John Grant, Kevin Finneran, Jay Jalbert, Pat McCready, Mark Millon, Casey Powell, Gavin Prout, Lewis Ratcliff, Billy Dee Smith, Mark Steenhuis, Regy Thorpe or Shawn Williams?
Winner: John Grant
Next Five: Colin Doyle, Shawn Williams, Casey Powell, Anthony Cosmo and Billy Dee Smith
Of the 18 potential NLL Hall of Fame worthy names we included here, 12 captured a vote. With that said, John Grant, Colin Doyle and Shawn Williams were far and away the favorites. With three potential votes available to each player taking part in the poll, more than half submitted those three previously mentioned lacrosse legends on their ballot. The league has not entered a new class into their already extremely exclusive halls since 2016, and arguably every name mentioned above should have already been inducted. Include a handful of coaches, executives and builders that many also mention as future HOFers, and the lineup to get into the NLL’s Hall of Fame is likely as long as the one trying to get into your local grocery store during the pandemic. One of the most amazing aspects of the NLL’s 34-year history is, well, its history. The immensely talented cast of characters listed in this question helped make the league what it is today, and there are dozens upon dozens more that have played as critical a role. Hopefully the next HOF class that receives some much deserved recognition, is a big one.
John Grant and Shawn Williams, Rochester Knighthawks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Winner: Graeme Hossack (Halifax)
While this question received by far the most varying of votes, the one response that was really the only regular… Graeme Hossack. And that endorsement came from goalies, defenders and forwards, likely the same offensive threats that have been swatted away by Hossack’s hard-hitting and hulking frame. It’s also interesting to note that those previously mentioned perturbed Mammoth fans would most likely love it if Dillon Ward was kicked outta Colorado - keep dreaming - the poll's best backstop also a favorite here. And the long-debated question, “Do face-off wins really make much of a difference in the NLL,” was somewhat answered by the poll’s partaking players… yes (see Jake Withers). In total, 32 different names were mentioned for this question, including Jeff Teat, one player pondering what it would take to score the future first overall, generational talent in whatever draft he winds up in.
Winner: Paul Rabil (Atlas)
Honestly, we anticipated Paul Rabil to win this category, which he did with about 30% of the votes, but were shocked with the amount of other PLL players, many of which presumably have never spent a second ripping at a rink, were mentioned. We limited to naming just the “next five” for every other question, but check out who else NLLers want to see indoors (in some cases, again): Brent Adams, Jake Bernhardt, Connor Buczek, Ryan Conrad, Ryan Drenner, Garrett Epple, Michael Ehrhardt, Jake Froccaro, Ryder Garnsey, Justin Guterding, Kyle Harrison, Kyle Hartzell, Will Haus, Marcus Holman, Will Manny, Christian Mazzone, Jack Near, Jarrod Neumann, Rob Pannell, Sergio Perkovic, Ben Reeves, Callum Robinson, Drew Snider and Joe Walters.
Paul Rabil, Philadelphia Wings (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Winner: Logan Schuss (Vancouver)
One of the smarter digital decisions the league has made in recent years was putting a bigger spotlight on players’ social media presence. Endorsing, embracing and encouraging players to let their personalities pop on social has allowed today’s generation of NLL talent to show fans that there’s more to them than the 60 minutes they play on a frigid Friday night in February. Logan Schuss, who also occasionally co-stars socially with his grandmother (aka Granny Beast), kinda ran away with this one. Why? Well…