Gary Gait, Rochester Knighthawks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Over the National Lacrosse League’s three decades of existence, there has been one asset, one constant, one very specific source that has allowed the loop to survive well past the original expiration date it was stamped with back in 1987.
It’s the one thing that the now not so new NLL commissioner Nick Sackiewicz knows he doesn’t need to touch while he attempts to bring this box lacrosse league to previously unattainable heights.
The one thing this league has always had going for it, is the one thing no commissioner, owner or front office staffer has had to stress about. Whether they’ve dressed them up in spandex (never again, please), terrible third jerseys (take your pick) or the same colors (Philadelphia Wings and Orlando Titans both wore white during a January 8, 2010 contest) the NLL’s players are the reason this league is still standing today.
It’s not even a bit debatable. The players have always been the most pro thing about pro lacrosse. Sure, the overall product is paramount for mainstream popularity, but the players have always been and will always be the main reason why fans flock to the show.
Today, USBOXLA.com recognizes the greatest NLL players to have ever played in the league, ranking them from 50 to 1. Players were picked by analyzing skills, stats, impact, intangibles, longevity, legacy and countless other critical pieces of criteria, sometimes specific to even just a single unique player.
We start off with one of the most controversial, captivating and crushing players to ever play…
Photos: Larry Palumbo
Geoff Snider, Philadelphia Wings (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Love him or hate him (and if you ever played against him, you no doubt hated his guts), Snider was an impact player in the NLL (with much more than just his fists). He was face-off freak of nature. His almost decade-long, severely one-sided dominance at the dot will likely never be seen again. Snider’s mitts were involved in some of the most memorable melees in NLL history, but he was still skilled and smooth enough to routinely register on the scoresheet, once scoring five seconds into a game (still a league record). Often mislabeled and misjudged, the Albertan’s compete level was turned up as high as humanly possible (even in all-star games, where he was twice named MVP). Few battled with the fire, fury and force Snider brought to every shift.
He garnered more attention for his Canadian summers, but trust us, this beast of a man rarely hibernated during NLL winters. Ogilvie possessed super-human strength, left his opponents battered and bruised beyond repair (he once fractured the skull of Matt McFarland in a 2003 fight) and was as respected as he was feared. Sure, he could throw down with anyone in the league, but Ogilvie was a smart, suffocating and skilled defensemen that never got the recognition he deserved in pro lacrosse.
For those that thought Toll’s success was simply due to his scorching speed, you really only watched half of what he offered. His overall game IQ was almost always tops in the league, and his timing, elusiveness and awareness were just as vital as his catch-me-if-you-can sprints. It’s a shame the NLL only started tracking turnovers in recent years, because in his prime, Toll picked off passes better than anyone in the sport and surely would have dominated that stat column. His coast-to-cast finishes shifted the momentum of a game more massively than any top scoring threat’s sinkers. Steve Toll was fast, but he was also one of the NLL’s greatest game changers.
Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch, Vancouver Stealth (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Whether it was during their Cup winning campaign in 2010 or basement-dwelling seasons in recent years, the Stealth’s Rhys Duch puts up mega-star points no matter what’s going on around him. Few over the league’s 30 years consistently crushed the scoreboard like Duch has. The crafty, clutch and composed scorer cracked significant career milestones in 2016 (300 goals and 700 points). While others need support to succeed, Duch simply needs the ball and as little as two ticks on the shot clock. Lethal in tight traffic or from way downtown, he will go down as one of the most versatile offensive players to ever play in the NLL.
Rochester’s current coach may not have possessed the punishing size or strength as some of the NLL’s most dominating pure defensive legends, but Hasen was just as effective as any of them. Quiet and composed, he led by example and class. His teammates treasured him and his opponents always respected him. What he lacked in size and grit he more than made up for in smarts and grace. Few understood the position and its nuances better than Hasen, who exposed flaws and breakdowns in his opponents’ offensive attack through brain rather than simply brawn.
Although he oozes natural offensive ability, Benesch’s success in the NLL probably has more to do with his tough-minded approach than anything else. At times, he looks almost uninterested away from the play, but trust us, the gears are going. Benesch bounces around an offense looking for lanes and loose balls better than most of the NLL’s most-gifted goal getters, likely high on the career offensive-loosie leaderboard too (if that very specific stat were tracked). He has that rare ability to seamlessly weave within traffic to shoot or scoop, as brilliant a goal scorer as he is a set-up man. His continued partnership and prosperity with reigning MVP Dhane Smith (no doubt a future Top 50 member) will likely jump him several spots on this list when he calls it a career. Deceptive, greasy and goal hungry, Benesch showed he could find NLL success his own way.
Although often playing behind bigger name talent, Accursi will always be remembered as being one of the most relied-on and in-demand assets in NLL history. He ranks Top 10 in both regular season (237) and playoff (26) games played, something that doesn’t simply just happen. His offensive versatility, adaptability and creativity allowed him to be ready and relevant no matter what cast of forwards he found himself playing alongside. He was probably even more proficient when it mattered the most too, still sitting Top 10 in a majority of all-time post-season point categories. While he’ll likely never be in consideration for the NLL’s extremely selective Hall of Fame selection process, Mike Accursi deserves recognition as an important player in this league. Note: Although the trio just missed out on the Top 50, Chris Driscoll’s, Curt Malawsky’s and Duane Jacob’s bios would read very much the same as this one.
Former Toronto Rock Head Coach John Lovell once called Manning “the ultimate pro”. During the 2002 Mann Cup, prior to even having had the pleasure of coaching him, the late Terry Sanderson described Manning as “a future superstar in this sport”. Over the next decade, he lived up to both statements. Manning was one of the most important players for one of the league’s most storied and significant franchises, playing every single one of his 181 games in a Toronto Rock jersey (although originally drafted by the Calgary Roughnecks). Yes, he played beside some tremendous talent, but instead of blending into the background, Manning routinely posted league-topping point totals and was often as dangerous as his legendary linemates. He was the real deal.
Nominated but never voted in, Ted Dowling’s Hall of Fame worthy career suffers from a new generation of fans, media and even team management not knowing nearly enough about the first two decades of the NLL. Dowling played 14 seasons in the league and suited up for ten different franchises (which is a lot, but Mat Giles holds the record for the most NLL jersey changes with 12: Albany, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Columbus, Edmonton, Minnesota, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Rochester and Toronto). His suitcase was packed and repacked a bunch, but it had more to do with his skills being so in demand versus anything else. He was as natural a goal scorer as they come (40 goal seasons in Albany, Montreal and almost Calgary) a bulldog on loose balls and he always put up a fight (Top 10 in NLL post-season penalty minutes). From 1991 to 2004, only two men not named Gait or Tavares led the NLL in goal scoring. One was NLL Hall of Famer Tom Marechek. The other was Ted Dowling.
No goalie in NLL history has played in more regular season games (240), has played more regular season minutes (10,599), has made more regular season saves (6,785), or has made more saves in a single regular season (752) than Anthony Cosmo. While some still slight him for never having led a team to a Champion’s Cup victory (although it almost happened last year, the same year he broke all those previously mentioned career-long records), Cosmo is still quite simply one of the league’s most decorated and dominant stoppers. Even as a 39-year-old entering his seventeenth season in the NLL this upcoming year, Cosmo continues to play at an elevated level while leading a Cup good enough Bandits club.
Cody Jamieson, Rochester Knighthawks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
He’s tremendously talented, thoroughly tough and has gained a reputation as being the ultimate teammate. Jamieson has quietly become one of this era’s more important and impactful players. He played the offensive lead during the Rochester Knighthawks’ back-to-back-to-back Cup clinches, although he’s also the type to tell you he was just one of many that contributed to becoming a champion. The Six Nations product is powerful, passionate and precise, all qualities that likely swayed voters when they named him the 2014 NLL MVP. Although he’ll miss part of this upcoming season while he battles back from injury, Jamieson’s individual and team accolades already rank him among the league’s very best.
He’ll soon become one of only two men to top 600 career regular season penalty minutes (the leader is Kyle Laverty with 627, Smith sits at 597), but Smith is far from a glorified goon. Yup, he’s physical as… and at times has allowed his temper to get the better of him (although not so much lately), but Billy Dee Smith is one of the most athletic, explosive and terrifying defenders to play in any era of the NLL. He possesses the footwork, frame, speed and truculence (Brian Burke would no doubt be a Smith super fan) to cement himself as one of the greatest defensive defenders to ever step on an NLL turf. Entering his fifteenth season this winter, Smith still has enough left in the tank to take Buffalo, a team he now captains, to Champion’s Cup glory one more time.
While high-scoring snipers often fill lists like this, the likes of a Pat McCready should be mentioned too. McCready was a warrior, and in the world of box lacrosse, warriors with a compete level and work ethic like his are as valuable as any high-end goal scorer. He is one of only two players in NLL history to rank within the league’s all-time Top 5 loose ball scoopers and penalty minute makers (the other is Geoff Snider). He is one of just three players to play in 30 playoff games or more (the other two are John Tavares and Colin Doyle). Not surprisingly, his post-season LB and PIM totals are some of the best ever too. During the 2011 season, McCready was finally acknowledged for his play when he was awarded the NLL Defensive Player of the Year Award. At 36-years-old, he is the oldest player to be named the league’s top defender.
Few if any have given more of themselves to this game and league than Troy Cordingley. Long before he was a Cup-winning coach, Cordingley battled for the Buffalo Bandits (and a bit in Albany and Rochester) until his body literally couldn’t take any more. He was exceptionally skilled, relentlessly tough and anything but victory was seemingly never good enough. One season, Cordingley blew the tendons in his ankle so badly, that even after surgery his doctor told him he’d never play again. He played again. For new fans that only know Cordingley as a coach in Calgary, Toronto or Buffalo (FYI he took all three teams to a Cup final in an exceptionally short amount of time, winning it all in both Calgary and Toronto), the level of passion, aggression and determination you see from him on the bench, is exactly what you got from him as a player too.
An American-born, uber-athlete from the 90’s MILL, Carmean’s worth ethic, hustle and heart were next-level good. His unmatched compete level gave him an added edge, allowing him to become one of the league’s most dominant playmakers during his playing days. The only American to average more assists per game than Carmean’s 2.5 is former MVP Casey Powell. Not bad. His career came to an end prior to Canadians infiltrating NLL rosters in the 00’s, but you’d have to think Carmean would be a player that could have adapted, survived and even thrived in today’s NLL. He possessed the qualities any coach in the league today wants to see in an American prospect (as few as there are lately).
The Buffalo News’ Budd Bailey recently pondered if Mark Steenhuis’ resume would be good enough to get him into the NLL Hall of Fame. Based on the weirdness and wackiness voting in worthy retirees has become in the NLL, he likely won’t get in. Should he? Most definitely. His career regular season numbers already rank among the best in the sport. Last year, Steenhuis impressively crashed the 900 club, passing Gavin Prout for tenth all-time in NLL point production. In comparison to the NHL, the only eligible yet still not voted in player that sits in hockey’s Top 20 (let alone 10) point producers is Mark Recchi (Teemu Selanne will only first be eligible next year). Steenhuis has played a variety of roles in the NLL at both ends of the floor, making his monumental 900 and still counting point total all that more impressive. He’s flashy, dynamic, baits defenders at will, and has had star-studded performances in some of Buffalo’s biggest and most important games. Plus, he’s still not done.
Jeff Shattler, Calgary Roughnecks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
During an era when specialized play has transformed how the sport is planned and played, the fact that Shattler could still crush it at either end of the floor speaks volumes of his skillset, athleticism and uniqueness. Like Steenhuis just above him here, he started out as a D-first focused force, but a player as persistently productive and superbly skilled as Shattler is, needs to get pushed up front to provide even further impact. A somewhat unlikely but immensely deserving MVP in 2011, Shattler was the league’s first most valuable player of Native descent (Ojibwe). Although not highlighted much at the time, it’s an extremely significant and special achievement. When it comes to diversity, versatility, consistency and ability, Shattler has been near or right at the top of that list for most of the last decade. He is the perfect example of a player whose true value isn’t defined by stats alone. He is the total package.
Like we did in American Made: The All-Time NLL Top 30, we’re going to steal the recently retired Colin Doyle’s analysis of Mark Millon here too. Doyle said, “Mark Millon could do it all. Tough as nails, inside, outside and feet that I haven’t seen since.” He did all that while playing in a league much more physical and grueling than today’s more skill-centric loop. He was a gifted forward that was never afraid to roll up and sleeves and get his hands dirty in the trenches while looking for space, scoops or scoring opportunities. For those ignorant enough to still label Americans as too soft for box, watch even just a single shift in any of Millon’s NLL stops, and he’ll convince you otherwise.
While his brother Darris (who you’ll find if you keep reading and scrolling) was known for his fiery play and passion, Rich Kilgour was more composed, controlled and clinical in his approach. Clearly differing routes worked for the Kilgour boys, both of whom were deservedly voted into the NLL’s Hall of Fame. Rich was no doubt skilled and smart, but his greatest asset was his ability to lead and inspire. He captained the Buffalo Bandits for 12 seasons and is considered as respected a general as any other player over the NLL’s three decades. If the league were to ever adopt the NHL’s version of the Mark Messier Leadership Trophy (and stop naming awards after sponsors), Rich Kilgour would undoubtedly need to appear on the name plate.
Currently, USBOXLA has approximately 500 youth goalies playing the position in the USA. When Sal LoCascio was a kid, there were likely none (playing it properly at least). Hell, there were barely any doing it when he played pro either. LoCascio was one of a kind. Unlike USBOXLA’s record-breaking group of goalies today, LoCascio transitioned from a field to box backstop well past is foundation formative years. While learning the basics of the gig as kid is very doable, pulling it off as an adult is nearly impossible, and doing it at the highest level of the sport isn’t even a thing anymore (look at the numbers yourself). The New York Saints legend was a pioneer that learned the sport’s most critical position as he played. He is one of just three American players currently in the NLL’s Hall of Fame, which likely won’t get another until Casey Powell officially retires.
Gavin Prout, Colorado Mammoth (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Yes, having a still exceptionally skilled Gary Gait play for the Colorado Mammoth after the franchise moved from Washington to Denver was a huge get (Paul Gait retired prior to the move, but did rejoin the team for a short stint a few years later), but having Gavin Prout excite crowds, inspire teammates and lead the city to their first (and still only) Champion’s Cup was even more vital. “For many years, Gavin Prout was the Colorado Mammoth,” said franchise team president & general manager Steve Govett shortly after Prout retired. “He was one of the game’s biggest stars and one of the sport’s best leaders. Gavin was instrumental in making our franchise what it is today.” Prout was prickly with the opposition, demanding of his teammates and equally as critical of himself. He retired as one of the league’s best-ever playmakers, one of only seven players with 600+ regular assists (neither Gary or Paul Gait are on that list).
A career cut short by a collection of concussions, Jalbert’s name is often missed when talking about the league’s best. He most definitely should always be in that conversation however. He was an American that smashed any and every stereotype Americans get slapped with in today’s game. Instead of shying away from the rough and rugged stuff, he embraced it, and often dished out bigger beatings than the ones he absorbed. He was a pestering pain in the ass on defense, but had the legs and scoring sense to destroy you in transition too. He was as dynamic a player that has ever played in the NLL, even though he was only able to give us four glorious seasons (twice winning the Cup in Philadelphia and Colorado). While his career lacked longevity, it certainly wasn’t short on success.
Ratcliff did something better than 99% (maybe more, like after the decimal) of the players who’ve played in the NLL… score a sh** ton of goals. He is surrounded by current or future Hall of Famers on the NLL’s all-time biggest goal scoring rundown (only Tavares, Grant, Doyle, Williams, Dawson, Sanderson and Gary Gait rank ahead of his 440 career goals), but rarely gets the credit he deserves. NLL Hall of Fame media member Neil Stevens described Ratcliff as “one of the NLL’s greats” after his recent retirement, adding that the two-time Champion’s Cup winner “belongs” in the same hall he was inducted into in 2008. Stevens, as usual, is correct. Ratcliff rifled the ball better than almost anyone and possessed a natural scoring touch that propelled the Washington Stealth to the 2010 title (he scored five goals in the final, also named the game’s MVP). Today, Ratcliff is one of the top youth box lacrosse instructors in the US, his Washington-area players some of the best box-specific talent in the country.
Finneran is one of the most accomplished and decorated Americans to ever play in the NLL. Whatever. That mattered in our US-only Top 30, but nationality means nothing here. He’s here because he deserves to be here. His five Cups were no fluke. Finneran was a critical contributor to each and every champion he played for, even the Toronto Rock. The late Les Bartley, who traded enforcer Drew Candy for an at the time 37-year-old Finneran from the Philadelphia Wings in late-2002, said, “He gives us something you can’t teach.” After losing to Finneran and the Wings in the 2001 final, the two men would capture a Cup together just a few years later. The former NLL Ironman was one of the league’s most prolific playmakers and playoff performers. Finneran was American, sure, but he was also one of the NLL’s most memorable players, period.
He was a marquee player on some early Toronto Rock Cup winning sides, and while he may have received most of his recognition there, it was after he went west that Gill really cemented himself as one of the league’s all-time greats. During his first two winters with the Vancouver Ravens, Gill scored an unheard of 93 goals, one of the greatest back-to-back scoring campaigns in NLL history. Only six players over the league’s 30 years scored more goals in a single season than Gill’s 53 in 2002 (those players are Gary Gait, Paul Gait, John Grant, Athan Iannucci, Ryan Benesch, and of course, Dhane Smith, whose 72 goals last year set a new standard). He reinvented himself with the Colorado Mammoth in 2006, once again, an important puzzle piece to a Cup-winning roster that season. Deemed un-hall-worthy and surprisingly left off the NLL’s 30th Anniversary Team, Chris Gill is a lacrosse and NLL legend.
Big, burly and bone-jarring, Thorpe looked and played more like a Canadian lumberjack than a celebrated American field lacrosse legend. With that said, he was also as smart as he was smash mouth. “Regy was an original Knighthawk, a true professional and one of the best all-time defensemen,” former Rochester GM and current team VP of Player Personnel Jody Gage once said. “He brought it every night. I don’t know if anyone hit harder than Regy. He also knew the game and was a true leader.”
After the Gaits, Bergey was one of the league’s first true power forwards. Much like his NFL-playing pops, Bill Bergey, he was built like a tank and destined to dominate. His Philly-based picks are legendary, the behemoth one of the since departed Wings most iconic and cherished champions. As physical as his approach always was, Bergey had as much skill as he did sandpaper. Only Dallas Eliuk, Tom Marechek and Peter Jacobs played more games for the Wings (now Black Wolves) franchise, and only Marechek out-ranks him in points, goals or assists. Casey Powell is the only American to top him in most offensive career statistical categories too.
He’s not even 30 yet, but Rubisch (he just turned 28 this past August) can already be called one of the NLL’s most dominating defensive defenders to ever take the turf. His positional play is perfection. His anticipation and alertness, well, it’s also usually pretty perfect. His ability to analyze the stickiest of situations and stay one step ahead of his man – usually the best forward on the other side – is Veltman-level impressive. He also plays with jam, jump, heart and hustle. Quite honestly, there has never been a player quiet like Kyle Rubisch in the NLL. Due to his hefty hardware haul (won NLL Defensive Player of the Year in four consecutive seasons) he’s often compared to the NHL’s Nicklas Lidström, but after his career is done (which will only be a decade or more from now), he might be a bit Bobby and Bourque too. For those who think we might have this young legend too high, to that we say, he’s probably not high enough.
When O’Toole was inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame back in 2013, Paul Gait said, “When I think about Pat O’Toole going into the Hall of Fame, I think about what a goalie means to his team … Good goalies help teams win games. Great goalies help teams win championships. When we look at Pat O’Toole and the other goalies in the Hall of Fame, all of whom I had the privilege to play against, I think we can say Pat O’Toole is a championship-caliber goalie.” He was one of the league’s biggest big game goalies, O’Toole one of only eight stoppers over the league’s 30 years to be named a Cup MVP (the others were Dallas Eliuk, Bob Watson, Steve Dietrich, Curtis Palidwor, Larry Quinn, Buzz Sheain and of course Aaron Bold last year). He was a workhorse in the crease and near the top of every major all-time goaltending stat still to this day. He wasn’t too shabby with his stick either. O’Toole scored three times during his career, ranking him second in league history behind only Rob Blasdell’s four.
Stroup brought an element to an offense that really no one else could provide. He was nearly impossible to get a clean check on. He was shrewd, slippery and slicker than slick, providing timely scoring out of situations that looked unlikely to spark a shot let alone a goal. Nicknamed “Swoop” for his unique style of play, Stroup may have never been the most high-profile star on the sides he played for, but he was surely the most magical and memorable. He was resilient and his skillset was always in demand, playing into his 40s with the Portland Lumberjax. While the 2000 Champion’s Cup is most fondly remembered for Kaleb Toth’s last second game winner, it was actually Stroup’s five-goal effort that propelled the Toronto Rock to that title. He was a game changer, difference maker and a Cup clincher. Dan Stroup was damn good.
Tracey Kelusky, Calgary Roughnecks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
If it wasn’t for Paul Gait’s glorious retirement tour of 2002, a still only second-year pro Tracey Kelusky surely would have been named the NLL’s MVP that winter. He did it all. Kelusky was tough, talented and a tremendous leader. He stood up for every single one of his teammates and backed down from no one. His creativity, especially during the first-half of his career, was almost unmatched. Outside of the Calgary Flames purchasing the franchise, there may have been no more important move in the Roughnecks’ history than the day they were fortunate enough to draft Kelusky first overall in the Montreal Express Dispersal Draft. He took that team from a floundering expansion franchise and turned the ‘Necks into a western powerhouse. In just his second season in the city, the Calgary Roughnecks were champions.
There surely isn’t a smarter, more knowledgeable player mentioned anywhere in this countdown than Steve Dietrich. What the goaltending great lacked in cardio or athleticism, he more than made up for in technique, timing and a level of talent that surpasses almost any other goalie in NLL history. He knew his opponents’ tendencies and tricks better than, well, better than those same opponents knew themselves. To simply call him a student of the game doesn’t do Dietrich justice. He was a game-planning genius. At times, he played the position perfectly, twice named the league’s Goaltender of the Year, a post-season MVP with Rochester (holds NLL playoff record for most shots faced  and saves made  in the final) and to this day remains the NLL’s only goalie to be named league MVP.
Shawn Williams, Buffalo Bandits (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
He’s often referred to as one of the NLL’s best-ever secondary scoring threats, and while that may be true on paper, Shawn Williams is quite frankly just one of the league’s best-ever, period. Give him any role, any partnership, any situation, and Williams will simply succeed. Could he be THE leading man? He could and he was. He slayed the summer loop solo so many times, but he did it in the NLL too. When John Grant went down in 2004 and missed a majority of the year due to injury, Williams not only stepped up in Rochester, he was MVP-level good (he was edged out by Jim Veltman for the year-end honor). He scored in quantity and quality, lifting the Knighthawks to a post-season spot most felt was lost with Grant gone. Recently confirming his retirement, Williams sits Top 10 in all-time NLL games played (257), goals (444), assists (708) and points (1,152). He is one of only seven players to top the 1,000-point plateau, and will no doubt be first-ballot NLL Hall of Famer next year.
He is the modern era’s Jim Veltman, just maybe more athletic and without all the rings. The fact Merrill has yet to win a Cup is truly puzzling. There aren’t too many players that have the same competitive spirit, killer instinct or leadership qualities that Merrill has brought with him to each and every team he’s ever suited up for. He is a mega-magnet on loose balls, who like Veltman, gets those grounders due to his awareness and anticipation versus athletic ability alone. His single-season loose ball totals during his Portland playing days rank second, third and fourth all-time behind only Veltman (for non-face-off takers). Recently named Toronto’s new captain, Rock Head Coach Matt Sawyer said, “Brodie’s leadership goes beyond what he does on the floor. He makes his teammates better; he prepares well for games and practices and carries himself well in all aspects of being a leader.” Even without a Cup, however, Merrill had his hall spot locked up long ago.
There will never be another Darris Kilgour. Today’s game just wouldn’t allow it. Most players now couldn’t handle his level of intensity and passion – teammates or the opposition. Kilgour was a killer. He’d murder you on the scoresheet, and if you were ever stupid enough to push him too far, he’d beat the bloody hell out of you too. As ruthless as he was, Kilgour was a dynamic goal scorer, a proficient power-play producer (led the league in PP goals in 1998) and would not be satisfied with anything less than a W. While the Buffalo Bandits fill their area better than almost anyone these days, there was a time during the early 2000’s that wasn’t the case. After years of unprecedented success, the team made the playoffs just once from 1999 to 2002. Worse yet, their barn was pretty bare, the franchise was struggling financially and rumors of the team leaving were making the rounds. Kilgour would soon change that. Named the team’s new head coach prior to the 2003 season, Kilgour brought new players, a new energy, a new winning attitude and a brand of lacrosse similar to how he would have played. The crowds returned and haven’t left since. If it wasn’t for Kilgour, Banditland may look nothing like it does today. With 121 regular season wins, he remains the NLL’s winningest coach.
Matt Vinc, Rochester Knighthawks (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
No goalie over the league’s last decade can hold a candle to Matt Vinc’s resume, reputation or highlight reel. There has no doubt been some amazing goalies in the game during the previous ten seasons, but what Vinc has done is truly remarkable. He is this generation’s greatest goalie guaranteed. From 2010 to 2015 he was named the NLL’s Goaltender of the Year five unfathomable times. He played every minute of every playoff game during the Rochester Knighthawks’ recent three-peat. He’s athletic, agile and his angles are often textbook, but Vinc is also a very studied stopper that knows exactly what to expect from every shooter in the league. During his already illustrious career, Vinc has made the stops he should, the ones he shouldn’t and the ones only he is capable of crafting.
The two-time MVP is maybe the most skilled spark plug in NLL history. Evans has matured into one of the game’s greatest go-to talents. Always considered a top-tier player in Rochester, his four years in Calgary took his reputation and legacy to new heights. It was there that Evans went from good, to great, to one of this generation’s absolute best. His play is innovative, inventive and he continues to inspire his teammates and fans to levels only a few in this league have done before. For those that watched his Junior ‘A’ career and early days in the NLL, the proud Peterborough-product could dance up a storm with whoever wanted to tangle. Now in New England, Evans had his most productive goal-grabbing campaign to date while leading the Black Wolves last year. He’s only 30 and already has a decade of dominance in the NLL. In 2017, he could very well become the youngest player in league history to touch if not topple 1,000 points. His story is far from done.
Most of the goals Marechek scored were SportsCenter quality stuff. Whether he was ripping from range or flying to finish, “Hollywood” was a showstopper and highlight maker from day one. His behind-the-back back-breakers are some of the nastiest finishes Philadelphia Wings fans had ever witnessed. He played with swagger, style and scintillating skill, and the Philly faithful couldn’t get enough of him during his 12 years in the city. Marechek played with a finesse and form that few if any could match no matter the era. He still comfortably owns all major Wings (now Wolves) all-time offensive career statistical totals, and was the franchise’s first and somewhat surprising only Rookie of the Year (1994). He was frustrating to play against but fantastically fun to watch, and even though the Wings are no more, the memories Marecheck provided Philadelphia will never be forgotten.
No one, absolutely no one would have predicted that Dan Dawson would develop into the legend he is today when he first entered the NLL. Although you’ve likely already heard the story, here it is again. Dawson was drafted in the sixth round of the 2001 NLL Entry Draft. He scored all of three goals, primarily playing a defensive role, during his rookie season with the Columbus Landsharks. Today, 15 years later, only John Tavares (815), John Grant (666), Gary Gait (635) and Colin Doyle (527) have scored more often than Dawson (451). The steady spike in skill and on the turf transformation Dawson made from year one to today is unheard of not only in the NLL, but probably in any other pro sport. Between his lanky yet fit frame and ridiculous stick skills, Dawson has proved to be one of the most difficult to contain forwards to ever play in the NLL. His goals are always money and memorable, but his reputation as an unselfish set-up man are equally as impressive. Just like in the goal scoring department, there are only four players with more career assists than Dawson too (Tavares, Doyle, Grant and Sanderson). He became the league’s longest serving Ironman last year (233 consecutive games played) and no doubt still has a handful of seasons ahead of him.
While Kyle Rubisch may already be hot on his heels, Pat Coyle is still without question the NLL’s greatest defensive specialist. He may not have the individual accolades or solo statistical significance that Rubisch has today, but most of that didn’t even exist when Coyle started playing in the mid-90’s. He was handed a “lifetime” suspension for controversial yet far from criminal contact with an official back in 1994, but after the MILL switched to the NLL in 1998, Coyle was deservedly welcomed back in. Coyle’s crippling checks crushed rib cages and careers, but also helped clinch many Cups (he was a five-time NLL title winner). He was the league’s first pure defensive defender, the Les Bartley-led Rock forever changing the way this sport was played through their specialized approach to both offense and defense. While the likes of Dan Ladouceur, Terry Bullen, Glenn Clark and others were also involved in that revolution, Coyle was unquestionably the kingpin. Maybe most impressive was Coyle’s ability to adapt. While it looked like his career may be done soon, he refined his game and style, stretching it out four more winters in Colorado, the team he now coaches today.
Casey Powell, New York Titans (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
His career totals don’t match up to many around him here at number ten, but what Casey Powell brought to this league is something no record book can recite. Well, that’s not entirely true. Powell was the first and still only American NLL MVP, named the league’s best in 2010 while playing for the Orlando Titans. A nice bit of trivia, but that isn’t the reason he’s here. His comeback story (he left the league for four years, gone and forgotten before returning in Anaheim a new man) is part of the reason he’s here, but not the only one. He may not have the lengthy career span so many on this page do. He may not have the fistful or rings others here collected during their careers. What Powell does have, however, is an ‘it’ factor very few on the Top 50 can mirror. He played with a charisma and finesse that simply can’t be taught. There may be no player in the league’s history that fans and even many players wanted to see fail more than Powell. He might have been knocked down, both literally and figuratively, but Powell not only got up, he conquered.
While the Toronto Rock were regularly winning Cups (they won five times from 1999 to 2005), it was Bob Watson that tended the team to those titles. There was no doubt he was good, but with one of the most suffocatingly strong defensive units ever guarding in front of his goal, some still wondered if he truly was one of the best to ever backstop. In upcoming seasons, Watson would unquestionably propel himself to the top of any player (let alone goalie) ranking. When the Rock sucked (from 2006 to 2009 they never finished above .500 and twice missed the playoffs) Watson was wonderful (was named 2008 Goalie of the Year during one of the Rock’s worst seasons in history). During those down years in the T-Dot, Watson faced more shots, stress and strain than ever before, but somehow managed to look the best he’d ever been. He proved he was top of the food chain good no matter who was in front of him. He will forever be remembered for being this league’s biggest money goalie, winning one last title (also named Cup MVP) in his final season in the NLL.
Yup, Sanderson is without debate the league’s most gifted assist artist to ever suit up. But he’s also so much more than that. The undeniable impact he has on a team is an unteachable trait only a few even ahead of him here ever had. He elevates and inspires in such a way, through words and actions, that teammates have no other option but to play at the level he demands. Like his late father, Terry Sanderson, winning is the only outcome Josh is comfortable with. He was skillful, mentally strong and relentlessly tough. As unselfish and unique a set-up man as Sanderson was (only John Tavares owns more career assists), he was also capable of scoring in quality (18 game-winning goals) and quantity (ranks eighth all-time in goal scoring). His work rate was ridiculous, and is probably why he is one of the few forwards in league history to scoop over a thousand loose balls. So definitely remember Sanderson as dominating disher, but never forget he did a ton else too.
There is no goalie past, present or future that had/has/will possess the same reflexes, agility and athleticism that Eliuk showcased during his 18 storybook seasons in the NLL. He truly was one of a kind, protecting his crease through acrobatic, split-second stops that typically hogged any and all league highlight reels. As freakishly fast as he was, Eliuk’s approach was as much mental as it was mobile. Hopeful players would throw so many fakes at him, the only one they’d be faking out were themselves. He rarely bit on even the most appealing bait. Eliuk’s ability to not only read a shooter, but each and every shot, knowing exactly when and where it would be released, was maybe his greatest gift. No one ever mentally outmaneuvered Eliuk. While Bob Watson often gets the tag as most money playoff shot stopper, like Watson, Eliuk has also been named the Cup’s MVP twice, once even topping Watson and the Rock in a classic 2001 finale.
There wasn’t much to differentiate between the Gait twins. From their appearance to eventual record-smashing accolades, they were clearly cut from the same cloth. While Gary may have been the slightly more skilled, Paul was maybe the more powerful of the two. Rarely in any sport did an athlete possess the size, strength and silky smooth skillset that Pat Gait played with. While he left the game a few seasons earlier than his brother, resulting in a lower career digit count, he was every bit as iconic and clutch as Gary. Paul’s 8-goals and 11-points in the 1994 Cup still stand up as records to this day, while is 23 total goals in a championship game are the most ever (yup, more than Tavares too, who had 22). He was the league’s first player to touch 100 career goals, hitting that milestone on a night he scored what today is now known as a sock-trick (six goal performance). His final full season was one of the most memorable farewell tours in NLL history, Paul winning both the scoring title (114 points) and MVP that year.
Colin Doyle, Toronto Rock (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
He was a celebrated champion, a clutch king and a cornerstone captain, but Doyle is also maybe the most electric entertainer to ever take the turf. The recently retired Toronto Rock captain could change the course of a game and the tone of a crowd within seconds. His goals were masterful, meaningful and some of the most memorable and monumental the league has ever witnessed. His regular season resume is only bettered by a select few, but his work in the playoffs might be unmatched. He is the league’s only three-time Cup MVP, a rare feat in not only lacrosse but any pro sport, ever. When the Rock traded him before the 2007 season, the franchise fell flat, fans fled and they hit their lowest of lows. When he returned to the city in 2010, they were finalists his first year back and champions the next. His teammates responded to him, the opposition respected him and crowds cherished him every step of the way.
To watch his wizardry from the stands was one thing. To see an always bloodied, beaten, bruised, beyond spent, packed in post-game ice Jim Veltman, well, it truly gave you an appreciation and respect for the man that went well past his in-game heroics. Never in the history of the NLL has there been a player like Jim Veltman. There were players more skilled, more athletic and more gifted than him, but Veltman brought much more to the table than those traits. The moves he made in a game were almost as if he was watching things unfold from the press box, dispatching his findings back to himself on the turf. He wasn’t just a step ahead of the opposition, he was a dozen strides past them on every shift. When barreling into the boards for a loose ball, he would watch the game behind him through the reflection of the glass. Yes, through the reflection of the F’n glass! His level of focus, his understanding of the sport and is willingness to do the things you weren’t willing to do, set him apart from everyone that has played in this league. He was a leader like no other (guided groups to eight Cup wins), his loose ball numbers are still simply the best (2,417 career LB, led the league in LB 14 times during his first 15 seasons) and his impact on this league will never be forgotten.
John Grant Jr., Colorado Mammoth (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Admit it. You’ve tried pulling off the sick stuff Grant has spit out in NLL games, but failed miserably. Don’t be shy. The best box lacrosse ball players to ever lace up their sneaks answered yes, including everyone on this list. The now uncountable number of reel-worthy rips John Grant Jr. has graced the game with are on the same level as what Michael Jordan did in the NBA, Mario Lemieux in the NHL and Walter Payton in the NFL… maybe better. While John Tavares and Gary Gait rank just ahead of him here, neither was as skilled with their stick as John Grant Jr. was and still is. From that obscene falling to the floor, over the shoulder scorcher in his rookie season with Rochester (in the Cup no less, you know the one) to the filthy finishes he still stuns everyone with now in his 40’s, Grant is at a skill level that far surpasses expert status. He sits second behind only Tavares in all-time goals and points, and while unlikely to ever surpass his records, they are also totals that may also never be trumped.
No one played with the same precision, power and pizazz as Gary Gait. No professional sport has seen someone with the same balance of skill and strength as Gait either. Former Vancouver Ravens Head Coach Paul Dal Monte was once asked by media, “How do you stop Gary Gait from scoring?” The British Columbia bench boss responded, “You handcuff him in his hotel room and hope he doesn’t break loose.” Dal Monte was right. Stopping Gait was almost an impossibility most nights. He was too strong and sturdy to chop down, and you’d be dreaming if you figured you could keep up with his sweet-swing stick. Even though he’s played significantly fewer games than many of the league’s all-time great scorers (Gait played 198 games to Tavares’ 306), he still ranks within the Top 10 for goals (635), assists (530) and points (1,165). Alongside his brother, Paul, the two were the league’s first true superstars, and had this list been made after his first decade in the league, he would have no doubt been number one, easily.
Was there really any other name we could have even considered for number one? Virtually every accolade and accomplishment we mentioned for the previous 49 players, could also easily be attributed to Tavares. Even some of the defensive compliments we doled out could be applied. His nephew, the New York Islanders’ John Tavares (and former Buffalo Bandits ball boy), once told the New York Times, “My uncle is the best to ever play the sport.” In the same article, former teammate Darris Kilgour added, “He’s never been the fastest or the strongest, but he’s always played the smartest. Johnny knows what you’re thinking, and he knows how to turn it to his advantage.” He was consistently crafty, often conniving, always clutch and clearly better than anyone else on the turf. He owns every important offensive record in the NLL, numbers that will only be broken if the league continues to add more games on their regular season calendar. But even if his digits are downed one day, that player will likely still not be on the same level as Tavares. No one will. Like his nephew so succinctly stated, John Tavares simply is “the best”.