EVERETT — A year ago, after a slow start to their 2012 National Lacrosse League season, the Washington Stealth made a bold move to improve their struggling offense.
They traded away Paul Rabil — a transition player who had been called the face of the franchise and who was one of the NLL’s most recognizable names. He was packaged with a second-round draft pick for 2012 and sent to the Edmonton Rush in exchange for forward Athan Iannucci and a 2012 first-round pick.
The deal produced mixed results. Acquiring Iannucci did not immediately boost the Stealth’s fortunes last season. Washington finished last and was the only team not to make the NLL playoffs.
But as he has settled in with the team, Iannucci has given the Stealth three premier goal-scorers, complementing forwards Rhys Duch and Lewis Ratcliff. Having that kind of firepower has been a boon for the Stealth (7-6), who will try to clinch a playoff berth tonight by beating Calgary.
“We needed another premier goal-scorer we thought,” coach Chris Hall said of the decision last season to trade Rabil. “We really felt that we needed another guy that can score big goals at critical times of games. We really felt that we needed at least three of those threats. Otherwise you are a much easier offense to defend, but if you’ve got three guys out there that are capable of scoring from anywhere at any time then your offense is much more difficult to defend.”
In Iannucci, the Stealth received the most prolific single-season goal scorer in league history. In 2008, Iannucci scored a record 71 goals and was named league MVP while playing for the Philadelphia Wings. Hall and Stealth general manager Doug Locker hoped Iannucci would find similar success with the Stealth.
It didn’t happen right away. Iannucci struggled initially after the trade, scoring just three goals in his first four games with the Stealth.
When the Stealth made the trade for Iannucci, they did it with the intentions of turning their season around, making the playoffs and getting back to a third-straight NLL championship game. Locker and Hall had no hint the Stealth’s season would play out the way it did. They had no way to foretell that the draft pick they traded to Edmonton would end up being the No. 1 overall when the Stealth finished with the league’s worst record. The Rush used that pick to select forward Mark Matthews, who has 35 goals and 24 assists through 13 games of this season.
Iannucci, meanwhile, is finally finding his comfort zone with the Stealth. He settled into his role in the final seven games of the 2012 season, scoring 18 goals. He finished with 21 goals and 24 assists in 11 games. Through 13 games this season, Iannucci has matched his 2012 totals of 21 goals and 24 assists.
“It took some time to develop a bit of chemistry with some of those guys,” Iannucci said of his new teammates. “You come into a place and guys like Lewis and Rhys are already established in there and you don’t want to start throwing the ship off kilter or anything.”
Iannucci still struggles at times — and he shows glimpses of his 2008 greatness.
There is no question his best two-game stretch this season came in Stealth victories over Calgary and Minnesota. Iannucci had back-to-back four-goal games, scoring four goals and dishing four assists in a win over the Roughnecks and adding four more goals and two assists the following week in a win over the Swarm.
It is those types of performances that Iannucci believes he is capable of week in a week out and why he thinks the Stealth’s offense hasn’t reached its full potential yet.
“I think it is still a work in progress,” he said. “I think we can still do a lot better. Myself and Rhys have built some really good chemistry lately and I think that can continue.”
Hall has seen the chemistry grow between Iannucci and his teammates over the past season-plus.
“I think it is primarily just familiarity,” Hall said. “Knowing what the guys’ tendencies are and what their skills are and what the other guys are like. Most of the guys he hadn’t played with much before at all. You know, it takes a while to figure out what guys are like and where they like to be and what they like to do.”
Hall added that chemistry between teammates isn’t one-sided.
“I think it’s sort of two ways,” Hall said. “The other guys understand Athan’s game much better and Athan understands their game much better. That’s just part of the growth process of building an offense.”
Iannucci and his teammates certainly had that understanding in his 2008 record-breaking season. His 71 goals were 41 goals more than he scored in any other of his five NLL seasons.
“All of the sudden it was like he exploded and was unstoppable,” Hall said. “Obviously defenses and teams were designing their defenses to stop him and they couldn’t do it. It really was sort of one of those freakish things, like, ‘how can a guy score that many goals when you know defense are being designed to stop him in a game where you can double and triple-team a guy and you have a stick in your hand to check him?’
“It was one of those things that happen every once in a while in sport that stick out like a sore thumb.”
On April 12, 2008, Iannucci’s three goals broke Gary Gait’s NLL record of 61 goals in a season. Though Iannucci surpassed the record by 10 goals, he said he didn’t really realize what he was accomplishing from a historical aspect while it was happening.
“I was kind of in a bubble,” Iannucci said. “I just kind of took it one game to the next and I didn’t really try to pay attention to that too much. I just sort of looked to my past performances as indicators of what I was able to do and if I went out and played like I could than there was no reason I couldn’t keep it up.”
While duplicating his 2008 season again seems unlikely, Hall is happy with what the Stealth have in Iannucci — a proven goal-scorer in the NLL.
“We got what we traded for,” Hall said.
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.