By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
EVERETT — In the eyes of All-Pro forward Rhys Duch, the Washington Stealth’s just-completed 2013 season was neither a success nor a failure.
“I think in any sport, the only team that can say their season was a success is the team that won the championship, ultimately,” Duch said following last Saturday’s 11-10 loss to Rochester in the National Lacrosse League championship game. “But I don’t think (it’s) a failure. I think a lot of positives came from this year. To rebound and do what we did is pretty remarkable. It’s very rare that you see a team come in last place and then the next year lose a championship game by one (goal). So I’m super proud of what the team accomplished.”
After finishing with the worst record in the league (4-12) a year ago, Washington rebounded to post a 9-7 regular-season mark and tie for first place in the NLL’s West Division with Calgary and Edmonton.
Washington then won two playoff games en route to its third title-game appearance in four seasons.
“I honestly believe that it was an incredibly successful season, rebounding from last year,” general manager Doug Locker said. “(We made) a lot of tough choices and (were) fortunate in terms of the guys we took in the draft and those guys came in and performed. Overall, I would say it was very successful. We got back to the championship game, which at the end of the day is very difficult to do and we fell a goal short.”
After last season, Locker and head coach Chris Hall knew they had to make changes. They rebuilt the team through the draft. The Stealth went into the championship game with seven rookies on the active roster, none of which were first-round picks.
“It was a good time to make some changes,” said Hall, who missed much of the 2012 season while undergoing treatment for throat cancer. “When you’re last, you can’t be sitting on your laurels thinking it’s because I wasn’t there. We really thought that we needed to make some personnel changes.”
All seven rookies played key roles for the Stealth at some point during the season — one of the reasons Locker was named the NLL’s General Manager of the Year.
The biggest standout of the group was defenseman Tyler Garrison. Selected by the Stealth in the second round of the 2012 draft, Garrison scored four goals in the postseason — two in a semifinal victory over Edmonton and two in the title game.
“I think Garrison was fantastic,” Hall said. “He had a great year and I really thought he should have been on the all-rookie team and I think he proved that over the course of the playoffs.”
Locker said he expects Garrison to continue to improve in the coming seasons.
“I truly believe he is going to be one of the best players in the league in the next few years at his position,” Locker said.
Five of the seven rookies on the Stealth were either defenders or transition players.
“When you don’t have a pick in the first round, you aren’t going to get a marquee offensive player,” Hall said. “So we really focused on defensive players.”
While the Stealth’s defense and goaltending were sound throughout the season, their offense struggled at times.
“In the end I think that was one of the things that hurt us a little bit was that we probably needed a little more offense,” Hall said.
The one constant was Duch, who led the league in goals (45) and ranked third in points (96).
“Without question Rhys is a superstar,” Locker said. “When you have a Rhys Duch, you have to let some things flow through him because he is going to score goals for you and he’s the guy that has a penchant for scoring those big goals when you need them.”
But Duch’s supporting cast lacked consistency. “Right from the beginning my concern was whether or not we had enough depth on offense to be a championship team,” Hall said.
The Stealth’s offensive depth is likely to be addressed during offseason, Locker said, either in free agency or in the draft. The Stealth’s first selection will be the eighth overall pick in the first round.
“”I think that’s an area we need to continue to make stronger, making sure that not only do we have those guys that score big goals,” Locker said, “but that fit with the veterans that we have there. I think our secondary scoring struggled a bit in the middle of the season.
“We need to do some things there — I don’t know what they are yet.”
Outside of whatever changes are made on offense, Hall and Locker said they expect the core of the roster to remain intact.
“I think we have a really, really strong nucleus of guys,” Locker said. “I don’t think we are in the position where we were a year ago where you feel like you have to make sweeping changes. At the end of the day, we finished in second, which tells us that everybody is going to be improving themselves again next year and we need to keep pace. I think it’s fair to say the majority of guys will be back.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.