Boston Blazers a key addition

RYAN WOLSTAT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:52 AM ET

Following an eventful off-season, the National Lacrosse League's 12 teams get back to business Saturday for the start of the 2009 season.

Though the current economic uncertainty enveloping North America caused the third-year Chicago Shamrox franchise to close up shop indefinitely and forced the Arizona Sting to fold entirely, the league will be bolstered by the arrival of the big market Boston Blazers. Thanks to raiding the rosters of the shuttered teams and through a bevy of trades, Boston should debut as a competitive outfit. Former Toronto Rock standout Anthony Cosmo anchors the team in goal and Dan Dawson will supply much of the scoring punch.

The Rochester Knighthawks, the 2007 champions, shockingly missed the playoffs in 2008. Things only got worse in the summer, when the K-Hawks learned that superstar John Grant Jr. would miss the season after having emergency surgery to remove an infection in his knee. Injuries have continued to mount for Rochester. Second-leading scorer Scott Evans also will miss the season, while new general manager Regy Thorpe will have to re-don his playing gear for at least part of the year. On the bright side, 41-year-old lacrosse legend Gary Gait, retired since 2005, agreed to help fill the void left by Grant by returning to action. His twin brother and longtime teammate, Paul, will coach him.

After finally ending a 12-year championship drought, the Buffalo Bandits will be a force once again. Mike Thompson and Ken Montour answered any questions about the perceived weak link in net last season and the Bandits remain a very difficult team to play against. All-time NLL scoring leader John Tavares returns, along with transition dynamo Mark Steenhuis, and though talented Brett Bucktooth is out for the year, sniper Sean Greenhalgh will finally make his Buffalo debut after missing all of 2008.

The Philadelphia Wings' season likely rests on how fast - and effectively - MVP Athan Iannucci can return from knee surgery. Iannucci eclipsed Gary Gait's record by scoring 71 goals in 2008. A late January-early February return for Iannucci is expected. In the meantime, one of the NLL's nastiest and best defensive and transition outfits will have to bear down even more without its 100-point standout.

Under Adam Mueller, the New York Titans went from 4-12 to 10-6, but the coach of the year retired after the season. Ex-Rock coach Ed Comeau, who led Rochester to the 2007 title, capably takes over the NLL's most athletic squad.

The Titans proved last season that a lineup heavy on American field lacrosse stars, could succeed in the NLL.

Parity reigns in the West, though the teams there don't appear to be as potent as the East's behemoths. The Colorado Mammoth slipped a bit last season, but still boasts a deep, talented squad capable of getting back to the championship game.

The Calgary Roughnecks should be able to score with anybody. Former Rock setup specialist Josh Sanderson, Curt Malawsky, Kaleb Toth and Tracey Kelusky are all healthy and will be tough to stop. However, the Riggers are green in goal and their defence is inconsistent.

The Edmonton Rush is still a work in progress. The team went 4-7 after an 0-5 start last season. Offence remains a concern, but a strong defence along with former MVP Steve Dietrich between the pipes should allow the Rush to keep most games close.

The Minnesota Swarm moved to the West after a breakout 10-6 campaign and just might be the class of the division. Rookie of the year Craig Point leads the Swarm's attack, but it is on defence and in goal where the team really shines.

League wins leader Nick Patterson has emerged as a top-flight goaltender, while Ryan Cousins has been named defensive player of the year two years running.

EXPECTATIONS HIGH

The Portland Lumberjax were 6-10 last season, but made the playoffs and lost in the championship game by just a single goal.

Expectations are up and the team still has defensive superstar Brodie Merrill, but the loss of perennial 40-goal man Dawson deflates an already unspectacular offence.

In Colin Doyle and Jeff Zywicki, the San Jose Stealth boasts one of the NLL's top tandems. However, steady Luke Wiles was lost to the Rock, while goalie Matt Roik has big shoes to fill, since former goalie of the year Cosmo now is in Boston.

Roik's play likely will determine whether the Stealth is a contender or a pretender.


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