Another star-laden team planning to lean heavily on a bumper crop of young talent begins its season this month, too, at the Xcel Energy Center. This group is even coming off a mini-run in the playoffs.
The Minnesota Swarm -- the professional lacrosse team that shares a home rink with its sports brethren Wild -- opens its 2013 campaign on Saturday at Buffalo, N.Y., still channeling the youthful enthusiasm of last year. The 2012 squad finished the regular season with four consecutive victories to advance to the playoffs and later a National Lacrosse League division final for the first time.
So what might the new year bring? Some new players, of course, and a head coach looking to build on the turnaround he shepherded after taking over six games into last season. Here are five story lines:
1 YOUTH PREVAILS
The Swarm was the youngest team in the league last season with 12 rookies; its average age was 25.2 years. The turn-back-the-clock mentality continues. The team had three of the first four picks in the league draft last October. Ohio State's Brock Sorenson, 23, was the jewel, drafted No. 2 overall to fill a transition player role with his athleticism and 6-6 wingspan. The next three first-rounders are expected to contribute straight-away too. Transition player Kiel Matisz (6-5, 215 pounds), forward Shayne Jackson (5-9, 180) and defenseman Alex Crepinsek (5-11, 185) contribute the size, scoring and grit that makes teams go in the 16-game season.
2 The glue
Improbably successful, the Swarm could easily cover a wall with the hardware it won last year. Owner John Arlotta (general manager of the year), co-owner Andy Arlotta (executive) and Joe Sullivan (coach) swept the top awards. Even play-by-play announcer Jake Elliott was honored for his work. Sullivan credited a philosophy of togetherness for the success. "As owners and coaches, (2012) was about bonding, not X's and O's," he said.
3 Captain, my captain
Transition player Andrew Suitor is back as team captain with guts and savvy that belie his age (23). Suitor is in his third NLL season, coming off career highs in scoring (26 points) and groundballs (120) in a game that is all about possession. Unfortunately, that grit sometimes comes with a price: Suitor will miss the first two games this season after a second game misconduct to end 2012. Regardless, he is excited for the season to start. The 2012 West all-star said practices have a different vibe this season. "There's more spunk. We got younger, and with young guys comes new energy," he said.
4 Scorers and stoppers
Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch begin their fourth year with the Swarm with a pedigree of all-star play (two consecutive years) and the reliable offense that propels good teams to great ones. Crawford led the team in scoring last season with 83 points (58 assists); he set the team scoring record in 2010 with 96 (32 goals, 64 assists). Benesch is no slouch either. He won the NLL scoring title in 2011 (46-49--95). Meanwhile, netminding will be a two-man act with Evan Kirk and Tyler Carlson. A rookie last season, Kirk led the league in save percentage (.807) and goals-against average (9.81).
5 Team first
Swarm brass was determined to set a foundation for its young flock last season when half the roster was rookies. In fact, many of the players were encouraged to live in St. Paul to bring continuity to their conditioning, practice and community outreach for the team. The payoff came on the field. The blueprint is the same in 2013, Sullivan said, adding, "Last year was a big trailblazing year for us. Do we get more seasoned players or give opportunity to up-and-comers?" The answer became clear. "Throw them in the fire, let them live and learn," Sullivan said. Now the fire under the Swarm burns hotter than ever.
Season opener: 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Buffalo
Home opener: 7 p.m. Jan. 26 vs. Washington,
Xcel Energy Center
Tickets: Information at www.mnswarm.com.