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NLL Season begins with renewed optimism for future, improvements for fans

Matt Vinc in 2013 NLL action - Photo by Larry Palumbo

Reduced roster sizes. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The return of the NLL to Vancouver. A new playoff format with a slight divisional realigment. And, perhaps most significant to the fan, a new broadcast deal and continued free live streaming.

Those are the biggest changes and developments to consider as the 2014 National Lacrosse League regular season gets set to begin on Dec. 28 with three games in the league.

The Rochester Knighthawks aim to become the first NLL team to three-peat as their quest to win three straight begins when they host the Minnesota Swarm on Saturday night.

Here's a look at the five biggest changes and developments.

1. Broadcasting will bring the great game to the masses

All three games on the season-opening night will be part of a 73-regular-season-game live broadcast schedule on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network (TLN) during the 2014 NLL season.

NLL games on YouTube will be available for mobile viewing live and on demand via iPad, iPhone and most Android devices (read more here).

While the TLN free live streaming is great for lacrosse fans from around the world, attracting new fans is equally important. TSN and the NLL announced an eight-game broadcast deal this week that includes options for playoff games - all with the aim to increase league exposure.

The TSN deal with the league is a shift away from the Toronto Rock-broadcaster arrangements of the past and the league-led initiative is evidient with variety in the schedule which reflects this evolution.

TSN's coverage begins on Jan. 4 when the Vancouver Stealth, a team that relocated from Everett in Washington State in the off-season, visit the Colorado Mammoth.

"It's great for us to have coverage in Canada. The Toronto Rock have had a number of games on in the past few years, and this package will give more exposure to all teams in Canada," said NLL commissioner George Daniel, citing the power of TV exposure to further league growth and for marketing. "We're excited about the opportunities with TSN, but this is the first step for us and both sides will evaluate how this season goes."

"We're happy with TSN. Despite fact of NHL situation (loss of NHL deal to Rogers), they carry quite a bit of content on the network... historically they perform very well and we have an opportunity to build on that."

The full TSN schedule is below:

  • Saturday, Jan. 4 Vancouver Stealth @ Colorado Mammoth at 9 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Friday, Jan. 31 Vancouver Stealth @ Toronto Rock at 7:30 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Saturday, Feb. 1 Toronto Rock @ Buffalo Bandits at 7:30 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Friday, Feb. 28 Toronto Rock @ Edmonton Rush at 9:30 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Saturday, March 1 Toronto Rock @ Calgary Roughnecks at 9 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Saturday, March 8 Calgary Roughnecks @ Colorado Mammoth at 9 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • Saturday, March 15 Rochester Knighthawks @ Toronto Rock at 7 p.m. ET (TSN)
  • Saturday, April 5 Calgary Roughnecks @ Buffalo Bandits at 7 p.m. ET (TSN2)
  • NOTE: These eight games will also air live on ESPN3, ESPN's live multi-screen sports network which is accessible online at WatchESPN.com, on smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app and through ESPN on Xbox LIVE to Gold members.

2. New playoff format, slight divisional realignment

The Minnesota Swarm join the five-team Eastern Division this year and for the first time, the NLL is using a new playoff format cutting the number of playoff teams from eight to six and making it a two-game series. If the games are split, a 10-minute overtime will be played to decide the winner.

"This is the first time we've done this and it's the first step in expanding our playoffs," Daniel said. "We'll evaluate it and look to see how we make things better."

"This league has predominantly been a single elimination league in the past," he added, nothing the end goal is to make things more exciting for fans.

The top teams in each division receive a bye to the divisional final while the second and third place teams square off in the divisional semifinal series, with the first game at the home of the lower seeded team and Game 2 (and if necessary the overtime period) played at the higher seeded team's arena.

3. Vancouver is back

The National Lacrosse League is back in Vancouver - well, just outside in Langley - after the Stealth franchise struggled to draw fans despite having a solid team in Everett, Washington, just north of Seattle.

The Stealth, coached by Canadian lacrosse Hall of Famer Chris Hall, make their debut representing Vancouver, on Dec. 28 in Denver. The home opener is on Jan. 11 is against the Minnesota Swarm at 7 p.m. at the Langley Events Centre.

4. New CBA

The Skinny here is that the league has stability with a CBA through until 2020. Players' salaries are frozen for the first two years of the deal in an effort to help a league that has seen some teams face major financial burdens. The players are investing in the league and hope for dividends. A refreshing touch, don't you think?

All this for a maximum salary of just over $27,000 (just over $9,000 for rookies, and teams' franchise players are eligible for another $5,000 a season), and this with a schedule expansion from 16 to 18 games. For complete details, read our blog on this from earlier in the year here.

5. Reduced Roster Sizes

The league, one that prides itself on parity, has dropped its roster size from 20 to 18 players per game. This will change the game and result in the need for more athletic players on rosters. It should lead to more situations where teams catch winded players in a bind defensively, and ultimately should lead to more scoring and a more sports entertainment value for the fan.

It's just another wrinkle to add to the value for fans in a league that featured a number of close games and great playoff races down the stretch.

"I truly believe it is the most competitive sports league in world, and I'm thrilled the season is finally here," Daniel said.

We'll have a full season preview for you throughout the next week, but it's hard not to pick Rochester to three-peat.

They will have their work cut out for them, but they're the class of the five-team East division. Considering they return pretty much the same team from 2013 and many of those players won a Mann Cup in the summer with the Six Nations Chiefs, they are the odds-on favourite.

In the four-team West division, I expect Colorado and Calgary to battle for the title, but don't count Vancouver or Edmonton out. If Colorado can get its goaltenders to step up, they could be a dangerous squad.

Week 1 Matchups

  • Dec. 28 - Philadelphia at Buffalo, 7:30 p.m. EST (WATCH LIVE)
  • Dec. 28 - Minnesota at Rochester, 7:30 p.m. EST (WATCH LIVE)
  • Dec. 28 - Edmonton at Colorado, 9 p.m. EST - (WATCH LIVE)
  • Andy's Week 1 Picks: Buffalo, Rochester and Colorado

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