Mammoth’s 2018 depends on defensive core and Benesch filling Crawford’s shoes

The Colorado Mammoth begins regular season play Friday on the road against the Vancouver Stealth. The Dec. 8 game will be the earliest the Mammoth have begun regular season play.

A 9-9 season was just enough for the Mammoth to sneak into the playoffs last season. They played the Stealth in the the division semifinals, edging Vancouver, 13-12, moving on to play the Saskatchewan Rush. The Rush soundly defeated the Mammoth during the home-and-home series 18-9 and 11-10, eliminating Colorado from the Champion’s Cup playoffs.

The Mammoth, coming off of their first appearance in the division final since 2006, have gone through some pretty significant changes in the offseason. Most notably, perennial all-pro John Grant Jr. announced his retirement from lacrosse July 17, at the age of 42. Grant, who was a two-time MVP, stated that the decision was sealed after suffering a concussion in January of the 2017 season and only played in two games all season. He will continue to be involved with Colorado lacrosse as an assistant coach with the Denver Outlaws and varsity head coach of Valor Christian High School.

Along with Grant, the team had a major change at general manager when Steve Govett walked away for a position outside of the organization in June. Govett, who was the first general manager and has been with the team since 2002, was replaced by former Mammoth player Dan Carey, who was previously the team’s director of player personnel since 2015.

The Mammoth offense will look a tad different this season. The team traded forward Callum Crawford and goalie Alex Buque to the Buffalo Bandits in exchange for sharpshooting forward Ryan Benesch and a 2018 conditional draft pick. Benesch was third in the National Lacrosse League in shooting percentage last season, and averaged 87.75 points per season with Buffalo. The team did manage to hold onto forward Zach Greer, who signed a two-year deal in July. Greer was third on the team in goals, assists and points, but will be unavailable to start the season, as he is on the PUP list with a concussion. Instead, the team may have to rely on rookie Ryan Lee to break out, while Jeremy Noble and Chris Wardle will fill in the gap Greer leaves while he is out.

Defensively, though, the Mammoth continue to look strong. They re-signed defensemen Brad Self and Greg Downing, keeping together a core that allowed a league-low 199 goals last season. But, the team will be without the services of Dan Coates and Cam Holding during the 2018 season due to ACL injuries, and Bryce Sweeting too, who is on the PUP list with a neck injury to start the season. Despite the injuries, captain Robert Hope and Joey Cupido are strong defensive leaders, while Jordan Gilles will look to improve on a sophomore campaign in which he was fifth on the team in caused turnovers.

Dillon Ward, the NLL’s Goaltender of the Year, also returns in net for the Mammoth, now backed up by Steve Fryer in place of Buque. Ward was third in the league in save percentage, at .793, and only allowed 165 goals. Fryer was with the Toronto Rock last season, but did not play. In his 12 games played in his career, he has allowed seven goals on 27 shots, a .259 save percentage.

The Mammoth begin their season at Vancouver against the Stealth, whom they beat in the division semifinals of the playoffs last season. Their next game — and first home game — will be Dec. 23 against the Georgia Swarm, who are the defending Champion’s Cup winners.