What Happened to the Saskatchewan Rush?

What happened to the Saskatchewan Rush?

According to Coolbet Canada, the Rush entered the season tied with the Halifax Thunderbirds for the best odds to win the NLL Championship at +550. At the time, Toronto was +650, San Diego was +700, Philadelphia was +800, and Buffalo was +900. Obviously things have materialized differently from what the oddsmakers imagined. But with four games to play, Saskatchewan has been by far the biggest disappointment in the NLL this season.

Despite having not technically been eliminated from the playoff race yet, the Rush are functionally out of the picture. Their hopes for a playoff berth are on the precipice of being extinguished. With Calgary and Panther City both surging, the Rush will need quite a bit to bounce their direction in order to sneak into the postseason. For a team so loaded with star power, veteran experience, and winning pedigree, the way that their season has crumbled is nothing short of shocking. 

At different points in the season, the Rush have tacitly blamed different areas of their team for the frustrating cascade of close losses that has surprised the lacrosse community. First, goaltender Adam Shute was identified as the weak link, failing in the organization’s eyes at succeeding Evan Kirk. But after Derek Keenan acquired Eric Penney from the Philadelphia Wings at midseason, not much changed. Sure there was a boost initially, but that quickly faded and games continued to slip away from the Rush in similarly agonizing fashion.

By the end of Week 17, a new scapegoat had been selected. The front office relieved head coach Jeff McComb of his duties before even concluding his first season at the helm. McComb, who was Keenan’s hand-selected heir to the Rush bench, may not have thrived in the new role, but likely is not to blame for the totality of Saskatchewan’s struggles. After all, this is a group that had “been there before” and shouldn’t have been significantly impacted by the in-house coaching transition. The plan was in place, and there shouldn’t have been many surprises in the dressing room, given that McComb was a fixture on the Rush coaching staff dating back to the Edmonton days. They knew exactly who he was.

Here at the LaxMetrics blog, we’ve always been skeptical that the issues plaguing the Rush were those that gained the most traction in the media. The numbers have always told a different story about the 2021-22 Saskatchewan Rush. In an earlier article at the season’s midpoint, we indicated that the Rush have had a major issue on offense all season. More specifically, they’ve had a hole on the left side next to Mark Matthews.

Borrowing from the same process we used to construct the data behind that earlier article on predictive math and forecasting, we can draw some conclusions and make a series of inferences about the Rush’s offense. In our opinion, the offense is the principle culprit behind Saskatchewan’s flop of a season.

Firstly, the unit has been characterized by an endemic under-performance of predictive metrics. Only Dan Lintner and Austin Murphy have out-performed their projected goal-scoring numbers in any meaningful way. At the same time, every player on the left side has failed to even keep pace with his forecasted production, let alone over-perform. Ryan Keenan has been the biggest under-performer in this area, as we indicated in that earlier blog post. At 10.71 Goals Under Expectations, Keenan has had one of the least efficient scoring seasons in the league this year. At the halfway point in the season, we identified Keenan’s second-half performance as the key to Saskatchewan’s remaining schedule. His performance hasn’t improved in any meaningful way, and the Rush have endured a similar set of struggles.

Focusing on the efficiency numbers, one might think that the elder Keenan should have sought help at the trade deadline to improve his club’s struggling offense. Instead, Keenan and company stood pat and didn’t make any moves beyond their earlier trade for Penney. But that’s not the issue we want to explore in this post. In actuality, we think it’s less about the trades the Rush didn’t pursue, but rather a trade that Saskatchewan did execute in the offseason that may be to blame for their issues scoring enough goals to win.

In 2018, Connor Robinson was a top-10 pick by the Rush. Following a quiet rookie season, Robinson was traded to Colorado for a pair of draft picks and has since gone on to explode as a goal-scorer. Robinson has posted the most efficient scoring mark in the league this year at 13.80 Goals Over Expectations. This means that Robinson has over performed his linear regression-based goal projections by approximately 50%. That’s insane.

Here’s an idea of just how good Robinson has been at scoring on relatively few touches: of the 3,768 total individual seasons between 2005 and 2022, Robinson places in the top-10 for most Goals Over Expectations. That mean’s he’s among the the top 0.003% during that 17-season window. For further context, Dhane Smith’s record-setting 72-goal season registered the best mark at 16.82 Goals Over Expectations. Amazingly, Robinson is within shouting distance of that all-time efficient pace.

To prove that Robinson may very well be the missing piece for this languishing Rush team, the LaxMetrics blog is going to compare Saskatchewan’s pythagorean expected winning percentages and win totals under two different circumstances. The first scenario is the season as it currently is with Robinson playing for Colorado. The second scenario will reflect what the projections say about the Rush if Robinson had never been traded. Instead, the projection will be based around a Saskatchewan offense that swaps out Clark Walter, Marshall Powless, Mike Mallory, and Tristan Rai for Robinson. Mallory and Rai may be right-handers, but we are assuming in this case that each player would have lost significant minutes to Robinson.

Below is a graph that illustrates the goals Over/Under Expectations posted by each player in question:

We can see quite clearly that Robinson is vastly more efficient as a scorer than any of the players who are currently occupying his hypothetical role in the Rush offense. To say that he would be an upgrade over any of them individually would be the understatement of the century. If we were to insert him into Saskatchewan’s offense with the numbers that he’s posted for the Mammoth this season, the results are stunning.

First, we need to see Saskatchewan’s baseline for this season before “Robinsonifying” their projections.

Looking at Saskatchewan’s goal differential as it stands, we can see that the Rush project as roughly an 8-win team. While they’ve underperformed their pythagorean projections, the difference has only been a handful of goals spread across their 14-games played. Saskatchewan has lost five one-goal games in addition to three more decided by two goals. What this tells us is that a slightly better performance on offense likely makes the difference between the Rush starting 6-8 or 7-7 as opposed to their current mark of 4-10.

Now let’s see how the projections look if we replace Walter, Powless, Mallory, and Rai with Robinson.

Immediately we see that the Saskatchewan Offense projects to be 18 goals better with Robinson. Just looking at the raw numbers, the lefty’s inclusion in the Rush offense is worth an additional three full wins over an 18-game projection. In fact, the theorem suggests that Saskatchewan would likely be somewhere between 8-6 and 9-5 at this point in the season. 

But creating a projection that moves Robinson to the Rush wouldn’t be complete without also removing him from Colorado’s offense. Simply subtracting Robinson’s 13.90 Goals Over Expectations drops the Mammoth to a projected record of somewhere between 5-10 and 6-9. Over an 18-game schedule, that translates to roughly a 7-11 mark. 

We can more or less think of Robinson as the difference between the Rush and the Mammoth this season. The projections tell us that whoever has Robinson would be the squad competing with San Diego for first in the West.

Keep in mind, the Colorado projections without their young lefty are not perfect, but also not overly harsh. Rather than subtracting all 37 of Robinson’s goals from Colorado’s total, we’ve opted to only removed his Goals Over Expectations. This means that the Robinson-less projections assume his replacement would produced roughly 23 goals in the same size of opportunity. Assuming any player meets his goal projections is fairly generous. For example, Robinson’s volume on offense likely would be split between a group headlined by Ryan Lee, Eli McLaughlin, and Zed Williams. But of those three, only McLaughlin has posted a positive Goals Over Expectations number this season. Both Lee and Williams haven’t been particularly efficient as scorers, supporting the idea that Robinson’s production would be hugely difficult for the Mammoth to replace. 

Now is all of this a little bit too simple? In short, yes.

It’s impossible to know exactly how players will fit together in a given offense, and as such, it might not be reasonable nor fair to expect Robinson to have the same type of season under a different set of circumstances. But that said, the circumstances in Colorado and Saskatchewan might not be all that different. 

Robinson has put up the numbers that he has despite being the third option on Colorado’s offense behind Lee and McLaughlin. He’s made a name for himself as a finisher and an extraordinarily efficient scorer. Given that he’d be playing with Mark Matthews and Robert Church, it’s reasonable to see Robinson being similarly efficient in a role roughly the same size. Pair him with quality passers and he’ll find a way to score. If there were any team you could plug him into and expect similar numbers to those he’s posted for the Mammoth, it would probably be the Rush.

So what does this all tell us? Well, to some extent nothing. But if we want to really draw clear conclusions it tells us two things. First, it tells us that the Rush let an excellent young player get away (obvious). Second, it tells us that Saskatchewan’s shortcomings are likely coming from a hole on their offense. In this case, it’s a hole that was unintentionally self-inflicted. Any time a trade is executed, general managers want to win the deal. In this case, it’s hard to see a scenario in which Saskatchewan can rightfully claim the Robinson trade as a net positive. If the numbers are even remotely accurate, Connor Robinson may have been the missing piece in a season of “what ifs” that will haunt Saskatchewan. After all, this was supposed to be the “last dance” for the Rush core.

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