A change in ownership can often lead to a front office housecleaning, but not for the Saskatchewan Rush.
The team’s new owner, the Priestner Sports Corporation, has thrown its full support behind general manager Derek Keenan ahead of what’s shaping up to be one of the busiest summers in Rush history — one that could have a significant impact on the team’s long-term success.
“They basically said this is your baby, this is what you’ve created and we want to keep it that way and we’re going to provide the resources to do that, and that’s all I could ask for,” Keenan said.
With the 2020-21 NLL season being cancelled, the Rush are facing a backlog of expiring contracts.
Keenan has already re-signed star forwards Mark Matthews and Robert Church, but the majority of Rush players still need new deals themselves.
“The only guys who are under contract are rookies that we drafted last year who we signed to two-year deals, so everybody else (is unsigned) and of course included in that group is a pretty big pile of unrestricted free agents,” Keenan explained.
Nine of them, to be exact, all of whom have played key roles in one or more of the team’s three NLL championships. The group includes goaltender Evan Kirk, defenders Chris Corbeil, Jeff Cornwall, Ryan Dilks and Kyle Rubisch, transitions Adrian Sorichetti and Jeremy Thompson, and forwards Matthew Dinsdale and Jeff Shattler.
There are also a handful of players who will become restricted free agents if they don’t receive qualifying offers by July 31, when their contracts officially expire.
While there are no plans to overhaul the roster, Keenan acknowledges that some change is inevitable, especially with two years’ worth of draft picks to account for as well.
“We’d really like to retain them all but we have to be realistic too and understand that we have a couple young guys and we liked our draft from last year and we like who we have in the bank this year in the draft,” he said.
Speaking of drafts, there’s also another expansion draft looming as the Panther City Lacrosse Club, based in Fort Worth, Texas, gets set to make its NLL debut next season as the league’s 14th franchise.
The Rush will lose just one player in the expansion draft but they can only protect a maximum of 11 from being exposed.
Deciding who to protect and who to leave exposed will depend somewhat on which players Keenan is able to sign before the draft, which is tentatively scheduled for June 29.
But contract status won’t be the only determining factor and the Rush coaching staff led by new head coach Jeff McComb will have some say as well.
“I’ve got two or three or four different options for the expansion draft that we’re looking at and you know it’s not gonna be solely my decision. I want input from my coaches as well,” Keenan said.
And when the expansion draft and free agency are done, there’s still the annual entry draft to prepare for. The Rush have three first round picks this year, giving Keenan the luxury of choosing whether to use all three or turn some into trade assets.
Put simply, there’s a lot of work ahead and the decisions made this summer could have a lasting impact. The Rush have finished first in the NLL West for seven consecutive seasons and extending that streak will largely depend on whether the team can find the right mix of core players and fresh faces.
“We built the team for last season that got cancelled to win, thinking this could be it and we’re maybe going to move on part of the (core) group, but I didn’t want to leave that,” he said.
“Now I’m in a position where we’re still in the same phase but going on to another phase in terms of bringing in some younger guys as well, but at the same time we’re gonna try and win so I find that to be a challenge and exciting.”