June 12, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
Guessing the playoff seeding in the East Division is like playing two truths and a lie, or at least two knowns and an unknown. Despite losing, again, to the DC Breeze in Washington DC, the Toronto Rush (8-1) will likely win the division. Despite a clearly much improved team this year, the Ottawa Outlaws (2-7) are likely out of playoff contention. The unknown is which two of the Philadelphia Phoenix (4-5-1), the Montreal Royal (4-4), the Breeze (5-4-1), and the New York Empire (4-2) will qualify for the remaining two playoff spots in the division.
Let’s look at how everyone stacks up, as well as where every team will need to get their wins in order to snag the last two playoff spots.
The Breeze likely have the single best player between all four teams in Rowan McDonnell. Coach Darryl Stanley uses McDonnell like the blunt force of a hammer; if you hit opponents often enough with McDonnell, they should wilt.
He can play virtually any position on either side of the disc. McDonnell usually acts as an initiation cutter, athletic enough to beat anyone deep or wriggle open under and distribute the disc all over the field to continuation cutters. McDonnell was terrific while the Breeze beat Raleigh in May, catching 10 goals in the interdivisional game. A potentially even more impressive outing came just last week against the Toronto Rush. Hampered by a hamstring injury, McDonnell was reduced to handling. He tossed eight assists, and broke open for resets at will, finishing with 72 completions and only two throwaways on the game. He was equally productive on the defence against Toronto, finishing with a stellar 43 percent conversion rate from the defensive side. He’s a lockdown defender whose presence virtually guarantees a break after a turnover.
The Breeze will go as far as McDonnell takes them, and they currently sit in the final playoff spot in the East. They have a trying schedule for the rest of the season, as they’ll face Toronto in Toronto next week and end the season facing New York at home. The Breeze have never won in Toronto, and they were spanked 33-20 last time they visited Monarch Park Stadium. With a game against Ottawa and one against Philadelphia, it would not be surprising to see the Breeze sitting at 7-5-1 coming into their final game of the season against New York. DC has an easier path to seven wins than Philadelphia or Montreal, but it’s completely within the realm of possibility that Montreal gets there. DC should have to win one game in Toronto or at home against New York to make the playoffs.
Despite having likely the largest wealth of talent in the East outside of Toronto, the Royal currently sit outside the East playoff seeding. It’s bizarre. One year ago, the Royal finished 9-6, but with the point spread (328-327) of a .500 team. This year they are .500, but with a negative point spread (180-189). The team doesn’t feel dramatically worse than last year, as two of their losses on the season have been in competitive games against the Toronto Rush, but they also don’t feel particularly better than last year’s Royal yet.
“They made the playoffs last year, and they've added Esteban [Ceballos], added Cam [Burden], added myself,” explained new addition Morgan Hibbert. “I do feel a lot of pressure in terms of, our results need to be better than last year for this to be called a success, Frisbee-wise. It kinda seems like as a team, we're worse than they were last year, which is a bummer at the moment, and I definitely feel some responsibility for that, you know?”
“We need to be in the [East] championship game for the fit to be a success, Frisbee-wise,” Hibbert continued. “Anything less than that, I would say, would be a failure. I would feel like it would be a failure from my contributions as a Frisbee player to this team.”
Hibbert has struggled adjusting to Montreal’s vertical stack on offence. Montreal runs a basic system so that their mish-mash of players can fit well together on the fly, but continuation flow can be hard to internalize as a player without a specific offensive system or standardized timing for cutters.
The Royal have perhaps the largest possible gap between how they are currently performing and how they could be performing at peak strength. Hibbert is a Canadian ultimate legend, who at his best is a cornerstone player who could lock down deep threats like Isaiah Masek-Kelly or Beau Kittredge from the D-Line while anchoring on a turn. He hasn’t played up to his lofty standards, accumulating only eight assists, eight goals, and seven blocks on the season. He’s currently out with a sprained MCL, but he should return in the next few weeks.
Montreal, of course, has a wealth of talent beyond Hibbert. Quentin Bonnaud is one of the most talented offensive players in the league. Kevin Quinlan and Stève Bonneau would be starting offensive handlers on virtually any team in the AUDL. The safe bet would have to be that at some point, such a collection of talent will realize how to become better than a sum of its parts. But when? Montreal is running out of time.
Montreal’s next five games include three against New York and one against Toronto. They cannot afford any more time to grow into their own skin. Even if they win their remaining games against Ottawa and Philadelphia (not a given, as they’re 0-2 against Philadelphia on the season), Montreal probably needs to win twice against New York or once against New York and once against Toronto. Both paths are difficult, which puts Montreal in the maybe column for now.
New York Empire
The Empire seem to be the gatekeeper to the playoffs in the East. For one, they are second in the division behind Toronto. More importantly, they’ve played the fewest games in the league, and have six combined contests remaining against Montreal (3), Philadelphia (2), and DC (1). A dominant Empire could not only separate themselves from the pack, but also single-handedly decide who finishes third in the division. An underperforming Empire could quite reasonably fall out of playoff contention. Their four wins have come against Ottawa (twice), Philly, and D.C; they haven’t consistently beaten the cream of the crop in the East, and we don’t yet know how they will fare against Montreal.
And yet, it feels like New York is easily the second-best team in the East. DC is the Rowan McDonnell show, Philadelphia the Sean Mott and Ethan Peck program, and Montreal is one giant, talented question mark. New York is different; they know exactly who they are as a team. The Empire are a self-assured meat grinder of a team who bets everything on their defence.
Most teams will play at least one star on their defence, like Mark Lloyd for Toronto. New York’s identity is to push that balance as far as possible; the Empire’s defence likely has more talent and athleticism than their offence. Jeff Babbitt is the team MVP who won All-AUDL first team in 2017. The Drost brothers, Mike and Ryan, are lynchpins. Ben Katz and Marques Brownlee, when the whole team is available, likely play more of their minutes with the team’s defence.
That’s not to say that New York’s offence isn’t capable. Harper Garvey is a magician handler with the range of Jonathan Nethercutt and the trick throws of Rowan McDonnell. Furthermore, Kittredge is now suiting up for New York. His presence alone can supercharge an offence, and he could be the one thing in the East (league?) whose presence changes how the Toronto Rush approach a game.
As New York still has eight games left in the season, their paths to seven or eight wins are still multitudinous. Heck, if they only beat Ottawa and Philadelphia for the rest of the season, they reach seven. It would be fairly surprising if New York drops out of the playoffs, as one of the two positions seems to be theirs to lose. Still, Montreal and New York haven’t yet faced each other, and Montreal could prove to have some matchup advantages in those games. New York hasn’t won anything yet. Even with the playoffs just over a month away, there’s still oodles of regular season entertainment to be had.
The Phoenix are dramatically improved this year. Adding veterans will do that to a team. While Vince Reydams, Dave Baer, and others have been a huge boost when on the field, raising the baseline of the team’s play, the stars have carried Philadelphia to their surprisingly successful season thus far.
Mott has become an unstoppable force, bordering on a fringe MVP candidate. He leads the team in assists (37), goals (33), and is second in blocks (9). While Peck has emerged as a full-fledged star in his own right, Mott has played in all 10 games for Philadelphia. When the two play together, Philadelphia is a realistic threat to beat any opponent. They’ve outscored opponents 97-49 in their 146 points together on the season, including a ridiculous (but unsustainable) 53 percent conversion when moonlighting on the defence.
Despite their successes, Philadelphia will be hard-pressed for a playoff position. They have four remaining games and will need to win at minimum three for a chance at the playoffs. They play only fellow playoff contenders: Montreal, DC, New York, New York. Winning three of four games would require a herculean effort, as well as near-perfect availability from their stars. Though Philadelphia is in the outside lane, they will have truly earned a playoff spot if they qualify for the dance.