First overall pick Mark Matthews leads youth movement for Edmonton Rush

Shane Jones, The Canadian Press

EDMONTON - Edmonton has become used to going through sports youth movements of late.

Similar to the rebuilding effort of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, the National Lacrosse League’s Edmonton Rush are going into this season hoping to be much younger and faster with a group of newly drafted young guns expected to make major contributions.

The biggest addition to the Rush was 2012 first overall draft pick Mark Matthews, a towering six-foot-five 230-pound forward.

"Guys like Mark Matthews are pretty rare in our game," said Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan. "To have that big of a body and be that good of an athlete, he’s such a big package with all of the skill he has.

"There is going to be a learning curve though. It’s a tough league to play in. He hasn’t played at this level yet. But he is going to have good guys around him and we don’t need him to score five goals a game, we just need him to contribute like everybody else.”

The Rush are a much younger team this season with Matthews being joined by second-round picks Curtis Knight and Mike Cudmore and third-round selection Michael Burke. The oldest player on the Edmonton roster is 32-year-old Ryan Ward.

“With the number of draft picks we had, we were going to get younger and better,” Keenan said. “There have been really good drafts for the past few years and it was really hard not to go in this direction. There are so many good players out there at a young age.

"Guys that can come in and play right away because they have already played at the national level and in Minto and Mann Cups and in the NCAA for four years. They are just prepared to step into the league and play right away.”

Other key additions among the eight new players on the roster include Jarrett Davis (traded for holdout Paul Rabil from Rochester), Cory Conway (Calgary) and Jeremy Thompson (Buffalo).

Among the most notable deletions from last year’s squad are Shawn Williams, who led the Rush with 52 assists and 68 points before being traded for a pair of second-round picks in 2012, veteran Aaron Wilson, Derek Suddons and Steve Toll.

“There are definitely some big shoes to fill,” Keenan said.

With so many fresh faces and many players who are new to the NLL altogether, the Rush could be hard-pressed to repeat their late-season success. Edmonton surged in the post-season last year and made it all the way to the championship game before dropping a 9-6 decision to the Rochester Knighthawks.

"It’s a nine-team league and everybody is good," Keenan said. "It’s so even that there are teams that could finish 12-4 and the same team could very well finish 4-12. That’s how much parity there is. The game and the league have never been better. We saw it on the opening weekend when the defending champs (Rochester) lose to a team that was 4-12 last year (the Washington Stealth).

"That’s what you are going to see. Tons of one-goal games. We’re right there with everybody I think, but a lot of things have to fall in place for us to win a championship.”

The Rush open their 2013 season at home on Sunday against the Toronto Rock, who play their first game the night before in Calgary.