Boston Cannons midfielder Chris Aslanian

Why midfield is Cannons’ biggest training camp roster battle

By Sarah Griffin | May 22, 2024

The Boston Cannons have a very good problem on their hands: too much talent. 

Prior to the 2024 College Draft, Boston returned nearly the same roster as last year, only with some free agent and trade additions to bolster its arsenal. On paper, the Cannons were the most well-rounded team in the PLL. 

Then on draft day, with three picks including the sixth overall, head coach and general manager Brian Holman made his powerhouse team even scarier. The Cannons added Pat Kavanagh, Alex Vardaro and Scott Smith. Now the question is: What does Boston do with so much talent? 

Coach Holman told me he anticipates the midfield group to be the biggest positional battle to watch during training camp. Currently, the Cannons carry eight midfielders on their roster, along with Kavanagh, who they intend to run out of the box this season.

Last season's lineup

Ryan Drenner, Matt Campbell, Jonathan Donville and Chris Aslanian combined for a total of 86 points for the Cannons in 2023. While the starting attack of Marcus Holman, Asher Nolting and Matt Kavanagh might’ve been the headliners of the explosive Cannons offense, they would not have been the best offense in the league without their four versatile offensive midfielders to take them to the next level. 

Ryan Drenner

Drenner’s been a mainstay on the Cannons’ offense since the team’s inceptual year in the PLL. There’s no better example of quiet, consistent excellence than him. In seven professional lacrosse seasons, he’s produced at least 20 points five times. Every team has a Swiss army knife-type player, and Drenner’s that guy for Boston: an accurate shooter on the run with range, an offensive catalyst out of the box inverting and initiating, someone who can set picks, possesses a high off-ball IQ and can play attack if needed. There’s nothing he can’t do. 

Barring any physical setbacks, I’d anticipate another 20-plus-point season for Drenner on the Cannons’ starting midfield line.

Matt Campbell

Campbell turned heads in his first professional season, earning a nomination for the 2023 Rookie of the Year, and solidified himself as a force to be reckoned with in this league during the Championship Series in February. When the Cannons drafted him ninth overall in the 2023 College Draft, they knew what an explosive shooter they were getting, but Campbell’s shown he’s so much more. 

“He’s got a lot of tricks in the bag, so to speak,” Brian Holman told me back in February. “You can look at a player and pick out one thing he’s really good at, but at some point defenders are going to figure out a way to contain them. But with Matt, when you look at his game, he’s good at so many things – even the little things people might not always notice. He’s got a great change of direction, a wonderful split dodge, and he protects his stick really well. You don’t see him having trouble with guys getting into his gloves because he can get separation.”

Marcus Holman told me if six or seven of Campbell’s shots last year that hit off the pipe went in, he believes he would’ve won Rookie of the Year. 

We saw Nolting break out in his second season as a pro last summer and quickly become one of the best at his position in the league. With the trajectory Campbell’s on, I can see the same happening for him in his second year. 

Jonathan Donville

The Canadian out of Oakville, Ontario, Donville is one of my current favorite players in the PLL. He’s one of those guys you can insert into any role and he’s going to exceed all expectations. 

Out of the box or needed on attack, Donville’s a perfectly balanced player. He recorded 12 goals and 11 assists last season with a 33% shooting percentage. He’s always cutting, always picking and always setting screens. He possesses elite vision as a passer, but he also makes opponents pay with the short stick on him as a shooter.

Donville started alongside Drenner and Campbell last season but will begin the 2024 campaign on the PUP list. His return, whenever that may be, will make an already difficult battle in the midfield even tighter. 

Chris Aslanian 

If you’re looking for a guy with range, look no further than Aslanian. He led the Cannons in two-pointers last year with four, along with nine one-point goals and five assists. 

Even off the bench, Aslanian still produced a 22-point season. His power as an outside shooter can change the game for his team. He also brings another unique skill as a downhill dodger. With Donville out to start the year, he’ll look to prove himself in training camp as a starter amongst some new faces.  

New faces

In addition to their four returning midfielders, the Cannons added another five to their roster this offseason. Boston acquired Connor Kirst (along with defenseman Bryce Young) in a trade with the Maryland Whipsnakes in November, drafted Pat Kavanagh and Vardaro, and picked up Andrew Cook and Sterling Hupp off waivers following the draft. With so much talent and a variety of skill sets, it’s no wonder Brian Holman called the midfield the big battle to watch during training camp.

Connor Kirst

Coach Holman spoke very highly of Kirst (brother of Cannons goalie Colin) after trading for the do-it-all midfielder. 

“I think Connor’s best days are ahead of him in the PLL,” he said. “He can do so many things; having him is like having three guys in one.”

Though he can face off, play attack or play SSDM, Boston's current intention is to utilize and focus on Kirst as an offensive midfielder. He was an exceptional utility guy for the Whipsnakes for the last three seasons, but with an established role with Boston, he could really elevate his game. 

Pat Kavanagh

After the Cannons took Pat with the sixth pick, many wondered where exactly he’d play. One of the best attackmen in college lacrosse, it seemed crazy to some that he would be a depth piece for Boston’s attack. 

“You look at Pat, and God forbid something happened to Asher, Marcus or Matt, Pat can play all those positions,” Coach Holman explained. “But as of right now, our plan is to use Pat as a midfielder – invert him, get him on short sticks. If you look at the way Pat plays now, he’s playing above the cage 75% of the time at Notre Dame. So our plans are to use him as a midfielder.”

We’ve seen plenty of rookies come into the league primarily playing attack in college but wind up running out of the box in the pro game because of roster needs. As Brian Holman mentioned on draft day, Pat’s an obvious fit for the future of the Cannons’ attack as Marcus and Matt get older. But when you have Pat Kavanagh on your roster, you use him; he’s a playmaker. And who doesn’t want to see what happens when Pat is paired with a short stick? 

Alex Vardaro

Brian Holman called his second-round pick an extremely underrated midfielder.

“Alex brings a lot to the table,” the coach said. “If you go back and look at the statistical analysis of his college career, he ranks really high up there in midfield point production. His stats are eerily similar to Matt Campbell’s – less goals, but more assists.”

Vardaro played the first four years of his collegiate career at Princeton, three of those years under the leadership of Cannons offensive coordinator Jim Mitchell.

“A comparison that I like to use for Alex is sort of a Ryan Drenner type of player,” Holman said. “He does a lot of things really, really well that creates more versatility for us.” 

Andrew Cook and Sterling Hupp 

The two undrafted pickups, Cook and Hupp both have plenty of connections to this Cannons team.

Cook, the midfielder out of Division III Christopher Newport, was college teammates with defenseman Max Wayne. Brian Holman specifically called Cook out as someone not to count out in the midfield battle.

“He’s 6-2, 200 pounds, he was the Midfielder of the Year the last two years in D3, he can shoot with both hands, and he can run really well,” Holman said. “He’s not going to just disappear in camp, I can tell you that much.” 

Boston also picked up Hupp out of the University of Texas. The MCLA product has played under Cannons defensive coordinator Kyle Hartzell, who also is head coach for the Longhorns. In his senior season, Hupp produced 86 points (43G, 43A). Obviously, Hartzell sees something in Hupp’s game that can translate to the professional level, and he’ll get the chance to show that off at camp. 

Potential 2024 starting midfield line

As I see it right now, Boston has two clear midfield starters in Drenner and Campbell. However, as Brian Holman mentioned, never count anyone out in training camp. Part of what made the Cannons so successful last season was their operation as an egoless team. If Drenner or Campbell gets outplayed in training camp, that player earned their starting spot.

That being said, the biggest intrigue with this midfield group of course is who the third starting midfielder will be when the Cannons take the field for their season opener on June 1. Do they opt for an outside shooter in Aslanian? A playmaker in Pat? A three-in-one threat in Kirst? Or perhaps another Drenner-esque player in Vardaro? 

It all comes down to who fits the bigger picture of the Cannons offense the best. Nolting holds the keys to this offense -- now, and for the foreseeable future. A big part of the process in naming that third starting midfielder in training camp will be whose game complements Nolting the best. He thrives as Boston’s primary ball-carrier, and if you have a player like Pat running out of the box to set Nolting and the offense up for success, it feels like a no-brainer. 

But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. To facilitate offensive success out of the box, you need to complement the other midfielders’ games, as well. If those two guys are Drenner and Campbell, is starting Pat redundant? Do you opt instead for someone like Aslanian or even Kirst? 

Time will tell. The Cannons are keeping their cards close to their chest for now, but all eyes will be on the midfield as training camp begins.