Down the stretch, nobody played better lacrosse than the Denver Outlaws. It started with seventh-round rookie goalie Jack Kelly (54.3 save percentage) and the defense in front of him.

Since the Outlaws’ 2014 championship, the defensive core has disintegrated. Lee Zink retired. Dillon Roy and Chris O’Dougherty were unavailable for the 2016 season due to injuries suffered in NLL. Only Matt Bocklet and Michael Simon remained — two primarily long-stick midfielders.

There was no cohesiveness down low early in the year. Through eight games opponents were carving up the Outlaws to the tune of a 0.61 assist-to-turnover ratio, which would have been worst in MLL over a full season. League average assist-to-turnover ratio is 0.40. Goalies Ryan LaPlante and Johnny Rodriguez took heat for the Outlaws’ 2-6 start, but the defensive issues in Denver were deeper than the player between the pipes.

Midway through the season, the Outlaws bumped Bocklet down to close defense along with BJ Grill (a fifth-round rookie Marquette), Michael Skudin (acquired midseason in a trade with the New York Lizards) and five-year veteran Max Schmidt.

During their season-ending six-game winning streak, Outlaws’ opponents recorded a paltry 0.31 assist-to-turnover ratio. Over a full season that mark would have been best in MLL. Bocklet and company were hedging and recovering all over the place, supporting the on-ball defender without losing their individual matchups.

This summer, the Outlaws face that same personnel predicament. Schmidt, Skudin and Roy announced their retirement this offseason. New faces join the fold: Eddy Glazener, Zack Price, Jamie Ikeda and Tripp Telesco among others. It wouldn’t be shocking to see similar early season struggles, but with a championship coaching staff, Bocklet, Simon and O’Dougherty on the field, the right leaders are in place for the Outlaws’ defense to peak at the right time.

2016 MLL Team A-to-TO allowed