It’s often said, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” In the NLL, if a team hands you a roster spot, you better do as much as you can to prove you’re worth of that opportunity.
In the case of Coquitlam-native Keegan Bal, after years of inconsistent roster appearances or the team’s not utilizing his skill set, Bal is finally showing the world what he is capable of within the right system.
Playing within that system has opened up chances for Bal as a secondary scorer while guys like Mitch Jones and Logan Schuss garner plenty of the defence’s attention. Within the five games to start the season, Bal has seven goals, 11 assists and 18 points. His goals and points totals are already career-highs for one year and he is just four assists shy of setting a personal-best there as well.
Warriors GM Dan Richardson stressed that for Bal to excel in the NLL, he would need to be put in the right system in order to prosper and we’re seeing that with the team Richardson and the staff have crafted in Vancouver.
“You’ve got to put players in the right position to succeed,” said Richardson. “Keegan earned that after he was given that opportunity. He’s not afraid to go in front of the net. He’s a very slippery guy to check. He’s very very fast, fleet-footed, has a good first step. He’s got a good outside shot and can bury it from close in.”
All of those traits outlined by Richardson have been present in the first five games and his head coach Chris Gill has taken notice.
“Keegan’s been playing really well,” said Gill. “I think he’s an underrated player and not too many people know about him – he’s not a big name like Logan Schuss or Mitch Jones – but he’s been quarterbacking our offence for the first part of the season.”
“He’s super smart with the ball and he knows the system really well.”
The Warriors coach is familiar with Bal from his days with the Western Lacrosse Association’s New West Minister Salmonbellies as well as seeing him compete in the President’s Cup with the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League’s St. Albert Minors.
Gill also was almost Bal’s coach when he was with the Colorado Mammoth and Bal was trying out for the team. Ultimately, however, he couldn’t gain a roster spot. Looking back, Gill and Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle believe they made a mistake passing up on the right-hander.
“I think anytime – especially someone where our paths have crossed – we always want to see guys do well (maybe not against us)” said Coyle. “I think we made a mistake with him last year. He should have been on our roster. Hindsight is 20/20, but he did really well and he deserves to be in this league.”
“He’s got a huge upside,” said Gill. “He watches so much film and is always prepared for the game and ready for practices. I’m excited for guys like him, for guys that should have been in this league the last two or three years to have so much upside.”
After missing out on a roster spot with the Mammoth, Bal went right back preparing to be in tip-top shape. He worked alongside Warriors goaltender Aaron Bold at the netminder’s gym, Bold Athletics, in Edmonton. Over the summer, he trained so not to leave anything up to chance if another opportunity arose.
It seems that his hard work and dedication has paid off as he’s impressed Gill and Richardson with his development.
“From what I’ve seen on the floor and what I saw from him last year, his game has grown,” said Gill. “Players don’t just get better without focusing on the mental side of the game, doing the preparation and watching video. You don’t just come into the NLL without getting ready, so kudos to him for getting ready and stepping up to show everyone who he is.”
“I would say that I’m pleasantly surprised, but I’m really not,” said Richardson. “I’ve had him on my [New Westminster Salmonbellies] teams, I’ve tracked his progress with the Minors; we’ve been in contact each year. [Keegan] is a perfect example of what Chris Gill and I talked about: we were going to give players chances that we felt hadn’t gotten a full-shake by previous teams in this league.”
Much of that growth stemmed from Bal’s time playing with the Miners. In 2016 and 2017, Bal led the RMLL in points scored with 70 and 123 points respectively. Bal credits his team with the team playing with and against NLL players as a key factor on his improvement.
“It was a good group [of players] I got to work with at St. Albert,” said Bal. “There were probably five or six different NLL guys on our team every year. Every day going up against a guy like [former Saskatchewan Rush defender] Ryan Dilks for two years, that really helps you. Going up against guys like [Colorado Mammoth defender] John Lintz and [Warriors defender] Jarrett Toll and shooting on Aaron Bold in the summer, I think that all helped quite a bit.”
The relationship between Richardson and Bal played a significant role in Bal’s return to the floor in Vancouver. The Edmonton experience was ending at the time the Richardson was being named GM, and Richardson didn’t hesitate to connect with Bal to offer his a shot with the Warriors.
“I would check-in with Keegan from time to time whenever I had the chance,” said Richardson. He told me that if he ever came back to Vancouver he’d want to play for [the Salmonbellies]. But, when I took this job, one of the first free agents I reached out to was Keegan.”
“I do think we’re improving a lot as the year goes on,” said Bal. “I really like this group and believe in this group, and I think moving forward, I think we will change and we’ll start winning some games.”
Slotting into his new role has come more smoothly with the departure of Rhys Duch before the season began. While Bal is shining early for the Warriors, it’s been a collective effort by the right-handers to step up and work as a unit.
“I think anytime a superstar on your side of the ball leaves for whatever reason, that’s going to open opportunities for everyone on that side,” said Bal. “But, at the same time, there’s five of us right now on that right side and we all play for each other and with each other.”
Of course, adding to the joy of playing well is doing it in front of your friends and family. Bal, who previously played for the Vancouver Stealth, is excited to be displaying his talents in front of them and the home fans.
“It’s really nice playing in Rogers Arena in front of family and friends,” said Bal. “I’m really happy to be part of the home team.”
Now that he seems to be cementing a regular spot on the offensive end, Bal never forgets the struggles he went through to become a role player for the Warriors.
“I grew up watching the NLL when I was a kid and obviously I wanted to play in the league,” said Bal. “I never expected that it might come easy. I just wanted to work hard and hopefully get here one day.”
As he continues to hone his craft, the belief that Bal can become a household name is an idea beginning to be thrown around. That would be an affirmation to the 27-year-old, but it wouldn’t mean as much as his ultimate goal of winning an NLL Cup for his home town club.
“Yes, of course, I do,” Bal said of wanting to be a household name. “But, at this point, I’m just taking it one game at a time and I want to improve. The biggest thing I want to do is win. I would take winning over points or anything else any day of the week. That’s my main focus: helping us to win an NLL Cup, that would be a dream come true.”