Justin Salt is a weapon – a 6-foot-2, 195-lbs defender with the anticipation instincts of a greyhound. Good for a breakaway or two every night to lift fans out of their seats and to swing the momentum of a lacrosse game with a goal out of the back gate.
In 2017, no one in the NLL did it better. 11 goals, 28 assists, 114 loose balls and 35 caused turnovers – a stat line that should have won him Transition Player of the Year in the NLL.
“In that system in 2017 guys around me made it a lot easier,” says Salt, now 28-years-old. “I was getting open a lot. Clay [defensive coach Richardson] gave me a lot of confidence and had me on the floor a lot in key situations.”
Hampered with a nagging injury last season that kept him out of almost half the schedule, Salt’s numbers faltered in 2018 (1g, 7a, 54lb, 12cto) – which was a common story throughout the Vancouver roster.
“I feel a lot better now. I took most of the summer off to get healthy. I feel awesome right now – working out a lot and I feel a lot better this season than I did last season and hopefully I can have a good season.”
The team tried to find more Justin Salt’s to run the floor last season and built a team with a transition-heavy focus. It backfired as the team struggled where it mattered the most defensively and allowed a league-worst 15.38 goals against per game.
“There was a lot of focus on transition last season,” says Salt. “Obviously we were trailing in a lot of games and we were trying to get back into them and forcing things. I think a good defense turns into a good transition and that’s what we’re preaching a lot this year. We have to keep the ball out of our net first and then find that transition.”
A big part of that is the return of defensive coach Clay Richardson who helped guide the 2017 team to a 9-9 record and a first-round playoff appearance. A coach highly regarded by his players – Clay took a break for personal reasons in 2018.
“He definitely brings a simple defense out that is good for all players and easy to wrap your head around. He’s really a player’s coach where he’s not too hard on you but he’s there to help you out wherever he can. He asks a lot of everybody but he holds everyone accountable. The team and I personally had our best season in 2017.”
With Clay being flanked by new head coach Chris Gill, a new home at Rogers Arena and plenty of new faces expected on the roster on opening night, Salt is fervent to get back on the floor and start playing Gill’s style of irritating defense and return to the playoffs.
“Everything has changed. Everyone has a different mindset and is working a little harder because nothing in guaranteed and everyone has to battle. Personally, I’m bringing a little more hostility in my step to be better than I was last year. I’ve been roommates with Matt Beers and have learned a few things so hopefully I can emulate his style now that I’m a little bit older.”
With 99 games played over 8 seasons, the Coquitlam native is now the third-longest tenured Vancouver player behind Beers and Rhys Duch. A sixth-round pick in 2011, he’s now a veteran playing in his prime years.
“I didn’t even think I would be in the league when I first put my name in for the draft. Being the second to last pick was a big hurdle to climb but working hard and listening to the veteran and older guys around me definitely helped get me where I am now.”
The guy who saw the potential and encouraged Salt to enter the draft as a youngster was Dan Perrault – a former head coach with Vancouver who is now back with the team as a video advisor.
“He was my coach in junior and told me to ‘throw my name in there’ when I wasn’t that confident that I could play in the league back then. Now it’s come full circle with him coming back to the team. The first time I saw him recently he brought it up, he said ‘look where you are now,’ it’s all pretty crazy.”