The Buffalo Bandits were 7-9 in 2012, their first losing season since 1999. The year included a six-game losing streak and a painful last-second playoff loss to the Toronto Rock.
That didn’t go over well in Banditland.
When the Bandits open the 2013 season tonight in Philadelphia (7 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM), they will give their fans their first look at a rebuilding effort that changed half the roster and an executive.
The biggest switch was at the top. Darris Kilgour will stick to coaching in 2013. Steve Dietrich, the former Bandits’ goaltender, was named to replace him as general manager. After a great career, Dietrich spent two seasons as an assistant coach with Toronto. He also has been a general manager for five seasons for a Canadian league team.
“I’ve been thinking about this job since probably before I played here,” Dietrich said. When Kurt Silcott was the Bandits’ GM, Dietrich “was lucky enough to be almost a confidant of his. He’d bounce things off me. This is something I always wanted to do. This is the place I’ve always dreamed of doing it.”
Dietrich and Kilgour left much of the nucleus of the team alone, but familiar faces are gone. The biggest surprise in that category was the departure of captain Chris White, who signed as a free agent with Toronto.
“Losing Whitey was a huge loss to us,” Kilgour said. “It’s very disappointing that we couldn’t get him signed. He was one of my favorite players.”
Roger Vyse, Ian Llord and Tom Montour were released before the start of training camp. Kevin Buchanan and Jeremy Thompson were traded. Mike Thompson and Darryl Gibson retired. Angus Goodleaf, Brandon Francis and Travis Irving didn’t make the opening night roster.
The replacements are a blend of veterans who are well-tested in the National Lacrosse League and rookies who usually have had to sit and wait to play in Buffalo.
“I still think we have a championship-caliber team,” Kilgour said. “There are only nine teams in the league, so there’s enough talent out there. We have to put things in place.”
Here’s a look at this year’s team:
The starting point, as always, is John Tavares. Last year at the age of 43, he led the team in goals (41) and points (80) and was a second-team All-Pro. On the subject of retirement, Tavares said with a laugh, “I kind of feel like my career’s going to end in the middle of a season. They’re probably going to have to cut me.”
Not much chance of that.
Luke Wiles was a great addition last year (39 goals), but the unit still needed more consistent scoring from others. The Bandits hope that comes in the form of Shawn Williams, acquired in a trade. Williams had 68 points to lead Edmonton in scoring last year. The 38-year-old has more than 1,000 points in his career and is a sure Hall of Famer.
Aaron Wilson also was with the Rush last season, while Mike Hominuck was with Philadelphia. Top draft pick Dhane Smith will play on offense, and he’ll be joined by second-rounders Carter Bender and Hayden Smith.
They’ll be in the mix with the reliable Chad Culp and Mat Giles. Tracey Kelusky has had two disappointing seasons since coming to Buffalo, and may have trouble getting playing time.
White played most of the important minutes for the Bandits, and he’ll have to be replaced. One obvious candidate is Derek Suddons, who was signed as a free agent from Edmonton. He was a big part of the Rush’s surprising playoff run last year. Glen Bryan came over from Toronto in a trade, and he should help, too.
“Not one of those guys will play the Chris White role, but we’ll divide it up,” assistant coach Rich Kilgour said. “It’s not going to be an easy task.”
Billy Dee Smith, who will miss the opening weekend with a league suspension, and Scott Self are back for another season, and they rank with the best in the league. Past that, Steve Priolo is tough and Mike McNamara is young, so depth could be a problem.
Mark Steenhuis played hurt last season, and the Bandits have struggled to figure out whether to use him in transition or on offense. He’s still a threat no matter where he plays. Jon Harasym will be back as a transition player, and he’ll be joined by newcomer David Brock (Philadelphia). Dhane Smith may figure in the mix at times.
Jay Thorimbert is the only returning faceoff specialist with Francis gone.
The trade that brought Anthony Cosmo to Buffalo last year became much more important when Thompson retired. On a given night, Cosmo is as good as anyone in the league.
He needs to stay healthy. Kurtis Wagar, signed as a free agent, is an unproven backup. This is his seventh year in the league, but he’s played a total of only 195 minutes in that time and has a career record of 1-1.
On paper, the Bandits don’t look as strong as Eastern rivals Rochester and Toronto. It’s certainly possible that the addition of veterans like Williams, Wilson and Suddons could give the rookies time to develop, and the Bandits would then be a handful in the playoffs.
The Bandits also could suffer some key injuries and have their problems making the postseason. If the breaks even out as they usually do, something around .500 seems likely.