The Buffalo Bandits turned over half of their roster before the 2013 season. The idea was to add young players for the future while keeping enough veterans around to stay competitive.
The plan worked for the first half of the season. Then everything fell apart.
The Bandits were 5-3 after eight games, but suffered a crushing overtime loss to Philadelphia on March 1 that saw Buffalo give up the lead with three seconds left in regulation time. That shook the team badly, as several players commented that everyone lost confidence for weeks after that. Buffalo finished 1-7, the worst second-half record by the team since the National Lacrosse League went to a 16-game season in 2002. It included a six-game losing streak that tied the franchise record.
When the regular season ended on April 20, the Bandits found themselves on the outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and the fourth time in history.
Many of the other facts about the season weren’t pretty either:
• Buffalo set a franchise record with 10 losses, and had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time ever.
• It’s the first time the Bandits have ever had the worst overall record in the league, and the team has traded its first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
• A 21-7 loss on April 6 in Minnesota was the most one-sided defeat in team history. The game featured 11 straight goals by the Swarm, a low point of Buffalo’s season.
• The team finished 2-6 at home, losing its last six games in the First Niagara Center to set a team record.
Sports seasons always feature good news and bad news. It’s fair to say the bad news had the edge this year.
Building block: Dhane Smith, the team’s first-round draft choice, was as good as advertised. He led the team in goals with 24 and gave the team a big boost in athleticism. Smith is a keeper.
Veteran move: Shawn Williams returned to Buffalo after he was traded away following the 2001 season, and he looked as if he never left. Williams led the team with 65 points, and he quickly became the focal point of the offense. Williams was a big contributor at age 38, and said he is looking forward to 2014 already.
Unsung hero: Jay Thorimbert had his best season as a Bandit, finishing third in the league in faceoffs (61 percent), setting a team record for loose balls (180) and playing well in transition. He might have been the team’s most valuable player.
Standup backup: Kurtis Wagar might have been the biggest question mark on the roster entering the season, but the goalie showed for the most part that he belonged in the NLL. He finished with a better goals-against average than starter Anthony Cosmo (12.22 vs. 13.37).
Leaky defense: Cosmo had the worst goals-against average in the league among goalies with more than 400 minutes played. He was pulled from games eight times, including five in a row. That’s partly an indictment of the entire team defense – the 211 goals allowed tied for the league’s high, and was the team’s highest total since 2002 – but Cosmo needed to play better.
Missing in action: Luke Wiles had 39 goals and was a consistent offensive force last year. Between a contract issue and visa problem, Wiles had a bad start this year and ended up on the practice squad after scoring 10 goals in 12 games. That was part of an offensive slump by the team which saw Buffalo drop from 198 goals to 171. The Bandits had only one player, Williams, finish in the NLL’s top 20 in scoring.
Powerless: Buffalo had the worst record in the league with the man advantage, 42 percent. John Tavares, bothered by injuries for much of the season, went from 21 power-play goals to seven, while Wiles dropped from 18 to six. No one had more than seven goals with the extra man.
Lineup juggling: A total of 31 players put on a Bandits’ uniform in 2013, the most since the 1999 team used the same number in a 4-8 season. Many forwards jumped in and out of the lineup, which couldn’t have helped team chemistry.
New General Manager Steve Dietrich promised a new approach when he took the job, and he fulfilled that promise. Dietrich took a clean break from the previous philosophy of sacrificing the future by trading draft choices for veterans. The Bandits needed to get younger, faster and bigger, and added five rookies.
It must have been a little awkward at times for Dietrich to have the former GM, Darris Kilgour, as his coach during a difficult year. Their relationship now has gone through a season together. Dietrich recently said he thinks Kilgour is a top coach, and Kilgour has said he wants to come back. Still, we’ll have to see if the strain of missing the playoffs will lead to some organizational changes.
Team management faces all sorts of personnel questions as it gets ready for 2014. Is there a No. 1 goalie on the current roster? Have Tavares and Tracey Kelusky played their last NLL games? Can someone supply more depth to the team’s defense? Are the rookies of 2013 ready to take a step forward next season? Can Wiles rediscover his scoring touch in Buffalo, or will the team let him go elsewhere as he searches for it?
The Bandits certainly have the financial muscle to lure some free agents to Buffalo. Western New York is an ideal location for attracting residents from Ontario — the sport’s major source of talent — who want to stay close to home. More roster changes certainly are ahead, and the ability to identify and develop talented draft choices will determine if the Bandits can return to their previous glory days in the future.