The Buffalo Bandits looked like a .500 team entering the 2014 National Lacrosse League season, a step up from 2013 when they missed the playoffs. The Bandits had upgraded their roster in the offseason, and brought in a new head coach who had won championships in his two previous stops in the NLL.
The Bandits lived up to those forecasts. They won 10 games and lost 11, and then dropped a 10-minute mini-game by a goal in sudden death that cost them a trip to the NLL Finals.
Their route to .500 was an odd one. After taking advantage of a weak early schedule featuring plenty of home games and weaker opponents, the Bandits lost their last eight games to finish 8-10. With expectations near zero, the Bandits beat Toronto in the first round, came home to defeat Rochester in the series opener and almost earned a championship matchup with Calgary.
The finish will leave a better taste in everyone’s mouth for the next seven months. Yet it doesn’t disguise the fact the Bandits only did as well as could be expected, with a mostly veteran team. That’s not a sign that better days are necessarily right around the corner.
Here’s the season in review by departments:
The unit provided an easy way to determine Buffalo’s fate from week to week. When the team scored 10 or more goals, it was 10-3. When it was under 10 goals, the record was 0-8.
The Bandits counted on Ryan Benesch to provide scoring, and the acquisition from Minnesota did that. He led the team in the regular season with 78 points, and almost single-handedly won the Toronto playoff game with seven goals. That’s in spite of the fact that the rest of the offense sometimes had trouble getting him the ball in scoring position.
Mark Steenhuis greeted his full-time return to offense with the enthusiasm of a 7-year-old at recess. His time as a transition player never did quite add up, especially to him, but he bounced back in 2014 to lead the team in goals with 31. He may not be a 50-goal scorer any more, but he can still help.
John Tavares, 45, couldn’t put up the numbers every night like he used to do, but he was still a contributor. Shawn Williams, 39, had a year to forget, mostly because of the illness of his son. He finished with 49 points, his worst total since scoring 40 points in 10 games in 2000. At their ages, both men will be thinking about their future in the offseason.
Newcomer Joe Resetarits went from 24 points in Calgary to 42 in Buffalo. He was a consistent scorer in his second year in the league and looks like a keeper. Chad Culp and Jamie Rooney did some of the dirty work and scored the odd goal.
Aaron Wilson had injury problems for the first time in his career, but he also had trouble finding a regular role on the team. Wilson might need a change of scenery.
Dhane Smith did everything but play goal this past season. He was the team’s third-leading scorer with 59 points, a constant threat to create fast breaks from the back end. If there’s a full-time opening up front, he is the logical choice to fill the spot. Don’t let him go anywhere.
Andrew Watt was slowed by an injury in midseason, but second-round draft pick Mitch Wilde proved to be a nice addition. Jay Thorimbert was a very good faceoff man who could contribute on offense once in a while, as usual.
The acquisition of Rory Smith was supposed to set the tone for the defense, and he did that. Smith was miserable to play against. A lasting image came in the final game of the playoffs – Smith following Cody Jamieson of Rochester, whacking him wherever he went.
Steve Priolo continues to get better. He went from seven points last season to 26 in 2014, and he remained a physical terror on defense. Priolo still takes a few silly penalties (65 PIM led the team), but he’ll receive support for all-league teams.
Billy Dee Smith and Derek Suddons joined Rory Smith and Priolo in a powerful group of defensemen. Glen Bryan and David Brock supplied some depth.
Anthony Cosmo had his best year by far as a Bandit, providing a dependable presence in goal. He played like a league MVP candidate in the first half of the season. Cosmo’s game slipped a bit in the second half, but he was solid in earning the first two playoff victories of his career. Cosmo is 36, but looks like a first-stringer for the immediate future.
Kurtis Wagar only played for 25 minutes the entire season. We still don’t know if he can hold up for a few games in case of an injury to Cosmo, but he earned the backup job with a strong training camp and added life to the locker room.
After a season that featured too many veterans for too few roster spots, general manager Steve Dietrich and new coach Troy Cordingley restored some order in 2014. Cordingley seemed to enjoy coaching a team that had plenty of classy veterans on it. The new boss also scored points for his sense of detail and organization.
While the losing streak obviously brought some stress, the team didn’t show many outward signs of it. The coaching staff gets credit for having the team ready to go for the postseason.
Here’s the major question for the Bandits from here: Where are the potential places for improvement in order to move up in the standings?
Dhane Smith and Resetarits certainly qualify. Priolo still could go up a notch. Perhaps players such as Wilde, Mitch Jones, Kevin Brownell and Joel Matthews will develop. That’s not a huge list.
Buffalo only has had three first-round draft choices in the past seven years – Smith, Travis Irving and Kyle Clancy. Only Smith is still around to contribute. What’s more, the team’s next three first-rounders already are in Minnesota’s hands due to trades.
A good playoff run can’t erase the memory of some difficult times in recent years.
The Bandits have had a losing record for each of the past three regular seasons; the team had never been below .500 in consecutive years before this stretch. Buffalo lost at least six straight games at some point in each of those years.
Some of the key veterans figure to fall away in the next few years; Tavares and Williams may opt to get on with the rest of their lives immediately.
Dietrich will have some serious work in front of him as that happens. The Bandits will have to use everything left in the toolbox, from free agent signings and trades to good draft choices outside of the first round, to become regular title contenders again.