Changes figured to be made by the Buffalo Bandits after one of the most disappointing seasons in team history. They finished 6-10 in 2013, and became the only squad in the nine-team National Lacrosse League to miss the playoffs.
Eight months later, the Bandits are ready to try to do better. It’s important to note how much has remained the same from last season. Sixteen players are back from the 2013 squad, and a couple of more might be still around had the roster size not dropped from 23 players to 20 this season. Such familiar faces as Jon Harasym, Mike Hominuck (both retired), Luke Wiles (trade) and Alex Kedoh Hill (not playing this year) are not back from last year’s overstuffed roster.
Perhaps the biggest alteration in the team came when Darris Kilgour was fired as the head coach. He had held the position for 11 years and is the league’s all-time leader in wins by a coach.
An unlikely chain of events led to the selection of his replacement. Troy Cordingley had coached Toronto to a 10-6 record last season and was named the NLL’s Coach of the Year. He was unexpectedly fired after the season. That meant that he was available when Kilgour was relieved of his duties, and Buffalo general manager Steve Dietrich hired Cordingley in July.
“I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to get here,” said Cordingley, a former assistant coach and player for the Bandits. “Now it’s putting the product on the floor, being competitive and playing the way the Buffalo Bandits have been known to play.”
“Sometimes a new voice is good for everybody. Last year I loved playing for Darris, but obviously it didn’t work out for the team,” Shawn Williams said. “When the team does bad, usually the coach gets fired in all sports.”
Interestingly, Cordingley rehired last season’s top two assistants in Rich Kilgour and Dan Teat. The new head coach certainly is familiar with Buffalo’s roster, having coached against the Bandits a few times every year.
While new faces are relatively few in number, they figure to be very important to a team that has slowly lost its way since winning a championship in 2008. Here’s how the Bandits shape up for the upcoming season, which begins Saturday against Philadelphia at home:
Bandit fans are going to love seeing newcomer Ryan Benesch on a regular basis. He’s averaged almost five points per game throughout his career and is only 28. Benesch and Andrew Watt came over from Minnesota for two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder. Benesch can be a cornerstone of the team for years.
It was a surprise to see one of the league’s best players traded ... even to the player himself.
“I didn’t know anything about it, didn’t request anything,” Benesch said. “I got a phone call that said I had the option of coming to Buffalo or going to Vancouver, and I said I’d take Buffalo. It was a no-brainer.
“I’m glad it happened. It’s a fresh start for me and close to home” in Ontario.
Another new face is Joe Resetarits, who came over in a draft-day trade with Calgary. It was a shock to see him dealt, since he went fifth overall to the Roughnecks in the 2012 draft.
Resetarits grew up in Hamburg, and has said he’s thrilled about coming home to play. The forward, whose brother Frank played for the Bandits, will be given every chance to be a major contributor in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, John Tavares wasn’t sure if his Bandits’ career was ending last spring becauuse of injuries, but he rested over the summer and will be back for season 23. Tavares and everyone else are anxious to see how much he can contribute at the age of 45.
“Last year was definitely tough because my calf muscle just didn’t want to heal,” he said. “I’m hoping the time off will help.”
Williams was an excellent addition last season, as much of the offense went through him. Aaron Wilson supplies veteran know-how, and Dhane Smith was the team leader in goals with 24 as a rookie. They are givens.
Elsewhere, Mark Steenhuis is a forward again. He’s spent time in a transition role for the last three years, and his scoring has gone from 101 points as a forward in 2009 to 39 points in transition last year. If Steenhuis is given a full-time spot as a forward, he might give the Bandits some added production.
Chad Culp and Jamie Rooney supply depth. Smith joins such players as Watt and David Brock as transition players.
There’s another important newcomer here, as Rory Smith was acquired from Colorado. He certainly will make playing against the Bandits’ defense a more miserable experience.
“We needed more size last season, and of course he’d be the first guy to go after,” Tavares said about Smith. “He makes everyone tougher.”
Smith will fit in with a rugged defense. Billy Dee Smith and Derek Suddons are veterans who know how to clear out a crease, and Steve Priolo is coming off a season that saw him take a huge step forward.
“We want to be a physical team. Buffalo has always been a physical team, but we want to be a disciplined, physical team,” Cordingley said.
Jay Thorimbert is back in his usual role. He’s become one of the league’s best at faceoffs, and he can play defense as well as score the odd goal.
In a well-balanced league, a team with superb goaltending has an edge. That’s a big reason why the Rochester Knighthawks have won the last two NLL titles behind the work of Matt Vinc.
The Bandits hope Anthony Cosmo can be such a goalie. Cosmo has never carried a team on a long playoff run in his career, and he’s coming off a generally mediocre season (4-4 won-loss record, 13.37 goals-against average). If Cosmo is better, the Bandits will be better.
“I still believe that ‘Coz’ and Matt Vinc are the two best goalies in this league,” Dietrich said.
Kurtis Wagar is back as the second-stringer at the position. Wagar showed last season that he could play in the NLL, with a 12.22 GAA.
Predicting the future in the NLL is a ridiculous exercise, as the difference between the teams is amazingly thin. The biggest change in the Bandits is at the top. Cordingley brings a new perspective to the bench, but one that won’t be any less intense than Darris Kilgour’s. Benesch and Rory Smith can only help.
The Bandits’ season certainly will come down to the answers to some questions. Will Tavares and Resetarits contribute? Will the defense stay healthy? Will the goaltending be better?
It’s difficult to think of Buffalo as obvious contenders for a title, but the Bandits look improved and should be in the playoff mix - like everyone else in the league.