By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Bandits were in first place in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division as of Wednesday, recovering nicely to date from 2017’s terrible season. Yes, they hadn’t looked good in a loss to Rochester on Saturday, but the team certainly should have been happy with what the first half of the season looked like under the circumstances.
Apparently, the Bandits weren’t so satisfied.
General manager Steve Dietrich said he didn’t like the way his team handled the one-sided loss to the Knighthawks on Saturday. Therefore, he reacted when he had the chance to shake up the roster.
And how. Buffalo sent Callum Crawford to New England for Shawn Evans, a two-time Most Valuable Player in the NLL. There were a couple of draft choices involved, but the swap of two elite players was the headline here.
We hardly had the chance to know Crawford, who came over from Colorado with Alex Buque in exchange for Ryan Benesch. Crawford had 40 points as a Bandit, which ranked around the top 25 in the league scoring race. Crawford seemed like a good complimentary player, someone who wouldn’t get you out of your seat but who made the smart play. He also came across as an intelligent veteran who certainly must have been a wise voice in the locker room.
Now he’s gone for Evans, one of the game’s top stars. Evans is tied for seventh in scoring with 51 points; the Bandits now have three of the top eight scorers in the league (Dhane Smith and Mitch Jones). The Bandits get a little younger in the deal, and they probably get a little more talented. No one doubts that Evans is an elite player. He’s also signed through 2020, while Crawford will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
There’s also no doubt that Evans will add some fire to Buffalo’s roster. Evans has 513 career penalty minutes in 204 games. He certainly has been a player that opposing fans have loved to hate over the years. It’s interesting that Evans lost the job of captain of the Black Wolves recently to Kyle Buchanan. New England issued a statement that the coaches thought communication would improve with Buchanan as captain, and that the job was weighing on Evans – whatever that meant.
We do know that changing captains in sports like lacrosse and hockey can be a bit traumatic. The old person on the job sometimes leaves town as a result. It happened to Lindy Ruff with the Sabres. Therefore, perhaps the trade makes a little more sense with that fact in mind as it did when it was first announced. Yes, NLL players bounce around for a lot of reasons, including job transfers and family situations. This now doesn’t look like one of them.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS
The biggest question about the deal from Buffalo’s standpoint, at least on the field, goes something like this: Who gets the ball? Who is the “big dog?” For the last few years, Dhane Smith has been the focus of the Buffalo offense. The ball usually went through him. Since Smith is one of the best players in the league, that was a good idea.
Now Evans comes along, and he’s used to filling that same role. The forward was a good player for Rochester for six years through 2011, but he became a major star after arriving in Calgary. There he had three 100-point seasons, including 130 in 2015. The trade to New England was surprising, but Evans had two 100-point seasons with the Black Wolves and was on his way to a third when the trade was completed.
We’ll have to wait and see how Evans and Smith will coexist. They certainly have very different personalities. If it works, the Bandits have given themselves a chance to make some noise in the playoffs this spring. But if it doesn’t, well, this potentially combustible situation could turn ugly.
We’ll see how things develop, starting with Saturday’s game in Colorado.