By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Bandits are hoping that two heads are better than one this season when it comes to coaching.
Troy Cordingley paid a price for missing the playoffs in the last two seasons, as he was moved from head coach to a front office position. The two most obvious candidates to replace him were already on the coaching staff in assistants Rich Kilgour and John Tavares. It was as if general manager Steve Dietrich couldn’t choose between them, so he picked both as co-coaches. They will debut on Saturday in the season opener in Philadelphia.
“It was a tough decision,” Dietrich said. “Troy is one of my best friends. To move in that direction was tough to do. JT and Rich did a great job, and they both deserved a chance (to coach). Neither of them has been a coach in this league so it was tough to decide which one should be and which one shouldn’t be. So we went this way. … The two of them worked together as players and as coaches.”
It was one of many moves made in the offseason by the team, which needed to regroup after the recent run of disappointment that has been decidedly un-Bandit-like. The most immediate effect of the move, oddly enough, is that it should be quieter on the bench. Cordingley and his predecessor, Darris Kilgour, were legendary for their vocal approach to coaching. It reached the point that many wondered if referees were not giving the Bandits the benefit of the doubt during games.
Besides, it’s easy to tune out the yelling after a while, and some players may have run out of patience with that approach during the last couple of years. Tavares and Rich Kilgour certainly will be able to get their points across, but they’ll do it in a different way.
What happens if there’s a disagreement between the two coaches? Both have agreed to work out; apparently no coin flips will be involved.
“If there are any problems, it will be a matter of communications,” Tavares said. “Rich and I definitely will have to communicate, and make sure we’re on the same page and have the same message. Things will be the same with Richie doing the defense and me doing the offense. If there are other decisions, we’ll get together and come up with a decision.”
Almost half the roster is new this season. Will that lead to improvement? We’ll see.
“When you don’t make the playoffs two years in a row, you’re not good enough,” Dietrich said. “We’ve turned over some big names. We have high hopes for some of the kids.”
At least we’ll know who will do most of the scoring this season, at least at the start. The Bandits only listed five forwards for their season-opening roster. Therefore, expect Dhane Smith, Shawn Evans, Josh Byrne, Corey Small and Jordan Durston to be the main unit. Some of the transition players could help out in case of injuries or penalties.
Small was acquired from Vancouver for Mitch Jones, as both of those players requested moves across the continent for personal reasons. It was a nice fit under the circumstances.
The biggest question might be how Smith and Evans fit together. Both players are former league Most Valuable Players. Smith said last season that the two of them needed time to figure out how to work together. We’ll see how it all works this time.
“We have to make sure the guys as one unit and stay together,” Tavares said. “There’s still only one ball. Only one guy can score at a time.”
You can bet Steve Priolo and Mitch de Snoo will see plenty of playing time once again. They are givens. Matthew Bennett, Justin Martin, Matt Spanger, and Bryce Sweeting will compete for jobs. Bennett is back from an injury, and Martin suited up for all 18 games last season.
Among the transition players, everyone will be anxious to get a look at Matt Gilray and Ian MacKay. They are the team’s two first-round draft choices, and they had better be a big part of the team’s future. Both are top athletes. We’ll have to see how much playing time they earn right away.
“Gilray is a big athlete,” Kilgour said. “He played for Peterborough in the summer. He’s a strong kid, and likes to play defense first but can get up the floor. MacKay is a completely impressive player. He will be a real threat on transition. We want to get a little younger and a little more athletic. We want to get up and down the floor this year.”
Meanwhile, Ethan O’Connor was picked up in a trade with Georgia. Thomas Hoggarth was acquired in midseason last winter for Pat Saunders. Throw in Kevin Brownell, Chase Fraser, Nick Weiss and Ryan Wagner, and the coaches will have a lot of options.
The new faces will need some time to play together, and they lost some of that time because of the shortened training camp due to the league labor problems. Still, Kilgour doesn’t see it as a major issue.
“A lot of these guys play all summer,” he said. “There are only two types of defense – high-pressure and sit back and pack it in. Most of these guys can play either defense. It will take them a little time for them to get on the page. As a coach, it’s tough, but every other team is in the same boat.”
One question that’s still to be decided is the status of Mark Steenhuis. He begins the season on injured reserve. Steenhuis could add a little veteran leadership in transition, or he could even be helpful as a spare part as a forward. But the 37-year-old is the oldest player in the league, and is coming off a difficult season. Is there still room for someone who might have his uniform number retired by the Bandits when he is finally done with the game?
This was the most uncertain spot on the roster a few weeks ago. That all changed when Matt Vinc signed as an unrestricted free agent once the league’s collective bargaining agreement was finished. Vinc has represented a major roadblock for the Bandits during his time in Rochester, as he has often been the difference in big games. Last season’s NLL goaltender of the year is a huge upgrade, even at 36. He’s always been in great shape.
“Getting Matt Vinc is just incredible,” Kilgour said. “You can’t count how many goaltender of the year awards he’s got. Every defender just got better. To have him behind you, you can make a couple of mistakes and have him mop up. We have to make his job as easy as possible.”
Zach Higgins had some good moments after he came in as a free agent last season, and he’s well-suited for the role of Vinc’s backup.
Trying to figure out the National Lacrosse League this season borders on madness. The league went from nine to 11 teams with expansion coming to Philadelphia and San Diego. That means there are about 22 percent more jobs open than in 2017-18, and many players have new addresses as a result. In addition, the active roster went from 20 to 21, so that’s another 11 new roster spots. How good will the new teams be in their first year? Will the overall quality of play suffer? We’ll have to wait and see.
Saskatchewan has been the best team in the league in recent years (two titles), and would have to be considered the favorite again. The Rush beat Rochester in the finals last season, but the Knighthawks lost Vinc and are moving to Halifax next summer. An expansion team will be placed in Rochester as a replacement. That certainly has created some uncertainty down the Thruway. The K-Hawks will count on ex-Bandit Angus Goodleaf to replace as Vinc, and that is one seriously tall order. How the franchise handles a “lameduck” season in Rochester may have just as big a part in determining the team’s success.
The East was tightly bunched last season. Georgia won the division, but didn’t turn in an overwhelming season as defending champion. The Swarm probably is the division favorite, but Vinc might be enough for the Bandits to offer a challenge in the NLL East.
The expectation in a sentence: Buffalo will be a playoff team and will be capable of making some postseason noise in May.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)