By Budd Bailey
The powers that be in the National Lacrosse League didn’t allow too many members of the Buffalo Bandits’ organization to speak to the media after the final game of the NLL playoffs, a loss to the Colorado Mammoth. In fact, there were two brief interviews – coach John Tavares and defender Steve Priolo. That left a lot of questions hanging in the air about the team’s future in the light of a disappointing end to an otherwise superb season.
It was a good idea, then, for the team to bring some of the principals together via Zoom for a news conference on Thursday. The reason was that the NLL has been handing out awards this week, and the Bandits did quite well there for 2021-22. Dhane Smith was named the league’s most valuable player for the second time; there are only four other players who can say that. Matt Vinc added another goaltender of the year trophy – his eighth, and his second as a Bandit – to his wall. Steve Dietrich was the pick as general manager of the year. Priolo was a first-team all-league selection for the first time in his outstanding career, and Tehoka Nanticoke was chosen for the All-Rookie team.
That’s all nice. But as the cliché goes, they’d trade it all a few more goals in the championship game.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it – it’s heartbreaking,” Dietrich said. “Someone told me, the sun’s going to rise. My reply was, I still haven’t gotten over 2006 (his first loss in the finals with the Bandits). It’s going to be a long time to get over this one. We had such a great year. All we can do in November is show up and start all over again.”
“I’m waiting to wake up from the nightmare,” Priolo said. “It doesn’t feel real yet. You try to think about what it takes to win an NLL championship. You think you have it, you’re so close. Then you don’t come out with it. You question why. You question what we could have done better. What changes do we need to make? I can’t even put my finger on it.”
As for Smith, even another MVP trophy isn’t enough to put a smile on his face right now.
“Not really,” he said. “I think about it (the playoff loss) all the time. I got back to the game, and I’m thinking, ‘What would I be doing now if I won the championship?’” It’s tough to look back. This award is a huge accomplishment, but what matters to me more is winning a championship.”
It was a big year for Smith, professionally and personally. He seemed to grow into a leadership role when Buffalo suffered through the traumatic loss of some of its citizens due to a mass shooting in May.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve used my voice a bit more,” the veteran forward said. “I’m a soft-spoken guy, pretty shy. But you have to bring that as you get older, whether it’s in lacrosse or outside of it. I want to use that platform to the best of my ability. I’m going to continue to do so.”
In good company
As for the award, Smith beat out teammate Matt Vinc and former teammate Joe Resetarits of Albany.
“We had two guys who could have won it,” Dietrich said. “I thought Matt had a great year. Dhane and I are going to be tied at the hip hopefully for a long time. I believe he was my first draft choice as general manager. I‘ve known him since he was little. He’s a man now. He was six assists short of 100. He’s the total package. … There was nobody more disappointed when we lost. He’ll be a driving force for us next year.”
Priolo was a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, but lost out to former teammate Mitch de Snoo. Considering that Priolo certainly played a role in de Snoo’s development as a player, it was a little odd for Steve to lose an award vote to Mitch – and naturally he phrased his disappointment in a way that was unique.
“It was cool to see him grow from the Bandits’ player he was to the player he was this year,” Priolo said. “He had a good stat year. They play a pressure defense, so it’s easier to get those turnovers. If I wasn’t nominated, I think I’d be really happy for de Snoo. I think I’m moderately happy because I lost to him. But (seriously) I made sure that I reached out and texted him with congratulations.”
The first shoe toward next season already has dropped, as the Bandits had to come up with a protected list for the expansion draft only days after the final. Most of the experts thought the decision for Buffalo would come down to either Connor Fields or Chase Fraser, and the Bandits opted to protect Fraser.
“It’s something that at the end of the season we as a staff talked about,” Dietrich said. “In particular, we looked at the forwards and thought we had more depth on the left side than on the right side. We have (Nathaniel) Kozevnikov coming back from a knee injury and Sam La Roue coming along. That’s the way we went. It was a tough call with Connor. We’re going to see if we can find any possible way to keep him.”
Then there was the news that Troy Cordingley had been hired away from the Bandits to become the new head coach of the Vancouver Warriors. Cordingley had been the team’s Assistant General Manager and Director of Scouting. He also is a former Bandits’ head coach, and he won two titles in that capacity for other teams.
“Good for Troy,” Dietrich said. “We’re really, really happy for him. I think it speaks well for our organization about the people that we brought in and have kept around. Rusty Kruger moved on to Toronto (as an assistant coach). Troy is in Vancouver. We like to hire good people. Troy has had a track record of success. I think he’ll go out and do a good job. We hope Vancouver does better because the better the Hamilton/Toronto team and the Vancouver team – the two biggest hotbeds for the sport – are, the more young players get excited about the sport.”
What’s next for Vinc?
Question One about the 2022-23 season centers around Vinc, who just turned 40. He is a free agent, but obviously is still at the top of his game. It’s just a matter of finding out officially whether Vinc wants to keep playing.
“I’ve talked to Matt three or four times since the season ended,” Dietrich said. “All systems seem like they’re go for him to come back. We told him how important he is to the organization. He’s let us know that there’s nowhere else that he’d rather play. As long as those things continue to line up through the summer, I fully expect Matt to be back.”
Vinc’s return would be just fine with his teammates.
“I don’t think he’ll go to another team. If it’s anything it’s retirement,” Smith said. “I’ve been bugging him like crazy. It’s hard for him to retire after he was goalie of the year. He could have been MVP, and I would have loved for him to get it. That would have brought him back for sure. He’s our backbone. Once we got him, we went from a good team to a great team. Every year he gives us a chance to win.”
“Sometimes it will be the second quarter, and he’ll be like, ‘I need to retire,’ Priolo said about Vinc. “I’d say, ‘Dude, it’s 4-3. What are you talking about?’ I don’t think he’s going to. You only get one shot at life, and he’s in a position to set himself up as not only the best goalie to ever play but the best goalie that ever will play.”
The roster probably will go through a few changes this season, something that happens every year. The toughest part of the summer for the Bandits, though, will be the wait for the start of training camp and the chance for redemption for a title that they feel got away.
“It showed us that we need to be a little grittier, and a little tougher,” Dietrich said about the playoff loss. “Goals that we score in the regular season aren’t as easy to come by in the playoffs. I think you’ll see us try to get more grit, more size, and hopefully we can be a good regular season team and in the playoffs if we go that route. We’ll try to get younger. We have three-first round picks.
“Hopefully we’re going to keep knocking on the door, and one of these times we’re going to barge it down.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)