Buffalo Bandits Preview: “We Have Redemption To Do”

by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page

Buffalo Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich and head coach Troy Cordingley are very happy just to be back in their respective positions for the upcoming National Lacrosse League season.

That’s understandable after the Bandits stumbled to one of the worst seasons in their history, finishing last overall in 2016-17.

“It was tough,” Dietrich said. “Nobody lived or died with it more than I did, especially when it falls on my lap. It was difficult. I’m glad to be here, and I think we have a good group.”

“It wasn’t a fun time last year, I’ll tell you that,” Cordingley said. “A lot of things we tried went wrong. You are hired to be fired. I’m happy to be back. We have some redemption to do.”

The Bandits went 6-12 last year. That sort of unexpectedly bad season had some consequences, as reports circulated that there were unhappy players on the roster. It may not be a coincidence – changes had been promised late in the year – but several veterans departed in the offseason. Gone are Ryan Benesch, Billy Dee Smith, David Brock, Andrew Watt, Anthony Cosmo, and Alex Kedoh Hill – for starters. In addition, the Bandits took a long look at their operation.

“We’ve had some real good offseason sessions so to speak, in regard to the coaching staff, about everything,” Cordingley said. “We’ve done a thorough sweep to make sure we have everything covered to improve our game as management and as coaches. It’s going to be different. We need to lead.”

You’ll need a program to keep up with this year’s team. Here’s a quick overview of the team entering Friday’s season opener:

Offense

The two biggest names to come to town are Callum Crawford and Josh Byrne. Crawford is one of the best passers in the league, and should help get the ball to the right place. Byrne was the first overall draft pick, and has a ton of potential – once he gets the rust off.

“I played junior (indoor lacrosse) growing up, but I missed a couple of years because of college,” Byrne said. “I’m still getting used to it. It’s definitely way different (than outdoor lacrosse) – since it’s five on five, you have to be aware of everyone on the field.”

Jordan Durston came over from Vancouver in a trade for Anthony Malcom. Chase Fraser is a second-round draft pick. Otherwise, the names are familiar – Dhane Smith, Mitch Jones, Pat Saunders and Craig England.

Defense

With Cosmo retired, the Bandits need to find consistency in goal. They hope they got it when Alex Buque came over with Crawford in a trade with Colorado. Buque was a backup with the Mammoth, but showed signs that he was ready for prime-time duty. Would it be an overstatement to say he’s the biggest key as to how the season goes? Maybe, but maybe not. Dave DiRuscio is around if Buque stumbles.

The defense will have some new faces. Reid Acton was acquired from Georgia, and draft choices Justin Martin (2016) and Ethan Schott (2017) will get the chance to step up. Ryan Wagner, a free-agent signing from Vancouver, was a good surprise in camp.

Otherwise, Steve Priolo will be his usual rugged self, and Mitch de Snoo may be ready to take another step forward. Matthew Barnett and Nick Weiss round out the unit.

It was a surprise when Mark Steenhuis was moved back to transition during training camp. He’s still athletic enough at 37 to pull it off. When Hill decided to take a year off from lacrosse, the Bandits apparently wanted someone in that role who could be a scoring threat. Steenhuis also knows a shake-up was inevitable after a last-place season.

“Obviously it was a long offseason with a record like that,” he said. “Fortunately, I haven’t had many of those, but when you do have them, they sting a lot. As you can see there are a ton of changes. That’s to be expected.”

Outlook

It’s a difficult season to predict, as usual. Georgia may come back to earth a bit after a championship season, and Toronto should challenge the Swarm for the NLL East title. It gets tough after that. New England lost some veterans in the off-season, and Rochester doesn’t seem ready for a big move up.

The Bandits need to cut down on the goals allowed, so pressure will fall on the goaltenders and the new defensemen. After a dreary 2017, it’s not unreasonable to think the unit has a chance to be better. Crawford and Byrne can help Jones and Smith make the offense dangerous, especially if Smith stays healthy and returns to MVP-level form. It would be easy to come up with a path for Buffalo to grab the third and final playoff spot.

On the other hand, the Bandits probably need to get off to a good start this season. This is a franchise that sells a lot of tickets, and with that comes pressure to keep winning. You have to wonder if Cordingley is on a short leash this winter. And if Buffalo does miss the playoffs again, the whole front office might not have the another chance to turn the team’s fortunes around.

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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