By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Bandits couldn’t have come much closer to winning a National Lacrosse League title than they did last season. The Bandits reached the finals, only to lose two straight close games and thus the series to the Calgary Roughnecks.
More than six months later, it still hurts.
“To be honest, I haven’t checked it out too much,” forward Josh Byrne said when asked if he’s watched any video of those two games. “But I have seen some highlights, and it definitely raises a bit of a fire inside.”
With the 2019-20 season set to start on Saturday against San Diego, the obvious question to this year’s team is – how much of a motivating factor that loss will be this time around? The answer depends on who is doing the talking.
“When you get that close, it is heart-breaking, but it is motivating,” defender Steve Priolo said. “We play summer lacrosse, and five days later I was back on the floor. I needed to play lacrosse and get going. The start of our season here is scratching that itch that has been bothering me this summer.”
“I think it’s a lot of pressure they don’t need,” coach John Tavares said. “The last time we made the finals, we didn’t make the playoffs for two years. I definitely don’t want to go through that again. Sometimes you forget what got you there – the hard work, the little things that amount to big things in the form of wins. We want to get off to a good start, we want to make the playoffs, and we want to be successful there. Obviously we want a different outcome in the finals, but I don’t want to say we are going to win this year because of that. It’s not that easy. It’s a 13-team league. There are a lot of good teams. In a one-game playoff, you never know what is going to happen.”
Everyone can agree, though, that the 2018-19 season will be a hard act to follow for the Bandits. They had a 14-4 record in the regular season, easily the best in the NLL. They swept through two rounds of the playoffs, only to be derailed in the final.
But that team in a sense no longer exists. Every season brings changes, whether it comes in the form of draft choices, trades, retirements, coaching changes, personal improvements, or individual declines. That’s what makes it so difficult to predict what might happen, and that’s why we keep watching from year to year.
The clues begin to arrive on Saturday; let’s see how the Bandits look entering the season.
The Bandits were stacked up front during the 2018-19 season. The list included two former league Most Valuable Players and several other top contributors. However, that unit has gone from a strength to a question mark in the offseason.
Buffalo took a pounding in the expansion draft, losing future Hall of Famer Shawn Evans and Jordan Durston. In terms of age, those were reasonable choices to leave exposed. But it still hurt. Then Thomas Hoggarth was lost for the season due to an injury, and Chase Fraser suffered an injury in November that may cost him a few weeks of play.
That means there are opportunities on the roster for others, and the player who is firmly under the microscope is Chris Cloutier. The forward was the No. 2 pick in the NLL draft in the fall of 2018, and he was traded by Philadelphia to Buffalo during last season. The Bandits need him to be a big contributor this season.
“My physical fitness has been holding me back the most,” Cloutier said. “This summer I made the decision to stay in Buffalo and work out with Dhane (Smith) and Josh (Byrne) all summer. They helped push me. It paid off. I’m still not done, but I’m in a better spot than I was.”
Smith added, “He’s a pure goal scorer. He knows he has a role. He’s not a forgotten guy. He’s ready for the next step.”
Speaking of Smith, his role figures to change a bit in the coming season. Both he and Evans were used to having the ball a great deal during Buffalo’s possessions, which sometimes led to issues and adjustments. Now play will center on Smith, which was how it was when he was MVP of the league in 2016.
“It’s tough losing (Evans),” Smith said. “That said, I’m excited about taking on that role. I know it’s big expectations, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Buffalo still has Corey Small around as a pure scorer, and Byrne – a former first overall draft pick – could be ready to become a top scorer. Until Fraser is healthy, Dallas Bridle and Quinn Powless will battle for playing time.
You won’t need a program to recognize the Bandits’ defense this season. A familiar cast is ready to go this season.
“The names are mostly the same,” Tavares said. “A couple of younger players are trying to break in, but that’s definitely a stable point. Hopefully they can duplicate what they did last year and find ways to win.”
The leader is Priolo, who has been a finalist for the league’s award for top defensive player five times. You could make a case that he should have won it last season, since some thought he never had played better.
“I’m 30 years old, and you’re saying I had my best season. That’s a positive thing,” the veteran said. “Every year we get better and get closer to the ultimate goal.”
Mitch de Snoo has a well-earned reputation as someone no one on the other team wants to face. Those two are the cornerstones of the unit. Filling out the defense are Jon Harnett, Justin Martin, Matt Spanger and Bryce Sweeting – all of whom were on the roster last season.
At transition, it’s more of the same. Nick Weiss and Kevin Brownell are the veterans, Matt Gilray and Ian MacKay are the “youngsters,” and Brent Noseworthy is the team’s first-round draft pick. Ethan O’Connor is out for the season with an injury.
Then in goal, there’s Matt Vinc. He’s considered one of the best goalies – if not the best goalie – in the history of the league. Vinc keeps himself in great shape at 37, and was the league’s best netminde again in 2018-19. Priolo enjoyed his first chance to play with him last season.
“I learned how good of a teammate he is, and how good of a leader he is,” he said. “When you play against him, you don’t see things like that. I knew he was a good goalie, but when you work with him all the time, you see what a professional he really is.”
Doug Buchan is the new backup goalie, coming over in a trade with Philadelphia.
The Bandits returned to the traditional approach behind the bench last season after a season of co-coaches. Tavares is solely in charge, and he probably has the position for as long as he wants it.
“Obviously there’s a lot more responsibility on my shoulders,” he said. “Last year, I split the duties with Richie (Kilgour). Now I’m in the middle of the bench, looking over everything as opposed to focusing on offense. But we have (Steve) Dietrich looking at the back door, and we have (Rusty) Kruger taking the front door taking the offense.”
It’s difficult to imagine too much changing, since Tavares obviously had a large role in the way the team played last season. However, the veteran may have some surprises in store for everyone along the way.
“You’ll see guys come out the front door and then move back to defense,” Priolo said. “JT is open to different looks. He’s not afraid of taking a couple of risks here and there. He’s not averse to playing with the dynamics of the game. You’re not the best player of the world when you do the same things over and over. He’s really creative out there. It’s going to be a fun season.”
The NLL continues to grow, as two more teams are entering the league this season. The league expanded to New York and Rochester, bringing the number of teams to 13.
If you thought the NLL already was in Rochester, well, that team has moved to Halifax. It gives the league a roster of teams that stretches from Nova Scotia to Southern California. Meanwhile, Knighthawks 2.0 is owned by the Pegulas – who own the Bandits too. What will cause them to cheer when the two teams play each other? The guess is for big crowds.
The league has been split into three divisions. Buffalo is in the North with Toronto, Rochester and Halifax. The top two teams in each division will be in the playoffs, plus two wild-card squads. Therefore, eight of 13 teams will be in the postseason.
The Bandits figure to be good this season, but it’s tough to see how they will be as good as last season’s team. They are missing four key players from 2018-19. Even so, Buffalo certainly looks like a contender for the division title – and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team make some more noise in the postseason.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)