By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
About the only part of the Buffalo Bandits’ season that had any consistency was the team’s inconsistency.
You just never knew what you were going to get with this group.
After a nice win in the opener at home against Toronto, the Bandits gave up at least 20 goals in back-to-back losses. Buffalo lost to lowly Vancouver in overtime at home, and then put on an incredible rally to beat powerful Saskatchewan on the road.
The win over the Rush started a four-game winning streak, which was followed by a four-game losing streak. Finally after sweeping New England in a home-and-home series, the Bandits lost their final three games.
Add it up, and you get an 8-10 season that just missed the playoffs. That’s two years in a row that the Bandits have been home before May, and they have been under .500 in five of the last seven seasons. For a team that went from 2000 to 2011 without having a losing record, this is not a good sign.
Let’s take a look at what happened this past season:
The numbers were a little better in 2018, going from 12.6 goals per game to 12.9 (fourth in the league). A big reason for that probably was the good health of Dhane Smith, who battled injuries in 2017 but bounced back to score 105 points in 2018. He remains one of the best players in the league.
Shawn Evans’ arrival required a little adjusting, but he still finished with 87 points. Mitch Jones continued to show he can be called one of the league’s best scorers; he finished with a team-leading 38 goals.
Jordan Durston was a good acquisition from Vancouver (65 points), and Josh Byrne is one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year honors. Add Vaughn Harris, who was a surprise after what looked like a minor deal with Georgia, and the core group looks good. Chase Fraser may be able to contribute more as he develops in the future.
There was some improvement here statistically as well. The Bandits went from 13.9 goals per game to 13.3. Considering that injuries were a problem for much of the season, that’s not bad. But the figure is still seventh in the league, and that’s not good enough.
Steve Priolo again was a workhorse at one end of the field. Otherwise, Zac Reid and Justin Martin were the only other defenders to play more than 16 games. The juggled lineup’s uncertainty couldn’t have helped.
Nick Weiss came up with 22 points in a transition role. He continues to fill an important role. Mark Steenhuis moved back to the back door, and missed much of the season with injuries. It’s easy to wonder if he’s played his last game as a Bandit. At 37, it’s been a great run.
The Bandits had a big hole in the position when Anthony Cosmo retired before the start of the season. They had anticipated that decision and acquired Alex Buque in the hopes that either Alex or Dave DiRuscio could take over as a No. 1 goalie.
How did that work out? Well …
It’s always difficult to separate a goalie from his defense. Nevertheless, Buque was eighth among 10 qualifiers in goals-against average at 12.94. Zack Higgins, who was signed as a free agent when DiRuscio suffered an injury that turned out to be long term in nature, was ninth in GAA at 13.02. The only one behind them in the league was Eric Penney, and he had to play behind Vancouver’s defense.
Buque had some good moments, but was – wait for it – inconsistent. He was pulled six different times during the course of the season. It says a lot about his season that when the Bandits faced essentially a do-or-die game at the end of the season, coach Troy Cordingley went with Higgins. DiRuscio only played 31 seconds before suffering an injury, so it was a lost year for him. Higgins played one of the great games by a Bandit goalie in recent memory in a win over Georgia, but otherwise was undistinguished.
By the way, Cordingley pulled his starting goalie out of the game seven different times this past season. That ties last season’s number. Buffalo was 1-6 in those games. While he’s quick to point out that it hasn’t always been the starter’s fault, you have to wonder if goalies are looking over their shoulder whenever they give up a goal.
The first item on the list is the status of general manager Steve Dietrich and coach Troy Cordingley. Dietrich has been a GM for six seasons, and the Bandits have one trip to the Finals and four losing seasons in that time. Cordingley missed one of those losing seasons in his five years behind the bench, so he’s been under .500 three out of five times.
Their fate is a difficult decision and hardly clear-cut. Those aren’t particularly distinguished records. They might be enough to justify something of a full housecleaning if management is so inclined.
It’s also possible that Dietrich could opt to try a different type of coach this year, one that does not follow the high-pressure tradition set by Cordingley and predecessor Darris Kilgour. Either Rich Kilgour or John Tavares, the two top assistants, could offer that, although both can be stern when the situation calls for it. Or, maybe a new voice would be helpful.
Dietrich did remake the roster last season, as the Bandits had the youngest team in the National Lacrosse League. When was the last time that happened? Management could easily say that the lacrosse department deserves another year to see if the team can continue to grow together.
I’m not sure there’s a perfect solution to this. Any action could be lauded or criticized. Fans will have to cross their fingers and hope for a happy ending.
Elsewhere, the expansion draft will affect personnel moves in the offseason. Buffalo will lose a total of two players to the new teams in some combination (Philadelphia and San Diego). I won’t begin to guess how that might shake down. The Bandits will be a little wounded by those losses, but so will everyone else. Besides, Buffalo has two good picks in the first round of the Entry Draft this fall, and they should make up for any losses.
Otherwise, goaltending might be the biggest question mark. Is Buque capable of taking a step forward? Would the Bandits prefer to have a goalie who doesn’t have to fly in from the West each week, thus missing practice time? Is there a free agent that could serve as a mentor/backup to him? There are more questions than answers.
It’s been 10 years since the Bandits last won a championship (2008), and they have only won one since 1996. Considering that the franchise has great fan support and an ideal location to attract top talent, those droughts are close to unacceptable. Whenever Buffalo isn’t a contender in a given season, the pressure on all concerned ramps up a bit. We’ll find out how management responds to that situation in the coming days and weeks.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)