The Buffalo Bandits can't afford to run in place in the 2011 season. If they aren't moving forward, they are falling behind.
The Bandits go into their 20th season knowing that the quality of play in the National Lacrosse League continues to improve. The lacrosse boom in the United States keeps sending high-quality athletes into the professional ranks. Plus, the league is down to 10 teams for 2011, as the Orlando Titans -- last year's Eastern Division champions -- closed up shop. The NLL hasn't been at 10 teams since 2006.
That means that there shouldn't be many easy nights for anyone this season.
"I think in the past, you came into some of the games and kind of knew that the talent on the other teams wasn't going to be that strong," Bandits standout Mark Steenhuis said. "It's not that you had to play any different, but you knew you probably were the better team. Now, if you don't come out to play, you aren't going to win the game. It's going to come down to which team is willing to fight for the loose balls, fight for that game."
The Bandits, coming off a first-round loss to Toronto in last year's playoffs, needed to improve for 2011. They added five players who were on other teams last season, with forward Tracey Kelusky and defenseman Scott Self heading the list.
"Last year, there was a feeling around the team that wasn't right," coach Darris Kilgour said. "I brought some guys in, some good leadership and [players who are] good in the locker room. I think we're a really talented team, so I think we're talking about playing for a championship."
But Buffalo also has lost some talent to injury, including two of the league's best in Ken Montour and Billy Dee Smith. Will the acquisitions be enough? We'll find out as the season goes along, starting Saturday in Calgary. Here's how the team shapes up:
Montour remains on the injured reserve list, as he continues to have problems following the concussion he suffered in the middle of last season. Montour was the league's best goalie in 2009, so that's a huge loss.
Mike Thompson should get most of the work in net. Thompson had an up-and-down 2010 season with the Bandits, but he reportedly turned in a strong summer league season at Peterborough and won Canada's national championship. The Bandits may go as far as Thompson can take them.
Angus Goodleaf is the backup. Goodleaf saw a little playing time, mostly in a relief role, last year. He still has to prove he can be a regular in the NLL.
It's a similar story on defense: How do you replace one of the league's best? Smith was injured in the world outdoor championship last summer. His knee won't allow him to return until late this season at the earliest, and it's more likely he won't contribute in 2011.
Some help arrived when Self was acquired from Minnesota; he's considered one of the league's best defensive defensemen. Self and Chris White should make Kilgour feel relatively secure in the final minutes of close games.
Ian Llord, Darryl Gibson and Clay Hill are veterans who supply toughness at the back end. Two of last year's rookies, Chris Corbeil and Steve Priolo, are back. Travis Irving was the team's first-round draft pick.
Tom Montour may have been the team's most improved player last season. He and Jon Harasym are capable of taking off in transition, adding an extra component to the Bandits' offense.
The additions are more important than the subtractions. Kelusky has been one of the league's best players, and an important part of some good Calgary teams over the years. He had 30 goals last season and will play a big role in the coming season. He was acquired for a first-round draft choice in 2011.
Kelusky will team with the Bandits' two offensive stalwarts, John Tavares and Steenhuis. Tavares was hurt at the beginning of last season and missed six games, but bounced back. He's ready for his 20th season as a Bandit. Steenhuis finished fourth in the league in scoring and continues to be one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league.
Another major acquisition is Jay Thorimbert, who came over with Self in a trade with Minnesota for a second-round pick in 2011 and a first-rounder in 2012. Thorimbert won 180 faceoffs in 2010 to finish third in the league in that department. Faceoffs have been a problem for the Bandits for the past two years, and Thorimbert's arrival could lead to some valuable extra possessions.
Brendan Thenhaus could be ready to blossom after scoring 35 points in 11 games last season in Boston. Chad Culp, who was with Colorado last season, has been good for almost three points a game for much of his career.
Missing are Kevin Dostie and Sean Greenhalgh, as they have gone on the protected player list as they recover from long-term injuries, and Mike Accursi, who jumped to Rochester as a free agent. Among the returning players, Frank Resetarits and Kyle Clancy were productive in relatively limited playing time in 2010, and Brett Bucktooth was good in a supporting role. Roger Vyse went from 27 goals in 2009 to nine last season and is facing a big season in terms of his career. Brandon Francis supplies size and toughness.
If Ken Montour and Smith were healthy, it would be easy to rank the Bandits around the top of the league. But no roster can withstand the loss of two All-Stars. The Bandits figure to be chasing Toronto and Boston, in that order, in the Eastern Division in the regular season, but look more than capable of making some postseason noise.