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Bandits’ season recap: Budd Bailey looks at what went right, and what’s missing

The Buffalo Bandits finished the 2015 regular season with an 11-7 record, three games better than their 2014 ledger. The team hadn’t won 11 games in a season since 2006 (the schedule went from 16 to 18 games in 2014).

Even so, a season that ends with a first-round playoff loss, especially to a nearby rival, can’t be considered a great success. Hopes were high after Buffalo closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak, only to have them crushed by the defeat at the hands of Rochester.

It’s easy to describe the Bandits’ season: They were the best of the non-elite teams in the National Lacrosse League.

The three teams with better regular-season records than Buffalo were Toronto, Edmonton and Rochester. Buffalo had a 2-5 record against those three teams, 2-6 if the playoff loss is counted. The Bandits were 9-2 against everyone else, with the two losses coming against New England.

The Bandits were close to belonging with the league’s best; reversing an overtime loss to Rochester would have put them one game ahead of the Knighthawks in the standings instead of one game behind. Instead, they have to look back on a good season with some almosts and not quites.

Offense

The most important development in the Bandits’ season was how well Dhane Smith adapted to his full-time role on offense. He fit in beautifully as the offensive quarterback.

Smith (68 assists) made Ryan Benesch better, as Benesch led the league in goals with 55. Smith also made Mark Steenhuis (95 points) better, as the veteran joined the other two in the league’s top 10 in scoring. The offense piled up goals at a rate not seen in Buffalo since 2009.

The second-best piece of news for the Bandits in 2015 was the development of Alex Kedoh Hill. As a defender, he was a threat to grab a loose ball and take off the other way. As a forward, Hill fit in nicely with the rest of the offense. Overall, he is a unique weapon.

The only concern at forward might have been a lack of depth. John Tavares had problems staying healthy; Chad Culp and Jerome Thompson had their moments in supporting roles. The team’s top forwards played a lot of minutes this season.

If Tavares does retire – no guesses from here – that will open up a spot for someone. Joe Resetarits looked like the obvious candidate to work his way into a prime role with the team, but something went wrong and he was traded to Rochester for draft choices and reserve defenseman Jamie Batson. Maybe Brandon Goodwin, a first-round pick last fall, might help soon. He played both offense and defense before his season ended early because of injury.

Defense

This unit became a little less physical and a little more athletic with the departure of veteran Rory Smith. The Bandits still could bang opponents. Steve Priolo remains one of the league’s better defensemen, and Billy Dee Smith and Derek Suddons know what to do in their own end. Billy Dee did show some signs of wearing down a little after a long career of battling opponents, but he’s still a contributor. Kevin Brownell took a step forward this past season, and David Brock helped out where needed.

Speaking of contributions, Jay Thorimbert won more faceoffs than anyone in league history, grabbed more loose balls than anyone in league history, played good defense and scored the odd goal. The NLL should have an award for someone like that because Thorimbert had a year to remember.

The Bandits collected a couple of young and talented transition players in Nick Weiss and, at the end of the season, Mitch Jones. They might be ready to take a major step up next season. Andrew Watt helped out in that spot as well. Coach Troy Cordingley gave his defense permission to attack when it had the ball and the team took to the strategy.

Goaltending

Anthony Cosmo didn’t match his 2014 statistics. His goals-against average went from 10.77 to 11.31, while his save percentage dropped from .797 to .781. That put Cosmo in the middle of the league rankings. Cosmo is 37 and has been playing since 2001. Still, he has enough tread left on the tires to be helpful for a few more seasons.

Davide DiRuscio played only 75 minutes as Cosmo’s backup. It’s tough to make an impact in that amount of time. But at least by the end of the season, people had started to figure out how to spell his name. We don’t know if he can be a full-time starter in the NLL based on 2015, but we don’t know that he can’t be a starter, either.

Outlook

In 2010, the Bandits were eliminated from the playoffs by Toronto. In 2011, the Bandits were knocked out by Toronto. In 2012, the Rock again sent Buffalo home for the season. In 2014, Buffalo finally got past Toronto, only to lose to Rochester. Then in 2015, the Knighthawks again finished the Bandits’ season.

You may have noticed a pattern there. The fans seem to have noticed. Buffalo didn’t have a crowd above 16,000 for the first time since 2006.

In Buffalo’s last six playoff appearances the Rock and the Knighthawks have been in the way. The Bandits have not played a road playoff game anywhere but Toronto and Rochester over that time.

What’s more, both rivals look like they will be good in the immediate future. The Rock lost Colin Doyle to an injury for much of 2015 and Garrett Billings to a holdout, yet they went from 9-9 to 14-4 as they rebuilt on the fly. Rob Hellyer reached 90 points, and Kevin Crowley was a good return in the trade of Billings to New England.

Rochester will be good as long as Cody Jamieson, perhaps the world’s best player, and Matt Vinc, probably the world’s best goalie, are on the field. The Knighthawks also have put a good supporting cast around them, and always seem to have some quality draft choices in the pipeline. Rochester will have the second pick in this fall’s draft, so another top player should be headed its way next year.

Buffalo has to figure out a way to get past Toronto and Rochester in order to return to the NLL final for the first time since 2008. Finishing ahead of the Rock and Knighthawks in the regular season, and thus hosting playoff games, would be a big help in achieving that goal.

Buffalo’s nucleus is in place with Dhane Smith, Benesch, Steenhuis and Priolo. Assuming the goaltending is consistently good, the team looks like it will produce winning records for a while.

But a few more pieces obviously need to be put in place to climb the ladder higher. Maybe a young player will develop, a free agent will be signed, and/or a trade will be made.

The Bandits aren’t too far from joining the elite teams. But taking those last steps is never easy.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com