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Bandits hope to take that last step to a title

It's been more than six months since the Buffalo Bandits played a game that counted, when they lost to the Saskatchewan Rush and were eliminated in the National Lacrosse League finals. Defenseman Steve Priolo hasn't watched a video of that game, and he doesn't intend to do so, either.

"As you start reminiscing, you're not looking ahead," he said. "We all know the feeling that we had last year after that game. We know what we need to do better.

"So we'll leave it to the coaching staff to watch those tapes, and leave the heartache to those guys, and trust them to put us back in the right direction."

The 2016 season was the team's best in some time. Buffalo hadn't reached the championship round of the playoffs since 2008. It won the NLL East Division regular season and swept New England in the playoffs to reach the final.

Once there, the Bandits lost two straight games to the Rush - but both games couldn't have been much closer. Mark Steenhuis was reminded how, at the age of 36, he may not have that many more opportunities to win another championship.

"I've been there three times before," he said. "Not that you take it for granted, but when you're younger you don't realize how hard it is to get there and how much everyone has to sacrifice to get to the finals - let alone win one. I'm realizing how long I've played, and hopefully I can win another before I'm done."

The new season arrives on Friday with the opener against the Colorado Mammoth in the KeyBank Center, and the goal of the team is to take one more step than it did last year.

"Everyone's excited," veteran Billy Dee Smith said. "Going into this year, our motto is no more excuses. We were close, but not quite there. There's no reason why we can't get the job done."

The Bandits brought in several new faces in training camp, but what's striking is how little turnover on the roster there has been. Two veterans departed as free agents, while one veteran was acquired in a trade and another was signed as a free agent. There are some young faces on the practice squad, but for the most part the same cast of characters will try to take that last step.

"We're excited," General Manager Steve Dietrich said. "Complacency is the next step to failure, so we start over like everyone else."

Here's the way the Bandits look as they begin Season 26:

Forwards

Any discussion about the Buffalo offense starts with Dhane Smith, who claimed a spot as one of the elite players in the league in 2016. He set league and team records for scoring, and he was named the league's most valuable player.

What can he do for an encore?

"I'm always looking to improve my game," he said. "I'm looking to help the guys out as much as possible, and the veteran guys can help me out. I'll do whatever I can to win a championship. ... If I have to score a few more goals, I'll try to do it."

Ryan Benesch and Steenhuis both had more than 30 goals last season. Buffalo's biggest offensive concern centers on the rest of the forwards. It doesn't help that Chad Culp left as a free agent for New England, and his grit will be missed.

"We sat around the room after Saskatchewan beat us, and we said we have to be better on the left side," Dietrich said. "I think we need to be more athletic."

Daryl Veltman is a prime candidate to help, provided he can bounce back from the worst statistical season of his career. Anthony Malcom showed a lot of promise when given a chance last season.

New up front is Mitch Jones, who will get a chance at playing offense after showing some offensive skills in a transition role last season. Craig Point, who scored some big goals for Rochester against Buffalo over the years, has a chance to earn some playing time.

Transition

The Bandits had a vacancy on transition with Jones moving up to offense, and Dietrich filled that spot on the roster by acquiring Brad Self from Rochester. Self, the brother of ex-Bandit Scott, was named the NLL's Transition Player of the Year for 2016 the day after the trade.

"I think it's great," Steenhuis said about the trade. "He's a great talent. He runs the floor so well. He's been around for so long. He'll help our transitional game. He was with Rochester for so many years. It's nice that we stole someone from there for once, and we can see him do well against the Knighthawks."

The other opening may be tougher to fill. Jay Thorimbert jumped to New England as a free agent, and he might have been the unsung hero of the team over the past few years. The veteran became one of the best faceoff men in the league, and also could score the odd goal.

Nick Weiss took draws last season when Thorimbert didn't play, and he'll get the first crack at the spot.

"Nick can do it," Dietrich said. "He's done it in the summer" in an Ontario league. "We also have plans for Tim Edwards," a former Canisius player who is on the practice squad.

Alex Kedoh Hill needs only to be more consistent to become a star in the league. He creates offense whenever he's on the field, and it's always tempting to put him out with the forwards.

Mitch Wilde and Andrew Watt can score some goals when given the chance. Kevin Brownell, David Brock and Matthew Bennett stick more to defense but aren't afraid to take off when given the opportunity.

Defense

If there's a sleeper on the roster who might be ready to take a step forward, it's second-year pro Mitch de Snoo. The word is out that he may become an elite player.

"He's awesome; I love that guy," Priolo said. "Every shift, he's putting his heart on the floor. Everyone in the league is tight, and over the summer I played with guys who said they hate playing against him. That's what I like about him. The other guys don't want to face him."

You can put de Snoo in a grouping with Bennett and Adam Will (currently on injured reserve) as young players who may see some more playing time.

"It takes a year or two to understand our defense," Billy Dee Smith said. "Those three guys are all a little bit more confident. They know the system better. Any one of them can play."

Priolo remains one of the top defensemen in the league, while Smith still is one of the game's true warriors.

Goalie

Anthony Cosmo is 38, which means he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt after a slump. However, the veteran is coming off a good 2016 season, highlighted by an 8-2 record. He'll do most of the heavy lifting again.

Dave DiRuscio took another step forward in his second season, going 5-3 as Cosmo's backup. He has shown he's an NLL netminder. Buffalo picked Kevin Orleman in the second round of last fall's draft, the first goalie selected. He's stashed on the practice squad for now, as the Bandits have the luxury of developing him slowly.

Outlook

Last season was a topsy-turvy one in the NLL East, as traditional powers Toronto and Rochester both missed the playoffs. The Bandits took advantage of that opening to win the division with a 13-5 record.

It will be tough to match that record this time. New England has added some veterans, and Georgia might have the best collection of young offensive talent in the league. Toronto and Rochester also figure to have better seasons.

Therefore, it should be a competitive year in the East. The Bandits could take a small step back in their won-loss record and still win the division. If they do, Saskatchewan is the favorite to win the West and be waiting for them. The Rush are the favorites to win the league title.

Yet it would be wrong not to give Buffalo a chance to go all the way this time, as it returns most of a roster that came so close to a championship last season.

"Now the guys in the room know what it takes to get there," Steenhuis said. "Now we have to finish the job."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

 

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