Bandits had a long list of problems in 2017 - The Buffalo News
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Bandits had a long list of problems in 2017

The Buffalo Bandits have played 26 seasons in their history. It’s easy to pick out the most disappointing of those seasons.

We just witnessed it.

The Bandits reached the finals of the National Lacrosse League playoffs in 2016 after winning the East Division. Buffalo lost to Saskatchewan in the title round by a small margin, leading to the conclusion that the Bandits might be ready to win for the championship in 2017. They had most of last season’s team back, including NLL most valuable player Dhane Smith.

The conclusion couldn’t have been more wrong. Buffalo had nothing but problems throughout the season, particularly at the beginning and end, and finished with the worst record in the league (6-12). The last time the Bandits were in the overall cellar was ... never. Buffalo finished 4-8 in 1999 to match this year’s .333 winning percentage, but it was kept out of the basement by a 3-9 Syracuse team. The horrendous 20-7 loss to Georgia on April 22, which eliminated the Bandits from the playoffs and came on a night honoring the late Tucker Williams, might have been the low point in franchise history.

This year-in-review usually covers the team units (offense, defense, goaltending), but this was not a typical year. Instead, let’s take a look at what went wrong before previewing what could be a very busy offseason.

The problems

Bad start, part 1

The Bandits opened the season with three home games, an odd scheduling quirk. Buffalo had a chance to get off to a quick start, but instead lost two of those three games. In Game Two against Georgia, Smith hurt his ankle and missed a couple of weeks - and probably came back a little too soon. Buffalo was 1-5 before anyone could blink, and it was an uphill climb from there.

Bad start, part 2

The Bandits kept falling behind at the start of games. They trailed, 8-2, in five games, most of them early in the season. When you fall behind, 8-2, you lose. If Buffalo knew what caused these flat beginnings, it would have tried to solve the problem. But no amount of coaching can cure that issue. In the entire season, Buffalo was outscored by 21 goals in the first period alone, but were only a minus-4 in goal differential in the other three quarters combined.

Injuries

Most teams have them to a certain extent, so it’s tough to use it as a major excuse. Still, Smith never seemed to regain the athletic explosiveness that marked his play in 2016. Then, while preparing for a must game against Georgia in April, he stepped on a lacrosse ball and reinjured his ankle. Smith missed the final two games, and the Bandits lost both of them.

There were other injuries. Ryan Benesch suffered a concussion in midseason. Anthony Malcolm was having a year to forget when he finally got healthy and showed his ability in the final weeks. There were other short-term injuries, and that doesn’t include players who were playing hurt and thus weren’t at full effectiveness.

Knight-mares

The Bandits let two games get away to Rochester by a goal, and they were killers. A win in either game over the Knighthawks would have put Buffalo at .500 for the season at the time, and that might have made a difference. By the way, the Bandits were 1-4 in one-goal games.

Defense

There were too many shots against by Buffalo’s opponents (1,029, worst in the league), and too many goals by Bandits’ opponents (251, worst in the league). That’s no way to win. Part of the problem was the team was short-handed 104 times and gave up 56 power-play goals, easily the worst numbers in the league. Steve Priolo was a force out the back door as usual, but the rest of the team didn’t match that standard. That leads to ...

Goaltending

Statistics are misleading at this position, as they are so dependent on how the team plays around the netminders. Still, Anthony Cosmo and Dave DiRuscio ranked at the bottom of the NLL stats in goals-against average and save percentage. Cosmo is 39 and thinking about retiring, while DiRuscio rarely looked like he’s ready to be a No. 1 goalie. Kevin Orleman never dressed for a game, so we’ll have to wait to see about the 2016 second-round draft pick.

The Self trade

This was a curious situation, as the Bandits essentially dealt the veteran for two draft picks in late March. Self had been helpful on offense and defense, but had a difficult personal situation that had caused him to prefer to play in Colorado. General manager Steve Dietrich did Self a favor with the deal, and he also picked up draft choices for a player that probably would have walked away from the team as a free agent in the offseason.

Still, some of the players talked in guarded terms that Self was missed, and they seemed disappointed by his departure. The Bandits went 1-5 after the deal. Was there a letdown after Self left with no help for the roster coming in return? That’s tough to prove, but some observers thought it happened.

Home-field advantage?

Buffalo was 3-6 in the KeyBank Center, and 3-6 away from home. Last year, the Bandits were 8-1 at home, 5-4 on the road.

Outlook

Anything’s possible in the offseason.

Start with management. The last time the Bandits missed the playoffs in 2013, general manager and coach Darris Kilgour was relieved of his duties. There is pressure to win in Banditland, because the team led the league in attendance this season and wants to continue to do so.

You may have noticed how some of the other pro sports teams in town reacted to bad seasons, as the Bills and Sabres cleaned house. Bandits’ management didn’t lose IQ points overnight after last year’s run, and it’s a rather thin line between great and bad in the NLL. But the pro sports business is a cruel one, and a lack of job security is part of the bargain.

You can come up with all sorts of scenarios concerning changes at general manager and head coach, and one might happen. Entire lacrosse department out the door? New general manager? Old general manager told to fire old coach Troy Cordingley? New or old general manager told to offer head coaching job to assistant coach John Tavares? Everyone returns?

On the field, the Bandits made few roster moves in preparation for the start of the 2017 season, understandable after a great ‘16. That won’t be the case in 2018. Dietrich says he is determined to get a younger team next season.

That could be painful, since the oldest Bandits are players like Cosmo, Billy Dee Smith and Mark Steenhuis - all of whom may be in the NLL Hall of Fame someday. Yet such a purge might be necessary for the team to try to improve. Other roster moves will carry less emotion and figure to be coming. It is possible that the Bandits will try to pick up some missing pieces to the puzzle via free agency. For example, if Cosmo does retire, you’d have to think Buffalo at least would kick the tires of any available veteran goalies.

Expansion might play into the discussion as well. If the NLL adds a team or two, which is still quite possible, the Bandits might lose anywhere between two and four players in an expansion draft. That’s a big bite out of a 24-man roster.

Luckily for the Bandits, reinforcements are on the way. Buffalo has the first overall draft pick for the first time since 2004, when Delby Powless was selected. The Bandits also have the first two picks in the second round. Yes, expansion teams could change the order of selection, but Buffalo should get some good young players in the fall.

For the past few years, the Bandits seemed like they were the only pro team in town that had its act together. Playoff appearances will do that. Now comes the test – can the team be rebuilt in a hurry?

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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