Bandits look to return to relevancy with revamped roster - The Buffalo News

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Bandits look to return to relevancy with revamped roster

Buffalo Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich preached fighting complacency during last year's training camp. The Bandits were coming off a trip to the Champions Cup and brought back nearly the entire roster for another crack at the Saskatchewan Rush.

"Maybe I was the most complacent of the group," Dietrich said.

A roster previously good enough to win the division took a precipitous fall. Buffalo won six of its 18 games in 2017, tied for a franchise low, and finished in last place in the league for the first time since 2013. The Bandits ended the season on a 1-6 skid.

"We didn't have the hunger we did before," Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said. "It was a snowball effect. We dug ourselves a hole and couldn't get out of it."

Dietrich wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. Eight of the players on the Bandits' 20-man roster and the entire practice squad are new faces heading into Friday night's season opener against Toronto.

"It was time to make a change," Dietrich said.

Forwards

Dietrich set the tone for the offseason early in August, starting off his offensive revamp with a splashy trade. He acquired Callum Crawford, who finished fifth in the NLL in scoring last season, in a swap with Colorado involving Ryan Benesch. Crawford is a 12-year veteran of the league coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons.

At the draft in Oakville, Buffalo selected Josh Byrne first overall and traded Anthony Malcom to Vancouver for Jordan Durston.

Byrne is a coveted commodity in the indoor game, a big lefty scorer. He's proven he can compete against men, putting up 45 points in 15 games at the top level of summer box lacrosse. Outdoors, he was named Major League Lacrosse Rookie of the Year after setting the league's rookie scoring record.

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The Durston and Malcom deal was a swap of promising young players. Durston notched 25 goals and 43 points with the Stealth last year, his second season in the NLL.

At the center of the offense remains Dhane Smith, the league's MVP two years ago. Injury limited him to 14 games in 2016, but he still managed to finish 12th in the NLL in points.

Mitch Jones had an incredible summer in the Western Lacrosse Association, ranking fourth in the WLA in scoring in the regular season and first in the playoffs. Pat Saunders, Chase Fraser and Craig England provide excellent secondary scoring options.

Training camp and preseason games have given the offensive players an opportunity to learn each other's tendencies, but Dietrich and Cordingley admitted it hasn't gelled just yet.

"It's real good on paper," Cordingley said. "It's a matter of them meshing and a matter of them performing and playing like a team. That's a huge thing. You have talented players on offense and everybody wants the ball. We've got to figure out a way and figure out a way quick where it's going to be team ball."

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Defense

The defense is inconspicuous, as the Bandits parted with most of the mainstays. Billy Dee Smith signed with Rochester and David Brock went to New England. Andrew Watt wasn't offered an invite to camp.

Steve Priolo, a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year last season, is the most established returner. He's steady and should remain among the best shutdown players in the league.

The Bandits acquired two defensemen with NLL experience in Ryan Wagner and Reid Acton. Dietrich said Wagner reminds him of his old roommate, Bandit great Pat McCready. Wagner, a Niagara-on-the-Lake native, spent the past two seasons with Vancouver. Acton hasn't played since 2016, when he suited up for eight games with the Swarm.

The rest of the group is made up of youthful players that have gone through the Bandits' system. Mitch de Snoo and Matthew Bennett are the oldest among them, each boasting three years of experience. The Bandits used second-round picks to snag Justin Martin and Ethan Schott in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, respectively.

"The defense will be a work in progress as the season goes on because a lot of new guys, a lot of youth," Dietrich said.

Transition

With all the offensive additions, Mark Steenhuis has moved to the back door. It's a role he isn't unfamiliar with, but it certainly takes one of the Bandits' biggest names out of the spotlight.

"They brought me in the room and said, ‘This is what we think is going to be the best for the team this year,’ " Steenhuis said. "It kind of hits you. ... I obviously didn’t expect it coming in, except maybe hearing some rumors. It is what it is. I took it and if this is going to be best for the team I’m on board.”

Steenhuis will fill the hole left by Alex Kedoh Hill, who is sitting out the season.

Tim Edwards, who took a majority of the team's faceoffs last season, was a late cut from camp. Fraser, a rookie, may be the Bandits' best bet at replacing him. He won 58 percent of his draws with the Nanaimo Timbermen in summer ball.

Nick Weiss has intermittently taken draws, and Zac Reid gives some faceoff insurance on the practice squad.

Cutting Edwards showed the priorities of a Bandits team that is dabbling in analytics. With only 20 full roster spots, Dietrich looked for players who were at least serviceable at faceoffs while providing help in other aspects.

"You look at some stats, like, if Timmy was 45 percent in faceoffs and the new guys go 30 percent," Dietrich said. "That 15 percent, what does that translate? Maybe three possessions per game. Then it takes six or seven possessions to score a goal. You're looking at about one goal every two games versus being stronger out the back end."

Goalie

Backstopping the new defensive unit between the pipes will either be Alex Buque or Davide DiRuscio. The pair fought in training camp for the starting position, vacated this offseason after Anthony Cosmo's retirement. If Cordingley has made a decision on a starter, he's kept it to himself.

DiRuscio backed up Cosmo the previous three seasons, posting a 7-9 record, a .761 save percentage and a 12.96 goals against average.

Buque was acquired from Colorado along with Crawford, getting a chance at starting minutes after three years backing up Dillon Ward. He's shown signs of starting ability with the Mammoth, but really turned heads this summer in the WLA. He led the league in wins, was second in goals against average and save percentage and earned Playoff MVP honors as he backed the New Westminster Salmonbellies to a WLA championship.

Outlook

The offense should be improved and the defense doesn't have a high bar to clear to be better than what it was last season. It's easy to see why the Bandits feel good going into 2017-18.

Yet, in a nine-team league, every roster has talent. The Bandits face an East Division looking as formidable as ever. The defending champions, Georgia, return a juggernaut offense led by Lyle Thompson. Toronto added Adam Jones and should see improvements from Tom Schreiber, who took the league by storm in his first year playing indoor lacrosse.

Rochester brought in talent through the draft, owning three of the first six picks. New England bolstered its defense with proven, veteran commodities.

With so many new pieces to work in and tough competition, it's difficult to predict what the Bandits will be. The first three games of the season are against division rivals, meaning Buffalo will need to click quick or risk falling behind in the standings.

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