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Bandits midseason report: Josh Byrne making a case for Rookie of the Year

Buffalo Bandits forward Josh Byrne looks like the can't-miss lefty prospect he was billed as at the halfway point of the season.

The first-overall pick in last year's National Lacrosse League draft leads rookies in all three main offensive statistical categories heading into Saturday's home game against the Rochester Knighthawks (7:30 p.m., 1520 AM).

The rest of the class isn't even close to keeping up offensively. At 17 goals and 36 points, Byrne has eight more goals and 15 more points than Rochester's Austin Shanks, who ranks second in both categories.

NLL TV's Ashley Docking and Tyson Geick and five of IL Indoor's seven-person staff picked Byrne as their Rookie of the Year at the midway point. A Bandits player hasn't won Rookie of the Year since the first year of the franchise, when former Buffalo forward and current Saskatchewan Rush head coach Derek Keenan took home the hardware in 1992.

Byrne's main competitor for the honor is Calgary's Zach Currier, a Swiss Army knife who can take faceoffs and play nearly anywhere on the floor. He has five goals, 13 assists and an NLL-leading 85 loose balls in nine games with the Roughnecks.

Buffalo Bandits gameday: Bandits vs. Rochester Knighthawks

Where Byrne has shined, especially recently, is around the crease. Instead of the traditional crease dive, Byrne has mastered the crease leap, which gives him more flexibility to read a goalie while already off the ground.

"One thing that sets Byrne apart from almost everyone else is the amount of time it looks like he has in the air to decide what he is going to do," IL's Stephen Stamp wrote in his Week 10 NLL musings. "Byrne doesn't appear to be committed to any particular shot when he jumps in the air. He just gets so high and hangs for so long, and his hands are so quick, that he can make up his mind based on what he sees while he's at cruising altitude."

Byrne said after the Georgia game it's a move he learned from teammate Callum Crawford.

"I try to take a little bit out of each player's game," Byrne said. "I'm just going to put everybody together and make a Josh Byrne."

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Buffalo has already reached its win total from last year, when the team finished last in the league with a 6-10 record. At 6-3, the Bandits sit a game ahead of the Toronto Rock for first place in the East Division. The New England Black Wolves currently hold the third and final playoff spot in the East at 4-4.

Bandits fans should watch the West Division standings as closely as the East since Buffalo owns the Vancouver Stealth's first-round pick in 2018 draft. The Stealth are last in the NLL with a 1-9 record.

The Bandits acquired the pick in 2014 in the trade that brought Nick Weiss to Buffalo and sent Rory Smith out west.

The highest the pick can be is third since the expansion franchises in Philadelphia and San Diego will get the first and second picks. One of the new squads will get the first pick in the entry draft, while the other will get the first pick in the expansion draft.

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Bandits backup goalie Davide DiRuscio is a few weeks away from returning from injury. The question is, will there a spot for him when he's healthy?

Zach Higgins has been outstanding in his place, especially in his two most recent outings. He backed the Bandits as they mounted a seven-goal comeback against Saskatchewan, then was the star in Buffalo's blowout victory against the Georgia Swarm.

"He was the main reason we held (Georgia) to nine goals," Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. "He came up with huge saves time and time again. That's the best I've ever seen Higgy play."

Cordingley was non-committal when asked after the Georgia game if Higgins has a chance to play his way onto the roster.

"We'll see," Cordingley said. "We have confidence in all three of our goalies."

Teams can only protect one goalie in the upcoming expansion draft, so you can bet Philadelphia and San Diego are salivating at the idea of getting their hands on one of the Bandits keepers.

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Buffalo's defense has been a revolving door due to injuries this season. Ten players have seen the floor on the back door: Reid Acton, Nick Weiss, Ryan Wagner, Ethan Schott, Zac Reid, Mitch de Snoo, Steve Priolo, Liam Patten, Justin Martin and Matthew Bennett.

The unit had a few stinkers early in the season, giving up 21 to Rochester on Dec. 23 and 20 to Toronto on Dec. 30. Since then, the defense has sharpened and the goals against have normalized. Buffalo has held teams to under 10 goals twice and under 13 in four of its last six games. Buffalo's 13.3 goals against average is middle of the pack in the East Division.

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