Usually teams molded by Johnny Mouradian are readying themselves for the postseason at this time of year.
Not this season.
The man responsible for constructing all three Buffalo Bandits championship squads brings his second-year San Jose Stealth to town for tonight's National Lacrosse League regular season finale in HSBC Arena (7:30 p.m., Radio 550 AM) with nothing but pride at stake.
"We knew we were going to suffer this year, especially on offense, and we did," said Mouradian, whose team is 4-11 and trying to escape the West Division basement one season after making the playoffs with an 11-5 mark. "We basically had all Canadian players when we got the Albany franchise (in 2004) with a great core of about 13 guys.
"But we had a lot of East Coast fly-in guys who couldn't come back this year for whatever reasons, mostly their families and job situations. So we've been forced to switch over to West Coast American players. We've taken our lumps but I'm excited about our future."
Six of the top seven scorers from last season's Stealth are elsewhere, including Buffalo forward Dan Teat, who lives in Brampton, Ont., and ranks second on the Bandits with 25 goals and 63 points. His Bandits are 10-5 and have locked up second place in the East.
"If they were playing for a slice of pizza, these guys would be playing their hearts out," said Bandits General Manager Kurt Silcott, whose team will host the Rochester Knighthawks in a first-round playoff game at 8 p.m. on April 23.
Playoff appearances were an annual rite of spring for the Bandits during Mouradian's tenure as general manager from 1992 through '97.
He made his mark quickly, acquiring relatively unknown 22-year-old forward John Tavares from the Detroit Turbos in October 1991 for journeyman Brian Nikula, a two-time Major Indoor Lacrosse League All-Star in the early '90s.
Following the deal, Nikula registered 33 goals and 52 points in 23 games, wrapping up his career with the '94 Bandits. Tavares is the second-leading scorer in league history with 514 goals and 1,045 points in 14 seasons.
What former Bandits coach Les Bartley said of that deal during his final Buffalo season of 1997 still rings true today: "It had to be the biggest trade ever. . . . John Mouradian deserves all the credit for that deal. The people of Buffalo are still reaping the benefits from it."
"I love the atmosphere in Buffalo and I always have," said the 52-year-old Mouradian, who was 37 when the Bandits were born. "I'm not only proud of how successful we were on the floor (winning titles in 1992, '93 and '96), but I'm also so proud of the amount of players back then who are now involved in so many different positions around the NLL."
Four of the other five playoff teams have strong Bandits connections.
Rochester's Paul Day, the current head coach with the longest tenure in the league (seven seasons), played for the '92 Bandits. Toronto Rock captain, last year's NLL Most Valuable Player, Jim Veltman played for the Bandits from 1992-96.
The Arizona Sting's coach and GM, Bob Hamley, won two rings in Buffalo (1992-95) and Colorado head coach Jamie Batley served two tours as a Bandits player (1995 and '99).
Among those out of playoff contention, Minnesota GM Marty O'Neill ended his playing career in goal for Buffalo (1999-2000) and Anaheim coach and GM Derek Keenan played for two championship Buffalo teams (1992-93) and holds franchise records for goals (26) and points (49) by a rookie in one season ('92).
"That first championship we won in Buffalo (with an overtime victory in Philadelphia in 1992) was very special," said Mouradian, who serves as coach and GM with the Stealth. "But my biggest thrill was winning 22 straight games over parts of three seasons (1992-94), which included a couple of championships. The emotion was just incredible. That's a streak I don't think will ever be touched."
Mouradian, from St. Catharines, was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2001, and Bartley left Buffalo together when the Ontario Raiders received an expansion franchise in 1998. They became the Toronto Rock a year later and have won four championships. Mouradian also served a short stint as GM of the now-defunct Ottawa Rebel.
"Kurt (Silcott) and Darris (head coach Kilgour) have done a great job getting back the fan base," Mouradian said. "It's great to see."