The Buffalo Bandits in 2012 had an uncharacteristically difficult season by any definition.
The Bandits finished with a 7-9 record, their first losing season since 1999 and third ever, and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Along the way they had a six-game losing streak, setting a franchise record. They were 2-6 after eight games, matching a franchise low for worst eight-game start. Buffalo was the last team to clinch a playoff spot in the National Lacrosse League, a difficult pill to swallow in a league in which eight of nine teams reached the postseason.
Yet even that doesn't tell the whole story. When the Bandits were bad, they were very bad. They looked helpless for stretches of games in Minnesota, Rochester and Calgary. Even when the team played better, such as during portions of a 5-3 run in the second half of the season, its inconsistency left everyone on the roster muttering.
Admittedly, it was an odd season in the NLL. The demise of the Boston Blazers brought even more parity to the league. In the East, all four teams finished either 5-4 or 4-5 in division play. The only two teams to win at least 10 games, Calgary and Colorado, were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Even so, the Bandits' season failed to meet any of the expectations for a team that won its division in 2011 and added talent for 2012. Let's look at what happened:
The Bandits' best move came gift-wrapped, when Luke Wiles asked the Washington Stealth for a trade to the East for personal reasons. He had 39 goals (career-high, third in the league) and 31 assists for 70 points in his first year in Buffalo. John Tavares had 43 goals (including playoffs) at the age of 43 to rank second in the NLL; we won't see his likes again. Mat Giles might have been the nicest surprise of the season, scoring 49 points and setting plenty of hard picks at the age of 36.
Otherwise, the results were decidedly mixed. Statements from the team's front office members about the play of Mark Steenhuis were strangely contradicting at times. Even though Steenhuis played in a transition role again early in the season, he finished with 62 points to rank third on the team. Kevin Buchanan went from 24 goals in Boston last year to 10 in Buffalo this year. Chad Culp had eight goals in the first four games, and eight more the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Tracey Kelusky only had 12 goals in 12 games, his worst season as a pro by far if the injury-filled 2007 season is thrown out. He also had a concussion in 2012. Kelusky and the Bandits will be pondering their future together. Roger Vyse was down to 10 goals in nine games and had trouble cracking the lineup throughout the season. Vyse still has a great shot, but had trouble getting close enough to the net to make it effective.
In addition, the Bandits had some extra bodies in training camp and needed time to sort them all out. Brett Bucktooth was cut in training camp and went to Washington, where he was fourth on the Stealth in scoring. Frank Resetarits played in only one game before he opted for his release instead of a trip to the practice squad. Brenden Thenhaus, who had 17 goals for the Bandits last year, started the season on the practice squad and was picked up by Toronto when the Rock needed a forward. Thenhaus, you might recall, scored the game-winning goal that knocked the Bandits out of the playoffs Saturday.
Buffalo more or less relied on four defenders during the season. Billy Dee Smith bounced back from a severe knee injury, Chris White and Scott Self were good as usual, and Ian Llord was valuable and tough.
All but Llord from that group are at least 29, and the Bandits clearly could use more contributions from young defenders. Steve Priolo and Travis Irving top that list. In that sense, it's a little tough to understand the deals that sent Chris Corbeil and Jeff Cornwall to Edmonton -- even if the Bandits did receive some high draft choices in the transactions.
Among transition players, Jon Harasym was a constant in the lineup, but Tom Montour had trouble getting into games. Jeremy Thompson and Jimmy Purves did provide some badly needed speed to a roster that had its moments of looking quite slow. At the faceoff position, Brandon Francis' win percentage was down to 45.7, and he again showed an inability to maintain his composure. Francis needs to calm down.
The Bandits said they didn't blame their goaltenders, Mike Thompson and Angus Goodleaf, for their early defensive problems, but they still gave up two first-rounders in midseason for Anthony Cosmo. As it turned out, it was a great short-term move for Buffalo.
Cosmo needed time to get rid of the rust, but was very good once the calendar flipped to April. The Bandits might not have made the playoffs without him. Then against Toronto on Saturday, Cosmo was brilliant. Cosmo and Thompson would be a good duo for Buffalo in 2012.
The Bandits' fans still came out to support their favorites this season; the average attendance of 15,918 was down about seven percent from 2011. That's not bad considering the team's slow start. Even so, there's a growing perception out there -- if emails, Internet messages, personal comments, etc. are an indication -- that the team hasn't done as well as it should have done in recent years.
Buffalo should be a perennial contender, considering the financial resources at its disposal, and it has been consistently good over the last decade. Yet the team has won only one NLL championship since 1996, and it has reached the championship game only three times since losing there in 1997.
Coach and General Manager Darris Kilgour said that only a March winning streak stopped him from conducting a clearance sale for his roster. It's difficult to see him standing pat now.