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Bandits’ nucleus mostly back for 2015

It was a long offseason for the Buffalo Bandits.

Losing in sudden-death overtime during a deciding mini-game against the team that went on to win the league championship will do that.

“I’m not a very good loser – never have been and probably never will be,” forward Mark Steenhuis said about the playoff loss to the Rochester Knighthawks. “It stings all year. You ask the why questions. You have the whole year to think about it. ... We were close, but we weren’t there.”

“It’s kind of heart-breaking,” Ryan Benesch said. “It goes to a mini-game, and it goes to overtime after that. The goal was one you don’t want to see go in. ... It stuck with me for a while.”

Those memories will soon be put away. It’s a clean slate for the team, which opens the 2015 campaign in New England on Friday. The home opener comes Saturday against Edmonton.

Buffalo’s biggest problem is one that has faced the team repeatedly in recent years. The Bandits have had a veteran team that has been competitive, but hasn’t been quite good enough to win championships. It’s almost astonishing to think that a franchise that has all sorts of advantages (big crowds, prime location for recruiting talent) has only won one title since 1996.

The league continues to feature more youth and athleticism with each year. The Bandits have to revamp their roster to reflect that fact, but they must do it on the fly so that the won-loss record doesn’t suffer along the way.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” General Manager Steve Dietrich said. “As guys get older, you’ve seen them compete. I’ve played with some of them, and Troy has coached some of them. It’s hard to let some of those guys go. But with the salary cap, you almost have to. And some of these young kids deserve a chance.”

The Bandits in a sense made a statement about their future by signing Dhane Smith, Benesch and Steve Priolo to three-year contracts. They will be the nucleus of the team going forward. Buffalo didn’t make many offseason changes but what moves that took place made the team younger.

The biggest surprise was the trade of defender Rory Smith and reserve goaltender Eric Penney to Vancouver for a first-round draft choice (Brandon Goodwin) and transition player Nick Weiss. Smith had been a favorite of coach Troy Cordingley.

“It’s not easy to trade any guy, but especially after what Rory did for us last year,” Cordingley said. “He’s in it for the right reasons. He’s a warrior. But it’s part of the business. We’re trying to improve our team, and they are trying to improve their team.”

Goodwin and Weiss both had good training camps. Goodwin is 23 and Weiss is 22, so the hope is that they will be long-term contributors.

Up front, Shawn Williams was not re-signed, and Aaron Wilson was cut in training camp. The Bandits have moved Smith and Chad Culp to full-time duty up front. Both had done some work in transition in the past. Smith, in particular, has a chance to blossom as a star in the coming years.

Otherwise, the names are familiar. Benesch, Steenhuis, John Tavares, and Joe Resetarits are back, while rookie Jerome Thompson might have been the biggest surprise on the opening roster.

At transition, several candidates will compete with Goodwin and Weiss for playing time. Alex Kedoh Hill displayed terrific speed in a brief appearance in 2013. He took last season off, but is back and could be a major contributor. Mitch Wilde, Andrew Watt, David Brock and Kevin Brownell have returned. Jay Thorimbert is back to win face-offs and clean up loose balls as usual.

The roster lists only three defenders – Priolo, Billy Dee Smith and Derek Suddons. Smith is 32 and Suddons is 36. It will be interesting to see which transition players Cordingley uses on defense.

Anthony Cosmo is coming off an excellent season in goal and is expected to see most of the time in 2015. Kurtis Wagar retired in the offseason; Davide Diruscio won the backup job in training camp. Diruscio is coming off an outstanding season in the CLAX league in Canada, and he certainly can fill the net at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds.

The Bandits have two major goals for 2015. The first is to avoid prolonged lulls. Buffalo started the season 8-2, but then fell victim to a more difficult schedule and lost eight straight games – which made a good playoff run that much more surprising.

“We have to be more consistent,” Steenhuis said. “We have to catch things before they go right down the hill. ... Last year was a good learning curve for the young guys, who realized that you need that little extra effort, that extra loose ball, extra shot that will go a long way.”

Second, good health for the 30-somethings on the roster is important. An injury to Cosmo would be particularly damaging, since Diruscio has yet to prove he can play at the game’s highest level.

The Bandits still look to be a notch behind Rochester in the East. But the National Lacrosse League is well balanced, so the margin between teams is small. If Buffalo sees some young players develop into major contributors and if a couple of bounces go its way, the team could be in position make some noise at playoff time.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com