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Bandits preview: Is this the year they get over the hump?

The East Division’s road to the National Lacrosse League championship has gone through Rochester and/or Toronto for the past few years, and the Buffalo Bandits keep hitting roadblocks.

The Bandits haven’t finished ahead of both of those teams in the same year since 2008, when they won their last championship. In recent years they have been eliminated from the playoffs by Rochester in 2014, and by Toronto in 2012, 2011 and 2010. Last year, the Bandits had a 1-6 record against the Knighthawks and Rock, and a 10-2 record against everyone else.

“It’s frustrating,” Buffalo General Manager Steve Dietrich said. “You think you’re close. You think you have the right pieces, and it doesn’t come to fruition – especially the Rochester thing. Rochester has burned me since I’ve been here,” which is since the summer of 2012.

“It’s tough,” Dhane Smith said. Rochester is “our biggest rival. If you want to win a championship, you have to beat the best.”

The task is straightforward if not easy. The Bandits need to do well enough in the regular season

to get home-field advantage in the playoffs, a helpful edge in knocking off good teams like the Knighthawks and Rock. Then they must capitalize on that advantage.

That won’t be easy. Rochester still has plenty of talent, and the Knighthawks still have goalie Matt Vinc as a potential difference-maker in any close game. Toronto has lost top scorer Josh Sanderson to an indefinite leave, but has kept most of the squad that reached the championship round in 2015.

The Bandits figure to be good this year. But will they be good enough?

“I like the group,” Dietrich said. “I think we’ve got a good mix again. ... We have a good chance.”

Here’s how the Bandits look entering their 25th anniversary season:

Offense

It won’t be quite the same without John Tavares in the lineup, as he retired after 24 years on the team. To his credit, Dietrich acted decisively to find another good forward to “replace” the all-time great by signing a veteran free agent from Calgary. Daryl Veltman has been a solid scorer throughout his career, with five 20-goal seasons to his credit. The forward figures to be a good fit.

“He’s a very, very smart lacrosse player,” coach Troy Cordingley said. “His lacrosse IQ is over the roof. He can play any style. He creates space. He sees the floor well.

“It so happened that he was moving back to Ontario and was a free agent. We put a bid on him, and we’re glad he came in.”

He will join the Bandits’ big three on offense, as Ryan Benesch, Dhane Smith and Mark Steenhuis all had at least 95 points last season. Benesch had the best year of his career, Smith is on a path that could see him become the best player in the league, and the 35-year-old Steenhuis still has the explosiveness to make him a threat anytime he’s on the floor.

Alex Kedoh Hill could complete a very good group of five forwards, but he’s so quick and athletic that he can be effective when he has the chance to use the entire floor as a transition player. Hill’s improvement last season was stunning, and he will help no matter where he plays.

The Bandits have some depth here. Chad Culp has been around for a while and knows where the net is. Jerome Thompson had a few good moments as a rookie in 2015. Tyler Ferreira and first-rounder Anthony Malcom are young players with some promise, although playing time may be scarce.

Defense

The only departure from the unit is Derek Suddons, who signed as a free agent with New England. His size and toughness will be missed, but the Bandits will try to compensate with more youth and speed out the back door.

“With the style that Troy and Rich” Kilgour, an assistant coach, “want to play this year, we need more athletes,” Dietrich said. “I think we have lots of them. I’d rather have a two-on-one break on a team than five-on-five. It’s easier to score that way.”

Steve Priolo took another step forward in 2015, adding some transition play to his size and strength, and ranks with the league’s best at the position. Billy Dee Smith has maintained law and order for the Bandits since he arrived here in 2003. Jamie Batson supplies a little depth, but injuries wouldn’t be welcome here. Jay Thorimbert is coming off a great year, and should continue to win faceoffs and scoop up loose balls with the best of them.

The Bandits have all sorts of players in the transition role, and that may take some time to sort itself out. Mitch Wilde, Nick Weiss, Mitch Jones and Kevin Brownell had their moments last season, and Matthew Bennett is also around.

Buffalo made one trade shortly before the season, giving up Brandon Goodwin to Calgary for Mitch de Snoo. The new defenseman was a second-round pick of the Roughnecks last fall.

Goal

Anthony Cosmo took a small step backward in 2015. The goalie was right in the middle of the NLL’s statistical pack. It would help the team if he could bounce back, although at age 38, he’s starting to get into territory when the calendar works against him.

Dave DiRuscio won the backup job once again in training camp. He only played in 75 minutes last season, so he still has to earn everyone’s trust that he can play regularly at the game’s top level.

Outlook

This looks like an important season for the Bandits, a team that is always under pressure to win because it has the financial resources to do so.

Buffalo has the look of a contender, with some stars and a decent supporting cast. The Bandits need to stay healthy, have Steenhuis and Cosmo maintain a high level of play, and see a couple of the young players take steps forward.

That’s all possible, but it’s still going to be tough to pass the Knighthawks and Rock. And if the Bandits can’t reach that goal, changes will follow.

“This will be two years in a row that we stuck with mostly the same group,” Dietrich said. “If it doesn’t get done this year, there will be changes made. Whether that’s me, or Troy, who knows? There’s a lot of pressure.

“It’s time to take the next step. There are no more excuses.”

Roster

No. Name Pos. Age

2 Jerome Thompson F 27

3 Billy Dee Smith D 23

4 Jamie Batson D 30

8 Kevin Brownell T 27

9 Mark Steenhuis F 35

15 Matthew Bennett T 22

17 Ryan Benesch F 30

20 Nick Weiss T 23

21 Tyler Ferreira F 22

23 Steve Priolo D 26

24 Mitch Jones F/T 24

36 Daryl Veltman F 30

44 Anthony Cosmo G 38

55 Mitch Wilde T 24

65 Dave DiRuscio G 23

66 Alex Kedoh Hill F/T 25

No. Name Pos. Age

75 Jay Thorimbert T 26

92 Dhane Smith F 23

93 Anthony Malcom F 23

– Mitch de Snoo D 23

Practice Squad

5 Adam Will D 23

13 Dave Brock T 29

30 Tim Edwards T 23

88 Craig England D 25

Injured Reserve

22 Andrew Watt T 31

Suspended List

19 Chad Culp F 33

Head coach: Troy Cordingley.

Assistant coaches: John Tavares, Rich Kilgour, Dan Teat, Dave Pym, Rob Buchan and Rusty Kruger.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time

Jan. 9 Calgary Roughnecks 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 16 @ Colorado Mammoth 9 p.m.

Jan. 23 Toronto Rock 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 30 @ New England Black Wolves 7:00 p.m.

Feb. 6 New England Black Wolves 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 14 @ Georgia Swarm 2 p.m.

Feb. 19 @ Toronto Rock 8 p.m.

Feb. 20 Georgia Swarm 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 26 @ Saskatchewan Rush 8:30 p.m.

March 5 @ Vancouver Stealth 10 p.m.

March 11 Rochester Knighthawks 7:30 p.m.

March 25 Vancouver Stealth 7:30 p.m.

April 2 @ Georgia Swarm 7 p.m.

April 9 Rochester Knighthawks 7:30 p.m.

April 15 @ Toronto Rock 8 p.m.

April 16 Toronto Rock 7:30 p.m.

April 23 @ Rochester Knighthawks 8 p.m.

April 30 New England Black Wolves 7:30 p.m.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com