The 2017-18 Buffalo Bandits were incredibly difficult to predict. They lost to the worst team in the league at home, but also beat the best team in the league on the road. They were riding high with a four-game win streak, then followed that up with a four-game losing streak. You never knew which Bandits team you were going to get.
In the end, the negative moments slightly outweighed the positive ones. Buffalo finished 8-10, missing the playoffs for a second straight year and for only the sixth time in franchise history. The margin for error was minuscule – a win in the regular season finale against the Rochester Knighthawks and the Bandits would be playing in the East Division semifinals this weekend.
Instead, Buffalo's season once again ended quickly, forcing the Bandits to focus on the positive steps taken and the potential of the youthful squad going forward.
"I think the pieces were put into place last summer for the team to succeed," Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich said. "We showed improvement, no doubt about it. ... I think the foundation is laid and laid pretty well."
Even at 8-10, the Bandits improved by two wins from their disastrous 2017 season. That's with a number of youthful faces entering the lineup, including four rookies, and 15 players that weren't with the team the year prior making an appearance. The Bandits were a collection of unfamiliar parts trying to fit together, and with that in mind, there was real promise.
Offensively, the Bandits had five players surpass the 60-point mark. Dhane Smith finished third in the league in points, trailing only Saskatchewan's Mark Matthews and Robert Church. Josh Byrne, the first overall pick in last year's draft, lived up to the hype. He led all rookies in assists and points, setting franchise rookie records in both categories.
At first, it appeared Dietrich's splashy trade that brought Shawn Evans to Buffalo upset the chemistry of the offense. In time, Evans found his role and finished with 32 points in eight games in the orange and black. Vaughn Harris, who the Bandits acquired the day before the season opener, went from the practice roster to earning the team's Breakout Bandit Award. The second-year forward took draws, played every runner position on the floor and notched 32 points in 14 games.
That's before mentioning Jordan Durston and Mitch Jones, who have etched spots on the unit going forward.
Buffalo was doomed by a number of long droughts, including the infamous 10-goal Roughnecks run in Calgary on April 14. With a bit more consistency, the Bandits offense has the talent to hang with anyone in the East.
Dietrich admitted the defense needs a bit more work. Bandits captain Steve Priolo said after the team's finale that he was happy with the group 5-on-5, but they struggled in transition and were known to make a handful of mental gaffes in the Bandits' poorer efforts.
"It's tough to reflect on," said Priolo, still considered one of the best defenders in the league. "It's going to take a lot of hours, a lot of breaking down."
Dietrich said he could improve that unit with his two first-round picks, third and fourth overall, but didn't rule out making a trade as well.
"To have the third and fourth picks staring you in the face, that's a good situation to have," Dietrich said. "It's a consolation prize because we all hoped to be playing this weekend."
Even with these moral victories, there's a certain expectation that comes with a role in the Bandits organization. It's a franchise accustomed to winning, something Dietrich has known since his days as the team's starting goalie.
"I completely understand the frustration," Dietrich said. "Nobody's more frustrated than I am and nobody's more hurt than I am when it comes to not being able to be playing this weekend. But the picture is rosy moving forward. This team has a chance to do some very good things at the draft and in the offseason to be right back in the upper echelon of the league next year."