NLL 2013 Previews: Buffalo Bandits

John Tavares is back to lead the Bandits for another year. (Photo: NLL.com)
John Tavares is back to lead the Bandits for another year. (Photo: NLL.com)

One thing is for sure in Buffalo: the Bandits will look very different in 2013 than they did last year. Just look at the lists of additions and departures below. Other than the retirements of Darryl Gibson and Mike Thompson, all the changes were intentional. The team wanted to be different. A six-game losing streak (after opening the season with a pair of wins) virtually assured sweeping change was coming. A 5-3 second half wasn’t enough to quell the desire to remake the team. Of course, one of the biggest changes was removing the GM role from Darris Kilgour and bringing in Steve Dietrich for the position. The big question facing the Bandits is whether all the changes will make the team better.

Buffalo Bandits

2012: 7-9, lost in East Division semi-final
Top 3 returning scorers: John Tavares (41-39-80), Luke Wiles (39-31-70), Mark Steenhuis (27-35-62)
League leaders: John Tavares, power play goals (21)
Key Additions: F Shawn Williams (trade), F Derek Hopcroft (trade), F Aaron Wilson (trade), F Jordan Critch (draft pick), D Derek Suddons (free agent), T David Brock (trade), T Dhane Smith (draft pick), D Hayden Smith (draft pick), F Carter Bender (draft pick), D Glen Bryan (trade), F Mike Hominuck (trade), F Nick Cotter (free agent)
Key Departures: D Chris White (free agent), D Darryl Gibson (retired), F Kevin Buchanan (trade), T Tom Montour (released), G Mike Thompson (retired), D Ian Llord (trade), T Jeremy Thompson (trade), F Roger Vyse (released)

Outlook: With all the change, it’s very difficult to project not only how the team will fare, but what the lineup will be. How many of the players brought in through trades will make the roster? Guys like Brock, Hominuck and Bryan are no sure things in a camp that Kilgour and Dietrich insist is wide open. John Tavares will be on the squad. Shawn Williams will join him. You don’t just cut two of the best players to ever step on a floor while they are still highly productive. Anthony Cosmo will be between the pipes. Beyond that, would you want to stake your mortgage on anyone’s job security with this club?
Okay, you’re not likely to see the names Steenhuis, Self or Wiles on the NLL’s transactions page come Thursday’s final cut down day, but the point has been made clearly and repeatedly by the brass that everyone is playing for a job. And why not, after the debacle that much of last year was. The team was permeated by a sense of confusion throughout the season. No one seemed to be able to understand why they kept finding new ways to lose games.

After getting things somewhat back on track in the final eight games, Buffalo built a 6-2 lead over Toronto in the East semi. Any chance that the club could rise like the Phoenix from the ashes of the regular season was thoroughly doused by the final 35 minutes of that game, in which the Bandits were shut out and dropped a 7-6 final that ended with Tavares’ flying-wedge last-second goal being negated by a crease violation.

Now, two distinct possibilities exist for the 2013 season. Buffalo could be a younger, faster, more athletic team that pushes the pace and wins more games with a more relentless approach to defence and transition. Or, the Bandits could struggle to find cohesion quickly with so many new faces trying to adjust to playing with each other. Both are viable predictions and both are tangible possibilities.

Ironically enough, if the former is going to be the case, Buffalo will need once again to have big seasons from the guys who led them last year. Tavares scored 41 goals and Luke Wiles scored 39, with 21 and 18 of those coming on the power player, respectively.

The success of their young players will be critical to the success of the team, though, and it all starts with 5th overall pick Dhane Smith. The youngster (he still has a year of junior eligibility remaining) is fleet and skilled and has folks in Buffalo excited to see him on the floor. Hayden Smith is more of a pure defender. His tenacity and combativeness will endear him quickly to the denizens of Banditland and his Orangeville preparation should have him ready to contribute early on.

Chances are good that one of the lefty forwards the Bandits got in a remarkably deep draft class will earn a chance to be a regular as well. Whether it’s Jordan Critch or Carter Bender is very much up in the air. Critch has a more varied game and is more of an offensive threat but Bender is a big body who can open space for some of the veterans and has the skill to add a few goals as well.

Veteran Scott Self is still an elite defender with transition skills and he should be ready to go after post-Mann Cup hip surgery that caused him to miss the early part of training camp. Derek Suddons‘ signing flew a bit under the radar in an off-season full of intrigue throughout the NLL, but he could be an excellent addition. Suddons had one of his best pro seasons in 2012, showing some renewed offensive flair that would certainly be welcome in Buffalo.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Whither Billy Dee Smith? The defender with the mean streak a mile wide was starting to get back to his old self last winter and looked fully recovered from knee surgery during the summer season. He is once again an intimidatingly athletic presence who can disrupt an opponent’s offensive flow. The fact that he remains unsigned the day before teams have to present their 23-man rosters and practice squads to the league is a huge concern.

Whether Billy Dee winds up playing this year or not, though, the Bandits will look very different heading into January. Players, management and fans alike hope the results will be different in 2013 as well.

Editors note: Billy Dee Smith’s agent, Chaka Bainbridge, announced on Twitter after the writing of this article that Smith and the team have reached an agreement and just need to finish the paper work to finalize his return to the club. That sound you hear is a sigh of relief from Buffalo.

Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at stamplax@hotmail.com.

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