11/26/2017 9:00:00 AM / Jeff Baker
With the home opener on Friday, Dec. 8 less than two weeks away, the Buffalo Bandits took to the turf at KeyBank Center on Saturday for its annual open practice, offering fans a first glimpse at the team’s revamped roster for the 2017-18 National Lacrosse League season.
After posting a league-best 13-5 record en route to the NLL Champion’s Cup Finals in 2016, the Bandits now look to regain that form following a 6-12 finish in 2017, which saw the franchise miss the playoffs for just the second time in the last 15 years.
“Last season, we stuck with the team that got us to the Finals, but it didn’t work out,” Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour said. “Changes had to be made.”
Buffalo did just that, most notably with the departure of former Bandits mainstays in Billy Dee Smith, Ryan Benesch and Anthony Cosmo, and the addition of newcomers such as Callum Crawford, Josh Byrne and Alex Buque.
“We’re looking to get our talent in the right places, put them in a spot to excel,” Kilgour said. “That’s the challenge of coaching. Hopefully, this year we can get it right.”
Adding one of the league’s most prolific playmakers in Crawford should provide a boost to both sides of the Bandits’ offense. Acquired via trade from the Colorado Mammoth, the forward hopes to feed off the energy in ‘Banditland’ and assist in bringing Buffalo back into championship contention.
“I’ve gotten to see how incredible this building can be and it’s because of the fans and the atmosphere,” Crawford said as the club readies to host its East Division rival Toronto Rock in Week 1. “We’ve all got something to prove.”
The 12-year veteran, who tied the NLL single-season record with 83 assists in 2016, proved to still be an elite contributor last season as he finished sixth in league scoring with 98 points including 62 assists, fifth-most in the league. He projects to create plenty of quality scoring chances for 2016 NLL MVP Dhane Smith, coming off an 81-point (30+51) season in 2017, and the rest of the Bandits’ attack.
“Callum is just such a good passer,” Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich said. “He’s not only going to help Dhane on the right side, but he’s going to open up a lot of things for the lefties.”
One lefty who should reap some of those benefits is Byrne, the Bandits’ first-overall selection in the 2017 NLL Draft out of Hofstra University. Joining the ranks of former NLL top draft picks like Lyle Thompson, Mark Matthews, Kevin Crowley and Cody Jamieson, all of whom were able to provide substantial numbers relatively early in their careers, expectations will be high for the rookie.
“I try not to think about that kind of stuff,” Byrne said. “At the end of the day, it’s just lacrosse. I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I’m just hoping to come out here and make a difference.”
The 6-foot-3 forward was named 2017 Major League Lacrosse Rookie of the Year after scoring an MLL-rookie record 39 goals in nine games. The Bandits expect that his prolific junior, collegiate and outdoor scoring prowess will translate as he makes the jump to the next level in the NLL.
“When we traded Benesch, we knew we’d lose a little bit on that left side, but being able to replace him with Josh was a big win for us,” Dietrich said. “He’s a good goal scorer, great athlete. I think our offense has a lot of potential.”
Tasked with turning potential into production, Buffalo’s influx of youth will have to get up to speed quickly in all facets of the game. Younger players will need to complement the defense led by All-Pro defender Steve Priolo, all in an effort to make life easier in the crease for Buque and fellow goaltender Davide DiRuscio.
Coming off a solid summer league performance highlighted by his strong play in the Mann Cup, Buque could be poised for a breakout year as an NLL starter, while DiRuscio has flashed similar potential in limited action while working behind and in tandem with Cosmo over the last three years. The Bandits will need one or both netminders to emerge to help shore up a defense that allowed a league-high 251 goals last season.
In other developments up front, Pat Saunders will try to regain the scoring touch that saw him net 44 goals with the New England Black Wolves in 2016 and further acclimate himself to Buffalo after joining the team midseason last year, finishing with 27 goals. Mitch Jones made huge strides with 31 goals last year and will be relied upon to contribute again this season. Third-year pro Jordan Durston, who was traded to Buffalo before training camp, aims to build off the 25 goals he scored with the Vancouver Stealth in ’17 as he continues his development with a new team.
While the Bandits have traditionally used a veteran-heavy roster in prior years, forward Chase Fraser and defenseman Ethan Schott joined Byrne as the three rookies to make the final roster cut, indicative of Buffalo embracing its youth movement.
“It’s a big jump,” Dietrich said. “Some of the young kids have to step in and play a large role right away. The league has gotten so young, so athletic, and so fast, that every team now seems to be playing younger and younger players. They’re going to have to learn fast, but also remember to just go play and use their instincts.”
With an earlier start to the regular season compared to years past, the opportunity to build chemistry in the preseason will be key to starting strong and carrying that momentum through the holiday break.
“It’s nice to get a couple games in before Christmas, get into the flow of things,” longtime veteran Mark Steenhuis, who will take on more of a defensive role as he enters his 16th year with the Bandits, said.
The focus on achieving early cohesion and consistency was evident at the open practice as players ran drills, fine-tuned set plays, and continued their conditioning in preparation for the grind of the season.
Coaches and management then took part in a town hall-style Q & A, and players greeted fans during an autograph session, all while readying themselves for another practice at night.
“It’s great being back in here, back out on the floor,” Steenhuis said as the cold weather outside again brings with it the anticipation of a new season. “We’re just getting warmed up.”