2018-19 Bandits season preview

The Buffalo Bandits are banking on offseason changes to make the playoffs

Dave Buchanan
December 13, 2018 - 1:03 pm

Photo: Dave Buchanan (@FastTrack550)

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The Buffalo Bandits kick off the 2018-19 National Lacrosse League season this Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia against the expansion Wings franchise. Much like their fellow KeyBank Center residents, the Buffalo Sabres, the Bandits have gone through a rebuild of sorts over the last two years with high draft picks, high profile offseason acquisitions and not one, but two new head coaches.

The season is starting two weeks later than originally scheduled after a labor dispute between the league and the Professional Lacrosse Players Association (PLPA) forced the cancellation of the first two weeks. Those games have been rescheduled, and the Bandits will play a full slate of 18 regular season games.

The Bandits' rebuild started back in September after head coach Troy Cordingley was re-assigned within the organization following back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs. Assistant coaches Rich Kilgour and John Tavares were promoted to co-head coaches. Kilgour and Tavares have spent their entire NLL playing and coaching careers with the Bandits, going back to the team’s first season, and should make a seamless transition into the roles of bench bosses.

Later that month, the Bandits held a pair of top-five picks in the NLL Draft. General manager Steve Dietrich selected a pair of transition players as he picked Matt Gilray third overall, followed by Ian MacKay at fourth overall. Gilray played college lacrosse at Bucknell and won the Mann Cup this summer with the Peterborough Lakers, where he played with several of his future Bandits teammates. MacKay was a standout at Vermont in college, where he became the school’s all-time leading scorer. He also played for the Chesapeake Bayhawks of the Major Lacrosse League this summer, and won a silver medal for Canada at the FIL World Lacrosse Championships.

Both players will help bolster the Bandits’ transition play as the NLL game continues to get faster with more end-to-end action. To show how much the Bandits have placed an emphasis on transition this year, compare the Bandits’ roster from the start last season to this year. In 2017, the Bandits roster announcement at the end of training camp identified eight forwards, two transition players and eight defesemen. When the Bandits announced their final roster this week, they listed five forwards, eight transition players and six defensemen.

Joining Gilray and MacKay on transition are returning veterans Kevin Brownell, Chase Fraser, Thomas Hoggarth, Ryan Wagner and Nick Weiss. Fraser returns for his sophomore season with the Bandits after a promising rookie campaign. Last season, he was featured more as a forward, but Fraser will play more on the back end this year as well as take the majority of faceoffs. The team also acquired Ethan O’Connor from the Georgia Swarm in an offseason trade. O’Connor is a former first round pick that scooped over 90 loose balls in each of his first four seasons in the NLL.

The selections of Gilray and MacKay give the Bandits a trio of players selected in the top five of the last two NLL Drafts, in addition to taking Josh Byrne first overall in 2017. Byrne led the NLL in rookie scoring last season, and he has quickly became one of the faces of the franchise with his exciting style of play.

Byrne is part of an extremely talented group of Bandits forwards led by Dhane Smith. Smith recorded over 100 points for third time in his career last season, and his 68 assists last year equaled a career-high.

A high-profile midseason acquisition last year, Shawn Evans, will spend his first full season in Banditland in 2019. The two-time NLL MVP failed to register over 100 points for the first time since 2012 during his split season with New England and Buffalo last year, but he will still have a major impact on the Buffalo offense. Jordan Durston returns after a career-year in his first season in Buffalo.

The final piece of the Bandits’ offense is the recently acquired Corey Small. Small came over in a trade with Vancouver in exchange for Mitch Jones. He is just two years removed from his best season in the NLL when he finished third in the league in scoring with 117 points (46G, 65A). Small played that season with two great scorers in Rhys Duch and Logan Schuss, and he could do similar damage playing with the likes of Smith, Byrne, Evans and Durston. He looked impressive in the Bandits’ scrimmage against New England last week with six goals in a 12-10 win.

While Small is a big name addition, the biggest piece Steve Dietrich added to his roster this offseason was goaltender Matt Vinc. Vinc is a six-time and reigning NLL Goalie of the Year and won multiple championships with the Rochester Knighthawks. He gives the Bandits a major upgrade in net. Zach Higgins is the lone returning goaltender, and he will serve as a solid backup to Vinc. Alex Buque was dealt to New England in the offseason after an up-and-down season with Buffalo last year.

The Bandits defense is headed up by team captain Steve Priolo. The 6' 5" Priolo is back for his 10th season with the Bandits, and is one of the league's best defenders. He registered a career-high 138 loose balls in 2017-18.

Priolo, Justin Martin and Mitch de Snoo make up the veteran core of the Bandits’ back end. They are joined by Matthew Bennett, who returns after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year. Matt Spanger came over from New England during the offseason, and at 6’ 4”, he is the team’s second tallest player. Bryce Sweeting was acquired from San Diego during the expansion draft in a trade for Ethan Schott. He played the last three seasons in Colorado, and Dietrich likes his nasty streak on the floor.

The trade for Sweeting was part of a busy expansion draft for the Bandits this past summer. Their biggest loss was giving up Vaughn Harris to the re-born Philadelphia Wings. Harris was the Bandits’ main faceoff guy last year, and he scored some impressive goals. The selection of Harris also cost the Bandits Zac Reid, as he was compensation to the Wings for taking Harris instead of Chase Fraser. Philadelphia also took goalie Davide DiRuscio. All four former Bandits made the Wings' final roster, and they will face their former teammates this Saturday.

Buffalo will have to go through expansion process again this summer when the NLL adds teams in Rochester and Long Island. The expansion Rochester franchise will also be owned by Pegula Sports and Entertainment as the current Rochester team will move to Halifax, Nova Scotia following this season.

The additions of Vinc, Small, Gilray and MacKay will put the Bandits in the hunt in the NLL East this season. Their biggest challenges will come from the high-powered offenses in Toronto and Georgia. Rochester is equally talented, but they have a major question mark in net with the departure of Vinc. New England has some talented veteran forwards, but I’m not convinced they’re better than Toronto, Georgia, Buffalo or Rochester. The expansion Wings could contend for a playoff spot if their mix of established NLL players and incoming field players meshes quickly in their first season. Either way, the Bandits won’t have much room for error. They will likely need to win at least 10 games to get back to the playoffs.

The Bandits will also debut a new uniform this season. The previously unveiled new white jersey takes its inspiration from the retro third jersey the team has worn the last couple seasons. The new white jersey and existing retro take the place of the Bandits uniform set that was debuted in 2012. The Bandits are hosting White Out Night for their homer opener on December 21 against Toronto. The new white jersey will make its first appearance on the field and fans will be given white rally towels to wave. 

Catch every Bandit game on ESPN 1520 AM this season. John Gurtler returns as the voice of the Bandits alongside St. Bonaventure head coach Randy Mearns. I’ll be reporting between the benches during all nine Bandit home games. Former NLL.com writer Steve Bermel will fill in for Randy on select broadcasts.

The NLL also has a new streaming partner in Bleacher Report Live, and the league and its teams have a made a significant commitment to improving the online broadcasts this season. You can watch every game on the B/R Live app by purchasing each game individually or by buying a monthly or season-long subscription.

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