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Buffalo Bandits season preview: the newcomers

Photo by Dave Marino

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Think back to last year’s incarnation of the Buffalo Bandits. Aside from the occasional one-vs.-one goal by Mark Steenhuis on the left wing and John Tavares’ effectiveness from the point in orchestrating the offense, why couldn’t the Bandits muster more than 10.6 goals per game, just seventh in the [then] 10 team league? What happened to the potent offense of 2009, the year when Steenhuis and Tavares combined for 102 goals?

Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour must have wondered the same thing this off-season, as his personnel moves have led to an influx of athleticism, youth and one-vs.-one ability.

Enter lefty forward Kevin Buchanan from the now-defunct Boston Blazers via the National Lacrosse League’s dispersal draft. While other teams’ selections of All-Star attacker Dan Dawson, young defender Kyle Rubisch and reliable goalie Anthony Cosmo dominated the headlines, the Bandits may have stumbled upon a gem with the sixth pick.

Maybe it was Buchanan’s nine-point display last April in Buffalo, when the forward solved Bandit goalie Mike Thompson five times in Boston’s 16-9 win. Look back at that live-blog—Buchanan was not hesitant in blistering shots, pelting a rather absurd 13 of them on goal—and several simply had too much power and precision for one of the league’s top net-minders to handle. He’s definitely not bashful.

“[Assistant coach] Richie Kilgour was joking around that [the Bandits] goals-against-average was going to go down now that I’m on the team,” Buchanan said with a chuckle. “Darris explained to me that he had his eye on me when I did a combine in 2008 in Boston. It just worked out well, and I’m happy to be here.”

The 25-year-old Buchanan, who will wear #33, should become an instant fan-favorite. He’s young, gregarious, good-looking—a sound choice for a new face of the franchise. Darris Kilgour, who’s not one to lavish praise on undeserving players, was even surprised by the impact Buchanan had early in camp.

“We thought we knew what we were getting with him, but to watch him scrimmage, he’s on another level athletically than a lot of guys,” the Bandits’ head coach said.

In fact, there’s no ceiling on Buchanan’s potential, as the former Blazer has really only played three full seasons of box lacrosse after starring as an Ohio State Buckeye outdoors. He’s currently a star in Major League Lacrosse as well with the Boston Cannons. While his learning curve, especially in Buffalo’s rather complex system without any preseason games, could be a challenge, 70 or 80 points are realistic expectations.

“Darris explains the game very well for someone like myself, who hasn’t had a ton of exposure—just three seasons. He explains why we’re doing this drill and how it translates to this game. His intensity is off-the-chart—there are a couple times when I get a little scared.”

Well-traveled Luke Wiles, another skilled one-vs.-one type forward with less athleticism but a thicker build than Buchanan, arrives in Buffalo from the Washington Stealth, a team that reached the NLL Championship in both of Wiles’ seasons with the club, winning in 2010.

“Two years ago, I went from Orillia, ON to Washington, so I’d drive two hours to the airport and then jump on a flight. it was tough on me, it was tough on my body—fortunately enough, I’m on the East Coast this year,” Wiles said with relief. “I have elite status with Air Canada, and I’m a Star Alliance Gold member. Still, I don’t wish that travel on my worst enemy.”

Wiles, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife and child, won’t have quite the commute in 2012. “Because I was getting married this summer, having a baby this summer and kind of had a lot going on, it made sense from an organization standpoint for [Washington] to try to find something that’s a better fit [for me] instead of paying to move my family to Washington and finding my wife a job. The way I approached [Stealth General Manager Doug Locker and owner Denise Watkins] with it, they felt very comfortable in having me on the East Coast where I could be with my family.”

In return for Wiles, Washington picked up a third round pick in the 2011, which turned into Adam McGourty, and a second round pick in next year’s draft.

Even though he played the last two years on the opposite coast, Wiles—who will wear #15 this year—has plenty of familiarity with the First Niagara Center and the Buffalo Bandits’ boisterous home crowd.

“My first ever lacrosse game was in this building,” Wiles said. “Johnny T. [Tavares] must have been in his first or second year, and I was just a wee lad. I think it was my first year of lacrosse. My first [playing] experience in this building was when I was with Toronto, and we lost by two touchdowns—the night that Mark broke the record and had like 17 points against us. The whole night I looked at the score and thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting spanked here!’ The whole time the crowd was just crazy, and I thought, ‘This is the best sporting event I’ve ever been to! This is awesome.’”

While Kilgour’s instruction was a boon for Buchanan’s comfort level, Wiles has drawn closer to some of his teammates, particularly Tracey Kelusky.

“Kelusky is an unreal player,” Wiles said with a grin. “He’ll help me, especially because we’re close to the same player—I have a little more size than him. He’s kind of a midget—I bug him pretty good about that. But he’s an unbelievable player and I’m pumped about playing with him.”

Although it lacks the star power of Buchanan and Wiles, another move made by Darris Kilgour, who acts as both general manager and head coach, was the signing of NLL veteran Mat Giles, a hulking physical specimen who adds leadership and grit. He’ll wear #27.

“[Giles] may not stand out as far as athleticism or goal scoring, but he’s so knowledgeable in terms of how to get the guy next to him open,” Darris Kilgour said of Giles, who’s played on 11 NLL teams since 1999, excluding multiple stints with two teams. “He makes the players around him better.”

Long-time Philadelphia Wings transition player Kyle Sweeney has made the Buffalo roster, and he’ll be worked into a rotation there with Steenhuis, Tom Montour, Jon Harasym and Jimmy Purves. Transition play will be crucial this year with the rule changes that favor more athletic, attack-minded players.

Buffalo opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against the Toronto Rock at the First Niagara Center. Tickets can be purchased here.

TAGGED: boston blazers, buffalo bandits, darris kilgour, kevin buchanan, kyle sweeney, luke wiles, mat giles, nll, pro lacrosse, washington stealth

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