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An epilogue: Explaining the Bandits’ disastrous 2013

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The last six months have been brutal to Buffalo’s professional sports teams, an unnecessary reminder for our city’s loyal fan-base.

The Bills plodded to 6-10 and the Sabres unceremoniously missed the postseason in a lockout-shortened season, so the punchline remained: “Well at least the Buffalo Bandits are always good!”

Unfortunately, 2013 was an exception to the rule, as the Bandits matched the Bills’ 6-10 mark and fell 10-9 to Rochester on the final day of the regular season, missing the postseason for the first time since 2002.

Here’s what first-year GM Steve Dietrich, a former star Buffalo goalie, said on Dec. 1, 2012, the first day of training camp:

“I think we have a championship caliber team from what I’ve seen today. I think we have a real good team on paper, but it depends on how they jell and how good we look come January.”

As the lone National Lacrosse League team to miss the playoffs, the Bandits completed a hat-trick of ignominy for Buffalo’s top-tier sports organizations.

How did the Bandits miss the postseason for the first time under head coach Darris Kilgour? There’s no simple answer—aside from “they didn’t score more goals than their opponent frequently enough”—but an assortment of reasons combined to produce a forgettable 2013.

1) Roster turnover to the extreme: When a season draws to a close, it’s easy to forget about the circumstances back in December’s training camp, and now that we have a bit of hindsight, signs of a trying season were plentiful.

The holdouts of Billy Dee Smith and Luke Wiles—both 2012 NLL All-Stars—weighed on the organization from both team and individual standpoints.

The brawny, gritty defender started the season slowly before coming on late, and the former fan-favorite Wiles couldn’t even crack the active roster down the stretch.

As we’ve become familiar with the new Bandits roster, it’s also easy to forget the 2012 contributors who left: captain and top defender Chris White, forwards Roger Vyse, Kevin Buchanan, Brandon Francis, transition players Tom Montour, Jeremy Thompson, defenders Ian Llord, Darryl Gibson, Travis Irving and goalies Mike Thompson and Angus Goodleaf.

In-season, Buffalo parted ways with alternate captain Scott Self, 2012 unsung hero Mat Giles and transition spark-plug Jimmy Purves.

“Scotty [Self] was getting up there—I think he was 33—and he was part of the regime where we were trying to get younger, and he was one of the assets that we had,” Dietrich mentioned to IL Indoor’s Steve Bermel on “Bandits Beat,” an NLL radio show.

“Purves is a good young player and he might turn into a real good player, but he’s a guy we thought we had a couple more like him, or a couple coming like him to put it to you that way.”

While White (leadership), Self (experience), Thompson (speed in transition, 32 points with EDM) and Buchanan (54 points with PHI) were the only departures who found success elsewhere, it was the influx of inexperienced, unfamiliar players who prompted a rebuilding year for the Bandits organization.

“With all the turnover, we knew there were going to be growing pains,” Kilgour stated after Buffalo’s season concluded.

2) NLL’s parity: “Parity” has been the NLL’s buzzword since the league contracted to nine teams before the 2012 season, and while the term is floated as an easy excuse for failure, there’s some legitimacy to it as well. Look at the first round of the NLL Playoffs, where No. 8 seed Minnesota spanked No. 1 seed Toronto 20-11 at the Air Canada Centre to advance to the semifinals.

The even playing field manifested itself in the teams’ home and away records, as no squad finished more than two games over .500 on their own carpet, while seven teams had a .500 or better record away from home. Buffalo lost its last six home games.

“Without a doubt the [First Niagara Center] is the best place to play, and while our record doesn’t indicate that we thrived on playing here, but trust us, we did,” Williams said after the season. “It wasn’t a matter of us not trying or giving up or being careless, but it’s a tough league.”

“With only nine teams in the league, I know we’re in a tight league,” Bandits’ backup goalie Kurtis Wagar echoed after the season finale. “It doesn’t surprise me if the eighth place team wins the championship because there’s so much parity in this league.”

Until the league expands—which seems feasible considering the popularity of The Lacrosse Network YouTube game streams and the extension of the regular season from 16 to 18 games—parity will exist, and it’s an impediment for all teams, not just the Bandits. The excuse only goes so far.

“Without a doubt the [First Niagara Center] is the best place to play, and while our record doesn’t indicate that we thrived on playing here, but trust us, we did. It wasn’t a matter of us not trying or giving up or being careless, but it’s a tough league.”

3) A singular moment: The Buffalo News’ Budd Bailey pointed to the Bandits’ overtime loss to Philadelphia at home as the season’s turning point, and looking back at the write-up from Philadelphia’s late surge—aided by atrocious officiating, Kilgour implied—Jordan Hall’s goal to tie with 3.7 seconds left was a demoralizing plot twist that extended beyond March 2.

“We can look back to that Philly game where we were up, where we had them and we just let it slip,” Williams explained. “That [win] would have put us at 6-3, and that’s when our slide happened.”

Seeing as the Bandits still could determine their own playoff fate on the final day of the regular season—heck, they were a victory and a Washington win over Philly away from hosting a playoff game—the shocking conclusion to that Philly contest, without even taking into account the ripple effects for weeks after, was Buffalo’s death knell. 

“I don’t know if we’d be having this conversation if it wasn’t for those three seconds in that one game there,” Wagar agreed.

It makes sense that Buffalo would point to the Philly home game as “the one that got away,” but that may only be because Buffalo lost its other nine games by an average of six goals per game. Oddly enough, the Bandits were 4-3 in games decided by two goals or fewer.

“The disappointing part is that some of those losses were ugly, and when I saw ‘ugly,’ I mean ‘real ugly,’” Dietrich said to Bermel on “Bandits Beat.” “Every team in this league is pretty close, and every game should be a good game, but some of those were just ugly.”

4) An offensive offense: Buffalo first round pick Dhane Smith paced the club in goals with 24 in 15 games and showed signs that GM Steve Dietrich was spot-on when drafting Billy Dee’s cousin. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that each of the other eight NLL teams boasted two scorers with more than 24 goals, revealing just how limited Buffalo’s offense was.

John Tavares’ goals dropped from 41 in 2012 to 14 in 2013, Mark Steenhuis’ total dropped from 27 to 13 and Luke Wiles’ production slipped from 39 to 10.

That’s a drop-off of 70 goals from the Bandits’ three most dangerous scorers from 2012, a true indicator that age is affecting Tavares and Steenhuis, while a probable lack of fitness plagued Wiles.

The Bandits trotted out the league’s worst power play—42 percent conversation rate—well below the NLL average of 51 percent (366 for 712). As a team, Buffalo somehow managed to score one more goal than Philly did, but still ranked second-last in the league in total goals.

5) Goaltending: In Lacrosse We Trust’s Marisa Ingemi discusses just how brutal the Feb. 17, 2012 trade—made by then-GM Darris Kilgour—has panned out for Buffalo. With a bow and a box of chocolate, the Bandits sent two future first round draft picks—in 2013 and 2014—to the Minnesota Swarm in exchange for holdout goalie Anthony Cosmo.

Back in December, we were optimistic about Cosmo’s future in Buffalo—he’d improved as 2012 progressed, including a sparkling effort in the 7-6 loss to Toronto in the NLL Division Semifinals.

In 2013, he’d have a full training camp and the familiarity of returning to the Bandits—positives that were expected to off-set the loss of captain White and the holdout/early season suspension of Billy Dee Smith. By all accounts, Cosmo had an exceptional training camp.

Everything unraveled quickly for the soon-to-be 36-year-old, who was remarkably outplayed by career backup Kurtis Wagar.

In leading Buffalo to a 15-10 over Washington after Cosmo suffered a concussion, Wagar nearly salvaged a postseason trip for the Bandits. The reserve’s goals against average (12.22 as opposed to Coz’s 13.37) is more indicative of his play rather than his record, as Wagar (2-6) came on in relief for Cosmo (4-4) early in the season.

Kilgour defended Cosmo’s play to the media over the first several contests—especially when asked why he yanked his starter so frequently—pointing to a defense that was shorthanded, inexperienced and, frankly, not that talented.

Those supportive words died down as the season went along, however, and now Kilgour can’t overstate the important of having a difference-making goaltender—perhaps after he saw how Nick Rose, Brandon Miller, Tye Belanger and Matt Vinc slammed the door on Buffalo’s offense this year.

“Goaltending is a huge part in this league,” Kilgour reflected after the Rochester loss. “Coz had his struggles early, then our defense had its struggles, then our offense had its struggles, and we just couldn’t get 60 minutes of all three units going at once, and that really hurt us in the middle of the season.”

6) Penalties: While Kilgour stresses his belief that Buffalo’s reputation as the “bully of the NLL” is a media construction that holds no merit around the league, he wasn’t shy when referring to his team as “dumb” early in the season.

“I don’t want to be too harsh, but we’ve got to be one of the dumbest teams,” Kilgour said while shaking his head after a 14-12 home loss to Toronto.

“I don’t know what to tell these guys to get them to understand that we can’t take penalties. Two five-minutes killed us tonight—we had a power play at the end and could have tied it up, and we could have scored as many goals as we could have on that five because it was a match, but then we take a five, and then…Billy Dee. We can’t do that stuff against this quality of a team.”

The Bandits tied the Wings for the second-most major penalties in the NLL this year—15—and nearly all of them were costly, whether the whistle halted Buffalo’s offensive momentum, sparked an opponent’s scoring binge to break a game open or extinguished a comeback chance.

7) Injuries: Various physical maladies weren’t the primary cause of the Bandits playoff-less season, but they certainly didn’t help. With lingering hamstring, knee and calf injuries throughout the season, John Tavares missed four games, while Chad Culp sat out the final five games of the season with a shoulder injury. Rookie Carter Bender saw his development stunted due to a serious hamstring issue, and useful reserve Nick Cotter saw action in only six games due to a head injury.

Rookie Jordan Critch was limited to only five games, Tracey Kelusky to seven, Jamie Rooney to three and Derek Hopcroft to four (only partially due to injury). These injuries led to 31 different Bandits suiting up in Kilgour’s lineup this year, the most since 1999 according to Bailey.

8) Aging: As Buffalo continues its rebuilding process, some tough decisions are necessary, especially regarding the Bandits’ aging stars.

Ageless Tavares, 44, will again ponder retirement, but he’ll be welcomed back with open arms if he’s healthy enough to play. Williams, 39 by next season, would like to return and the team’s leading point-getter sustained a high level of production. Steenhuis and Aaron Wilson, both 33 before next season, may still have a few valuable seasons left, but soon-to-be 38-year-old Kelusky could be a casualty in favor of a youngster.

Judging by the success of Minnesota and Edmonton—teams built around youth and athleticism—Buffalo’s rebuilding phase is headed in the right direction but needs to endure, perhaps with difficult trades/cuts of a few of the players mentioned above.

9) Vision: The Bandit administration has verbally committed to building a young team for the last two years, but last season’s additions of Williams, Wilson, Cosmo and 34-year-old Derek Suddons suggested otherwise.

If Buffalo really hopes to make progress, the authorities’ actions must follow their words. By no means does the team need to be a collection of solely 20-25 year olds, but an infusion of superior athletes must happen for Buffalo to seriously contend.

With no first round pick for the next two seasons because of the Cosmo trade, the Bandits will either have to deal established veterans for picks or prospects, or choose wisely with their three second rounders in 2013.

As Bailey noted, the close proximity to Ontario—the North American hotbed of lacrosse players—helps in attracting free agents, but with three of the four remaining NLL teams hailing from the West, winning organizations with brighter futures may outweigh staying close to home.

10) Coaching: While Kilgour hopes to be back in the fold in 2014, he did divulge personal regrets about the 6-10 2013 campaign.

“The boys turned around and battled the last couple games, and I wish I had done a better job in the middle of the season to find a way to shake things up during that six-game losing streak,” Kilgour said wistfully. “Obviously that was the downfall of our season.”

For us, it’s 50-50 whether Kilgour returns behind Buffalo’s bench. It’s difficult to manage a rebuilding project when instituting a new coaching regime one year into the phase—but it’s also tough to defend Kilgour’s job when his Bandits lost six straight at home and were the only team to miss the National Lacrosse League postseason.

(Photos courtesy of Buffalo.com freelancers Robin David Brown and Don Nieman).

TAGGED: buffalo bandits, darris kilgour, john tavares, lacrosse, mark steenhuis, national lacrosse league, nll, nll playoffs, philadelphia wings, steve dietrich

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