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Five up, five down for Bandits before Rochester

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Just how extended scoring runs may determine the outcome of National Lacrosse League games, lax players will weave in and out of hot and cold spells.

Few athletes in the sport consistently produce—maybe Colorado’s John Grant Jr., the Bandits’ John Tavares or Washington’s Rhys Duch—while most other contributors are more likely to run hot and cold. At one end of the spectrum, the corners of the net gape and every loose ball bounces favorably, but when things go awry, goalies loom like impenetrable walls, passes sail curiously past sticks and physical defenders repeatedly deliver bone-crunching hits.

Buffalo’s uneven start isn’t surprising in a league where there are no “cake-walk” games. Three impressive wins are sandwiched between two puzzling losses—an opening-game thumping to Philadelphia and a penalty-marred home loss to Toronto. Wednesday, NLL all-time leading scorer John Tavares was confirmed as “out” for Saturday night’s contest at home against Rochester due to a lingering strained calf.

Five players trending upward (no particular order):

—Shawn Williams: Acquired in a trade from Edmonton, Williams has been nothing short of phenomenal. The 38-year-old has compensated for his declining athleticism by showing unparalleled vision and anticipation, two traits that head coach Darris Kilgour points to in explaining the Bandits’ improved 5-vs.-5 attack. No. 51 looks off defenders, effortlessly finds cutters and keeps the ball moving in an offense that’s been known for being stagnant in recent years.

Averaging 4.2 assists per contest—good for fourth in the league—Williams has become the primary facilitator of the Bandits’ offense. No question that Williams has so far been an “A”-grade acquisition.

—Glen Bryan: Probably the most unexpected name on this list, Bryan has been a demon on loose balls, scooping up 23 and showing surprising grit for a 5’9, 180-pound defender.

He hasn’t been perfect in man-down situations—but who is? The former Rock d-man was beaten at the far post for a few quick-stick goals against Toronto, but considering he’s a youngster thrust into a big defensive role with new teammates, Bryan’s been a nice add.

With fellow lefty “D” Mike McNamara placed on injured reserve, there are plenty of minutes available for Bryan to continue adapting.

—Aaron Wilson: During the preseason, Buffalo forward Luke Wiles gushed about Wilson’s strengths—particularly his effort away from the ball and his knack for finding space in the middle of the floor.

“I put Aaron Wilson, Mike Accursi and Kasey Beirnes in the same group—they’re the best off-the-ball players in the game,” Toronto head coach Troy Cordingley said. “They’re hard guys to cover—Wilson’s a smart veteran.”

The third newcomer on the positives list, Wilson broke out with a hat-trick in the third quarter of Buffalo’s 14-12 loss to Toronto last Saturday. He scored two of the three from outside—not his typical strength—and potted two on man-up situations. With Luke Wiles struggling and John Tavares still injured, the pressure will be on Wilson to consistently match his production against the Rock.

—Mark Steenhuis: Steenhuis has taken his share of undeserved heat from Bandits’ fans who expect him to return to his 101-point campaign in 2009. With so many other sources of offense on the roster, Buffalo has turned to Steenhuis as its most reliable transition player—a pesky perimeter defender at one end and a dashing fast-break attack at the other.

He’s guilty of risk-taking—which isn’t always approved of by his head coach, who called him out for bailing on Colin Doyle twice in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s loss—but his risks often pay off with odd-man rushes for the Bandits as well. His goal called back due to a shot-clock violation was a memorable rocket from the restraining line on the penalty kill, an ESPN Top 10 Plays-caliber snipe.

—Dhane Smith: We weren’t sure if Billy Dee’s cousin could live up to his draft and preseason hype, but he’s done very little to disappoint. An exceptional one-on-one attacker who possesses a violent skimming shot off the carpet, Dhane ranks first on the Bandits in goals (nine) and second in points (16). He’s even manned the point on the power play for Buffalo, pretty hefty responsibility for a guy who’s suited up in five NLL games.

(Honorable mention: Mike Hominuck, David Brock, Scott Self.)

Five down:

—Luke Wiles: After all the preseason bluster about how Wiles skipped summer ball to improve his conditioning, the reigning NLL All-Star has vanished in 2013, scoring three times on 39 shots. Part of Wiles’ lackluster play is due to missing practices regularly because he’s had trouble receiving his green card to cross the border into Canada, and the lack of familiarity is obvious. The second-year Bandit is forcing plays, gripping his stick and lacks the burst he demonstrated last season en route to 39 goals.

—Anthony Cosmo: When Buffalo gave away the farm to acquire holdout goalie Anthony Cosmo mid-way through last season, expectations were that he’d be the franchise goalie, allowing veteran Mike Thompson to retire. Out of goalies who’ve played more than 100 minutes so far this year, Cosmo ranks ninth in goals against average at 14.19.

Kilgour mentioned following Saturday’s loss that Cosmo “didn’t provide the timely saves that [Toronto] got toward the end,” and the Bandits may be kicking themselves for not securing Nick Rose during 2011 Boston Blazers dispersal draft.

Jimmy Purves: Purves has been a catastrophe this year for the Bandits, looking inept with the ball in his stick and committing several untimely penalties. He’s a terrific athlete who’s only 22 years old, but his recent play has not warranted further commitment from Kilgour or GM Steve Dietrich.

—Hayden Smith: The rookie defender’s five-minute major halfway through the fourth quarter abruptly ended Buffalo’s five-minute power play—and thus any realistic chance to get back into the game—and Kilgour ranted about Smith’s decision after the game.

“[Smith] gets the same treatment as Billy Dee [who also cost his team with a major penalty earlier]—I’m not going to allow him to get 11 years into his career with me saying the same thing to him. I’m going to start right now and tell him that’s unacceptable. You have to know time and situation—we had a power play. There’s no reason to double a player there.”

The learning curve is certainly steeper for Hayden than Dhane, and under ideal circumstances, Hayden Smith wouldn’t have been pushed into the Buffalo lineup this quickly. While Buffalo and Toronto share the same defensive system—largely predicated on chemistry between defenders—the transition to the pros for Smith has been smooth.

—Tracey Kelusky: His over-the-shoulder goal to beat Rochester may be the team’s highlight of the season thus far, but Kelusky has followed up his unimpressive 2012 with a quiet 2013 (four goals on 29 shots). His days as a 30-goal scorer (2002-2007; 2009-2010) seem like a distant memory, as bigger, faster defenders give the 5’8, 180-pound Kelusky fits.

(Honorable mention: Mat Giles and John Tavares due to bad luck, not poor play.)

(Photos courtesy of Robin David Brown from Buffalo vs. Toronto game—see full gallery here).

TAGGED: anthony cosmo, buffalo bandits, dhane smith, luke wiles, mark steenhuis, national lacrosse league, nll, shawn williams

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