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Wake up call: Five up, five down for the Bandits

Photo by Nate Benson from Colorado Mammoth game

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Whether you agree with Buffalo Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour’s motivational tactics or not, it’s noteworthy when players get called out in the media. John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis, Steve Priolo, Jeremy Thompson and Chris White were all mentioned by name in Kilgour’s emotional tirade following the 16-13 loss to the Colorado Mammoth last Saturday.

How will this Buffalo team respond? Does the finger-pointing light a fire under struggling players, or will it merely create division in the locker room? At 2-5—good for last place in the East and a half-game back from the worst record in the National Lacrosse League—Buffalo’s not too far from panic mode.

Five up:

1) Mark Steenhuis, transition: Saturday’s outing against the Mammoth—one goal, six assists—marked Steenhuis’ highest point total of the season. Instead of putting his head down and barreling to the cage, Steenhuis made the most of increased offensive opportunities by hitting cutters with short, well-timed passes. Well-aware that Colorado seemed lost in defending pick-and-roll plays, Steenhuis executed them with regularity in the second and third quarters. His fourth quarter penalty was costly, as Kilgour mentioned post-game, but it was encouraging to see Steenhuis get his offensive game on track.

2) Tracey Kelusky, forward: One of the whipping boys for the Bandits’ recent problems, Kelusky was the primary beneficiary of Steenhuis’ new-found unselfishness. TK took on John Orsen one-on-one late in the first quarter, using the defender as a screen to snap a shot past Mammoth goalie Chris Levis. His two third quarter goals, less than two minutes apart, were both products of screen-and-rolls with Steenhuis, as Colorado’s slides were agonizingly late. The game marked only Kelusky’s second multi-goal performance of the season.

3) Mikey Thompson, goalie: Coach Darris Kilgour was clear in his statement that Bandits’ starter Anthony Cosmo shouldn’t shoulder much of the blame for the loss. Still, elite goalies let in very few soft goals, and Cosmo was guilty of at least three that he should have stopped. Even though Thompson played only 10 minutes after Cosmo was pulled, he didn’t allow a goal aside from an empty netter. The storyline of who starts between the pipes will be compelling for the rest of the season, and ideally for Bandits fans, the competition brings out the best in the two goalies rather than shaken confidence from the threat of being pulled after a few hiccups.

4) Darryl Gibson, defense: Lefty defenseman was expected to be a trouble area for Kilgour’s Bandits, and with Jeff Cornwall traded and Billy Dee Smith suspended, Buffalo was in dire straits Saturday night. Gibson wasn’t flawless in his 2012 debut, but he hassled John Grant Jr. into a few turnovers (Grant had six for the game) and didn’t look outclassed. Would Kilgour rather have had Smith available to combat Grant? Of course, but given how poorly the rest of the defense played, the few turnovers forced by Gibson made up most of the unit’s highlight reel.

5) Luke Wiles, forward: Tack on another four goals to Wiles’ team-leading total. The poise that Wiles shows in front of the opposing net—he’ll unleash a series of fakes to force goalies to commit—is impressive, and he’s been consistent, scoring multiple goals in all but one game this year. He’s been griping about his shooting percentage—he didn’t feel that he shot the ball well against Colorado despite the four markers—and wasn’t thrilled that the offense went away from him in the fourth. Without question, Wiles has been Buffalo’s best player to this point in the season.

Five down:

1) Billy Dee Smith, defenseman: It’s inexcusable when a player misses a game for non-injury, non-personal related reasons, but the fact that the league’s best player was able to run rampant over the Bandits as a result of Smith’s team rule violation compounds the problem. Does Buffalo beat Colorado with Smith in the lineup? I’d say yes. There’s still no word on what rule Smith broke, and Billy Dee was present in the press box and in the locker room after the game. It was tempting to ask him what his infraction was, but he was carrying too lacrosse sticks when he walked by me. I wasn’t about to get beaten to a pulp for being “that guy.”

2) Ian Llord, defenseman: Llord had quietly been one of Buffalo’s better defenders leading up to the Colorado game, sacrificing his body—and face—to block several shots, but he truly laid an egg Saturday night. He looked baffled by his responsibilities, lost in his slides and slow to react to anything that happened. Two instances stick out in my mind: Llord lost sight of Derek Hopcroft in the first quarter on a quick-stick goal from the weakside, and he was beaten soundly by Gavin Prout shortly after halftime in a one-on-one situation. It wasn’t a pretty outing for Buffalo’s 26-year-old d-man.

3) Kevin Buchanan, forward: At what point does “unlucky” become replaced with “bad?” The statistics are horrific—in his last five games, Buffalo’s dispersal draft pickup from Boston is goal-less on 50 shots, 29 of them on net. I understand that it’s tough to leave Buchanan’s physical traits out of the lineup, but you can’t justify his lack of production to this point. It’s too early to give up hope, but Kilgour has to see some return on his investment soon. At this point, even Jamie Rooney—who went two picks later to Washington before being released and signing with Toronto—would have been a better add.

4) John Tavares, forward: The Buffalo News’ Budd Bailey, winner of the Tom Borrelli Award last year, remarked that Tavares looked a little slower than usual against Colorado, and JT scored once on 11 shots on goal, a rather staggering departure from the norm. Drawing Kilgour’s ire post-game for a “lack of trust in his teammates” on Tavares’ “dive” attempt before Buffalo could bring an extra attacker on was even more troubling for the organization. Even if Tavares is well past his prime, it’s interesting to see that he’s not above reproach. Call it an off-night for the legend—I believe Tavares still has some of the magic left.

5) Depth players: In a league that’s talent is now condensed into only nine teams, the bottom half of the Bandits’ roster simply feels weaker than their opponents. Should players like Travis Irving, Brandon Francis, Jay Thorimbert and Steve Priolo have a place in this faster, better version of the NLL? I realize that Francis and Thorimbert were both effective on draws against Colorado, but there’s really no need to have two specialists that are really only useful in one facet of the game. Shoring up the bottom of the roster with more valuable depth would help alleviate some of Buffalo’s woes.

Bonus: Darris Kilgour—Kilgour was the first to deflect blame after the loss to the Mammoth. There wasn’t an ounce of responsibility on his behalf; his statement of “I can’t go out on the floor and give [the defense] the motion, I can’t go out on the floor and make a play for them” is evidence that he doesn’t believe his coaching is at fault. Maybe it’s not, but it’s his personnel moves as general manager that have left his team short on ability? I’m not sure how much of a shake-up is in order, but if the losing streak continues against Rochester and Toronto over the next two weekends, no one’s job is safe.

TAGGED: anthony cosmo, buffalo bandits, colorado mammoth, darris kilgour, john tavares, lacrosse, luke wiles, nll

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