The Buffalo Bandits are looking for a big rebound in their fortunes this season.
The 2013 edition got off to a 5-3 start and then suffered an almost complete collapse, dropping them out of the playoffs.
Missing the postseason cost long-time head coach Darris Kilgour his job. The Bandits wasted little time in locking up two-time Les Bartley Award winner Troy Cordingley to replace him. The Toronto Rock fired Cordingley a few weeks earlier when the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
But the Rock's loss is the Bandits' gain; Cordingley has been one of the top coaches in the NLL since he took over the Calgary Roughnecks in 2008, winning two Champion's Cups in that time—one each for the Roughnecks and the Rock. His teams consistently finished at or near the top of the standings every year.
The team Cordingley is taking over has been retooled over the last few months. General manager Steve Dietrich made the single biggest trade of the summer when he acquired star forward Ryan Benesch and transition Andrew Watt from the Minnesota Swarm in exchange for a handful of draft picks.
Benesch is a game changer for this franchise. Recently ranked the 13th-best player in the NLL by Bob Chavez of ILIndoor.com, he won the NLL scoring title in 2011 with 95 points, he picked up another 84 last year and he has scored 33 or more goals for three years in a row.
The Bandits finished the 2013 season with the second-fewest goals in the league (171), so the boost Benesch brings should immediately turn them back into a contender.
Benesch joins a veteran offense that features some steady contributors, but at this point in their careers, there are no real standouts.
Shawn Williams led the team in scoring last year with 65 points and his record-smashing ironman streak now stands at 212 games. He's 39 years old but still provides a steady presence on offense as well as invaluable leadership.
Eleven-year vet Aaron Wilson was second on the Bandits with 46 points, and like Williams, he's a wily veteran and a consistent performer.
The NLL's all-time points leader, John Tavares, has decided to return for one more season. In an injury-plagued 2013, Tavares managed just 39 points in 12 games, but the 45-year-old will be back and adding to his 1,666 career points.
Transition Dhane Smith was the youngster on the offensive side of things last year. The rookie contributed 44 points to the Buffalo cause and will be expected to contribute even more in the younger, faster NLL.
The Bandits also acquired Joe Resetarits from the Calgary Roughnecks on draft day, giving them a decent young forward to add depth coming out the front door. Resetarits scored 24 points in his rookie campaign with the Roughnecks and has plenty of upside to his game.
The Bandits defense gave up the most goals in the league last year (211). The addition of Watt from the Swarm and Rory Smith from the Colorado Mammoth is intended to address that concern.
Watt is a steady transition presence who has scored as many as 21 points in a season (2011) and picked up as many as 81 loose balls (2010). He's good at pushing the ball up the floor and can be dangerous in short-handed situations.
Smith is one of the toughest guys in the league. He racked up 51 penalty minutes last year in addition to 37 loose balls.
Watt and Smith join a group that includes Jay Thorimbert (261 faceoff wins, 180 LBs), Steve Priolo (76 LBs) and Glen Bryan (67 LBs).
The biggest issue on the defensive end of the floor last year was between the pipes. Anthony Cosmo is 36 years old and seemed to be showing his age last year. His 13.37 goals against average was the worst in the NLL among goalies with at least 500 minutes of playing time.
If Cosmo doesn't turn his game around, Kurtis Wagar is once again his relief. Wagar's 12.22 GAA last year was a little better than Cosmo's performance, but this is still one critical spot on the roster where the Bandits are vulnerable.
Putting all the pieces together, the Bandits are a much improved team this year. Whether they can compete for the Champion's Cup one year after missing the playoffs is still a big question mark, particularly with the number of athletes they have over the age of 30.
With fewer players and a longer schedule, those older legs could start getting tired as the season wears on, and that could prove to be their Achilles' Heel. But teams run by Cordingley have a history of winning, and that bodes well for the Bandits this year.
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