12/5/2017 1:38:00 PM / John Gurtler
There are no usual suspects when it comes to this season’s Bandits roster. Sixteen players are gone from last year's opening depth chart and there are 12 new faces on the team's manifest leading into opening night – which is this Friday night at home against the Toronto Rock.
Eight of those new faces are on the active roster, which includes the incredibly talented and gifted Callum Crawford, and, the No. 1 pick overall, Josh Byrne.
This is a start of a new beginning for the oldest active franchise in the National Lacrosse League.
And it can't come soon enough because this once-boutique league is growing in popularity, expanding in franchises, and is incredibly competitive.
Too, let's be honest, those who are returning to the Bandits from last year have to redeem themselves. From what I've seen in the past month in training camp, they’ve already started in a few ways. One, by welcoming the new faces, and, two, leading the way in every practice, scrimmage to bond this group together.
Posted on a wall Day 1 of training camp was a commonly used quote in business and sport: "You don't get what you wish for. You get what you work for." And, from my perspective, this group worked their tail off in the most competitive camp ever.
This is a likable bunch in personality and talent. I noticed during training camp in group sessions I was allowed to sit in on, there is an aura of togetherness. Craig England kept the spirit high during camp and it was contagious. Not over the top, but enough to keep everybody going.
But now that Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich and the Bandits coaching staff have picked this team, who is going to lead it?
Steve Priolo, thrice runner-up for the NLL's Defensive Player of the Year Award, will be the field angel on the turf, protecting his men and keeping opponents at bay. Entering his ninth season, I feel Priolo would be a good selection as captain. Large in stature with his 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame, Priolo has the knowledge and depth to handling any situation, on and off the surface. He has a very positive influence.
Mark Steenhuis, now the elder statesman, but still an energizer bunny, can share is 16 seasons of experience of all types of situations with the youngins. He will prove how valuable he is by going out the backdoor on defense and transition. Now a 1,000-career point member, he just keeps going and going.
Entering his sixth season with the team, I see Dhane Smith taking on more of a leadership role as well.
"He's a 25-year-old kid who just loves to play the game," noted Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley. "But I see him taking a leadership role."
I also see him looking after himself in standing up to the hitting and smacking he gets from opponents.
Offensively, this group has a lot of firepower and, as noted by coach Cordingley, we are going to be treated to some nifty passing and coordinated freestyle efforts. Leading the charge will be Callum Crawford, who set the assist mark last year while playing with Colorado.
We all know the moves of Smith and his talents, and he looked great in camp. Pat Saunders has an incredibly natural scoring touch around the net. Craig England has such a physical presence, he not only opens lanes up, but he can also score at close range, even with an opponent in his face, at his side and on his back.
Establishing himself as a net crasher in Vancouver with 25 goals last season, Jordan Durston brings his powerful frame with incredible scoring touch to the Bandits in effort to open holes at close range of opponent nets.
Coming off a career high in goals, assists and points last season, sixth year pro Mitch Jones has established himself as a quality playmaker and goal scorer. His successful summer campaign with New Westminster, Jones led his team to the Mann Cup finals.
You will see Jones playing a little defense and helping push the ball up the floor and then staying with the offensive rush.
Adding to the youth movement is Byrne and second-rounder Chase Fraser who proved in training camp they belong on the active roster. Byrne is the "real deal" and you'll like the way Fraser plays, with his wasting little time to get to the net.
This is what the Bandits want to improve upon, and return to the form of a couple of seasons ago. The faster the team can push the ball up the floor, the faster the offense can start their work.
Sixth year Bandit, Kevin Brownell, and Steenhuis combine their power with the likes of Nick Weiss, Priolo, Mitch DeSnoo and Justin Martin. This quad squad is very smart.
Reid Acton, too, brings tough physical presence on defense from Georgia. Second-rounder Ethan Schott and Ryan Wagner from Vancouver bring a settling presence on the back end.
Goaltending is the critical position for the Bandits this year and looks to me to be Alex Buque's job. Coming to the Bandits from Colorado, Buque served his time as back up and established himself with a 5-3 rookie season and All-Rookie team honors in 2015.
But this past summer, Buque's performance with New Westminster was outstanding, stealing the show several times.
"Alex was fantastic for us this past summer," said Jones, a teammate of his in New Westminster. "He led us to the finals and really became a leader back there for us. He's a very competitive goalie and brings contagious energy throughout the locker room."
Teddy Jenner, Colorado’s play-by-play broadcaster and host of the “Off the Crossbar” weekly show, speaks highly of Buque.
"He is very steady, playing the angles and controlling his rebounds," Jenner said. "He is very adept at picking up the ball and starting the fast break."
Going 5-3 in 2016, Davide DiRuscio has all the tools and experience of being a good goaltender - and he will be when called upon. He moves incredibly well for being 6-foot-3, 300-pounds.
Cordingley mentioned in his first media comments at training camp that he'll go with a goaltending that can "stop the ball, period."
Handling the face-offs will be Weiss, Fraser and Wagner in various formations from the restraining line.
The Bandits’ power play should be lethal and the penalty kill will be a work in progress.
This game is so fast, so intense, and so tight to operate in the respective zones. It's mind-boggling with slides, seals, doubles, picks, resets - and now more analytics with ratios and percentages. But, it's a great game to watch incredibly fun to broadcast.
So, who's suspect?
Friday's game will be the Twitter game of the week, which is free. Coverage will also be on NLLTV.com through subscription.
Radio coverage of the Bandits/Rock game will be on ESPN 1520 AM in Buffalo, and WGWE 105.9 FM in Salamanca.
Our pre-game show starts at 7 p.m., with game coverage following at 7:30.
Randy Mearns joins me in the broadcast booth as we celebrate our 15th season together calling Bandit games. The former Bandit and Knighthawk, and now head coach at St. Bonaventure, Mearns, brings so much knowledge and excitement to the broadcast, it really makes it fun.
New this season on the home broadcasts, Dave Buchanan will be between the benches providing updates, heat-of-the-moment action and catching a few words from the coaches and players. Dave will also provide coverage of the post-game coaches and players comments on the broadcasts.
I look forward to a good season ahead and it will be great to have you with us.