The long journey back to the National Lacrosse League Finals begins on Saturday night for the Buffalo Bandits as they open the 2019-20 season at home against the San Diego Seals at 7 p.m.
The Bandits are seeking a return trip to the NLL Finals, where they lost in two games to the Calgary Roughnecks last May. Buffalo brings back a talented group but will have to navigate through some changes to match the success of the 2018-19 season, in which they went 14-4 in the regular season.
Head coach John Tavares will get help behind the bench from the reining NLL General Manager of the Year, Steve Dietrich, who will assist in coaching the defense. Rusty Kruger will be Tavares’ other assistant on offense.
The Bandits begin the new season with their entire defense corps from the 2019 playoff run intact. The Bandits are anchored on defense by captain Steve Priolo, who led the Bandits in caused turnovers and loose balls a year ago.
“The expectations are always to win a championship,” Priolo said. “That’s always the mindset. To do so takes every single game, every single shift. It’s exciting to get the first one at home.”
On offense, the Bandits lost a couple of key players to the expansion draft in Shawn Evans and Jordan Durston, but still have plenty of firepower, especially with Dhane Smith, the NLL leader in assists (70) last season who signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason.
The Bandits also return leading goal scorer Corey Small (36 goals) and 29-goal scorer Chase Fraser. Buffalo will also look to get a big boost from forward Josh Byrne, who played in just nine regular season games a year ago but tallied 42 points (13+29).
Byrne talked about his excitement to get back out in front of the KeyBank Center crowd for the start of a new season and feeding off the wild atmosphere of the Buffalo crowd.
“It’s contagious,” he said. “There’s no other feeling like it when you’re running out that tunnel and everyone’s going nuts. It’s crazy.”
Newcomers to the Bandits’ roster include free agent additions Quinn Powless and Marcus Minichiello, as well as first-round draft pick Brent Noseworthy, the University of Michigan’s all-time leading scorer.
Buffalo will once again be backstopped by star goaltender Matt Vinc, who won the NLL Goaltender of the Year award for the seventh time in his career last season after leading the league with the best goals-against average.
Forward Thomas Hoggarth and defenseman Ethan O’Connor will be unavailable for Buffalo as they were placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
A different wrinkle for the 2019-20 season is the new division alignment as a third division, the North Division, has been added to the standings with the East and West divisions due to expansion. Buffalo will play in the new North division with Toronto, Halifax, and Rochester.
The first obstacle on the Bandits’ road back to the NLL Finals is a San Diego team that made the playoffs a year ago with a 10-8-1 record in its inaugural season, finishing in second place in the West division. The Seals will be without their two leading goal scorers from last season, Casey Jackson (37 goals) and Austin Staats (32 goals), who both will begin the new season on injured reserve.
This will be the Seals’ first-ever visit to Buffalo. They were 4-5 in road games a year ago.
Saturday’s home opener will feature a magnet schedule giveaway for the first 10,000 fans at KeyBank Center. Tickets for Saturday’s game are on sale now. The game will also be available on B/R Live and ESPN 1520 AM.