The Summer Wind
It was a warm 74 degrees, with no wind, and nearing the midnight hour on June 18. I was perched on an old communications spool in the small courtyard of the Cobblestone bar and grill, a famous postgame hang of Buffalo Bandit fans, players, and guys like me.
The conversation was limited to intimate groups, each circled within the comfortable confine. Although hard to define each discussion, the topic was undoubtedly about what had just happened down the street inside KeyBank Center, where their Buffalo Bandits had lost the championship game of the NLL Finals, 10-8, to the Colorado Mammoth.
There were spurts of anger and tears of sorrow to the dedicated troupes. Alone, I leaned against the spool, feeling the same emotions, ready to share empathy, but to no avail. Leave it be.
I moseyed back inside the jammed club, toned with rambles of conversation layered with background music from a digital track. There were some long faces, but some with healing and optimistic creases that shed their pain, pursuing a “we’ll try it again next season” attitude. After a postgame briefing at the bar rail, I followed a similar perspective with my play-by-play counterpart from TSN.
What the hell, why not? It was nothing new, having been through three final losses in the last five years. I was ready to take the step, looking forward to the next season and another kick at the can.
And here we are.
Training camp ’22 starts Saturday, November 5, in Buffalo, with 30-plus players vying for the coveted active roster. Many of those spots are already taken, save the forward and defense positions with the loss of Connor Fields and Kevin Brownell. The usual suspects have returned, which earned them the best record last season at 14-4 and recognized as the most talented team in the NLL.
Excited is not the word for this year’s training camp; it should be desire. No more cliches. No more excuses. Forget all the records, beautiful goals, great defensive plays, and outstanding goaltending. Forget it all, especially when you feel the heat.
Even with home-field advantage throughout the way-too-long playoff schedule, the Bandits could not close it out to a “team-first next man up” Colorado squad.
“Especially to lose at home in front of 19,000 people. If that doesn’t drive you, I don’t know what I can say to get these guys motivated,” said Bandits general manager and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich, who won the NLL’s general manager of the year award in June for the third time.
“It’s going to be a pretty competitive camp for us. There will be some new guys which bring new energy, both offensively and defensively. Although we might not be the same team and as ‘pretty’ as last year. We might be more a muck it up, grind it out team that I think we can still be really successful playing that way.”
It’s back to the ABCs.
“Offensively, we played pretty lacrosse last year, and most nights, it was fun to watch. When we are putting up 18 goals with guys diving from behind the net, diving through the crease, turning four or five passes and around the world goals. Those are pretty and fun to watch,” noted Dietrich.
“But I think when push came to shove in the finals that dried up, and I’ll put this on me, we weren’t built to play inside out, which is go in, bang, crash, and get to the net. We were built to play outside in, which is pretty lacrosse, with nice outside shots.”
Dietrich guaranteed the Bandits will still play pretty with plenty of excellent goals and tic-tac-toes. You can’t help but not with all that talent up front. He feels with the new personnel changes, other teams won’t be able to shut the offense down as easily as they did, forcing them to do things from the outside.
Clear the Field
Now that the summer cotillion is over, the NLL will be loaded with talented players at every position, and teams will play tough. The Bandits know what they will be up against.
“Take nothing away from the transition, the speed and all that. I think we need to be tougher to play against. We need to send players messages that they will not come into our zone and run freely like sometimes it’s happened in the past.”
“I’m expecting big things out of Dalton Sulver. I thought he played well with the minutes he had last season and had a good summer with Six Nations playing summer lacrosse.”
Dietrich thinks that the additions of Brandon Robinson, 6’3″ 200, Brad McCulley, 6’1” 200, Nathaniel Kozevnikov, 6’1″ 225, and Sam La Roue, 6’4″ 210, all have the potential of full-time roles. This will allow these big-bodied players to play more inside out when called upon.
Robinson, brother of Justin and Dylan, comes to the Bandits from Halifax, where he tallied seven points in three games last season (4+3). Entering his fifth NLL season, Robinson was initially drafted by New England in 2016 and had 9+11 in 17 career games played.
Kozevnikov, a Bandits second-rounder in 2019, spent last season on injured reserve, brings a cache of talent to the right side after playing five seasons with the Langley Thunder (Junior A), recording 81+47 in 44 games played.
“I had a bunch of western teams reach out and try and trade for him. He’s worked incredibly hard for the past two seasons. He got hurt in our first exhibition game last season, and he moved to Buffalo last year to be a part of things and work with the doctors. He’s a big guy that plays rugged but has soft hands, and those guys are hard to find,” Dietrich said.
Sam La Roue, a second-rounder righty in 2020, enters his second season with the Bandits after signing a three-year deal this past summer. Another BC gem, La Roue, played in two games last season.
Lefty Brad McCulley played in five games last season, recording one goal and two assists. Dietrich expects McCulley to play more of a full-time role on the left side, which, when you add Brandon Robinson, will also allow the Bandits to play more inside out.
“With Dhane Smith, Josh Byrne, Tehoka Nanticoke, and Kyle Buchanan, we are well positioned. I think we are good, and the depth that we have accumulated over the years will also come to fruition for us,” Dietrich said.
Department of Defense
Dietrich likes the toughness and wants more of it on the left side.
“We have that in spades over on the right side, and I just thought we lacked that a little bit over on the left side. I think it showed. Although we were successful without Bryce, it showed that we didn’t have the jam over there that I like to have.”
Recently signed left defenseman Greg Harnett will add to the feistiness Dietrich is looking for with a grind-it-out, mucker, in-your-face type of guy. “He brings that, as Brian Burke used to say, that pugnacity to our defense,” noted Dietrich.
Dylan Robinson, a first-rounder from September, will vie for a defensive spot.
“He’s a kid that we think will come in and battle on the left side of the defense. He was an elite-level Ontario player coming out of minor playing this year for the Toronto Beaches and, for the first time, went out the back door. He is going to be good defensively but also gets some loose balls and get out in transition, and have the skill level to finish the ball when he gets a chance.”
Another defenseman, Carter McKenzie, 6’4, 225, comes from the Calgary Roughnecks.
“Calgary drafted him last year. He played regularly for Brookline this summer and had a great season. He’s a kid that was on our radar, and I watched him play seven or eight times this summer. We were competing with six other teams to sign him, so we were thrilled to bring him in.”
And the greatest goaltender of all time, Matt Vinc, returns between the pipes with newly established records, including his eighth Goaltender of the Year award. Doug Buchan and Devlin Shanahan are the backups.
The Bandits camp will run during November with practices and three preseason games against Rochester, Saskatchewan, and Philadelphia. Some sessions and games will be in Buffalo, some in Oakville, Ontario, inside the Toronto Rock Athletic Center. The Buffalo preseason games are closed to the public.
The first regular season game will be at home Saturday, December 3, against Albany.
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