The Buffalo Bandits are back! Are you ready for a rundown of how they look as we embark on the 2021-22 campaign and how their first opponent is shaping up?
Let’s dig in.
“The two-year absence from playing the game we love has generated a lot of new enthusiasm and excitement from our entire team. We are very eager to get back to Banditland and play in front of the best fans in the NLL,” said Bandit’s head coach, John Tavares.
After five weeks of training camp, the Bandits are ready to take on the Roughnecks, who not only have a new look with uniforms, but new faces replacing a handful of regulars who have moved on since that fateful night in May of 2019 when they took down the Bandits in the finals. But they are still loaded with talent.
So too have the Bandits gone through refacing, all for the roster’s betterment, one of the most talented in the National Lacrosse League.
Gone are 11 players who started the 2019-20 season. Yes, it was tough to see Corey Small, Mitch de Snoo, and Matt Gilray move. Still, with the acquisition of Connor Fields, Kyle Buchanan, Justin Robinson, and several draft choices, including Tehoka Nanticoke, the club is stacked with talent.
“If there wasn’t already enough reason to be motivated for our home opener, we play the Calgary Roughnecks, the defending champs who beat us in the previous championship,” said Tavares. “Calgary is a great team that is well-coached and is always prepared for their opponents.”
But you can guarantee Tavares and the coaching staff will have this club ready.
“The last two camp practices went well; we focused on a lot of different game situations and getting into game shape,” said Tavares.
Ready or Not
No more training camp, it’s time for game shape. I love it. And the fans can’t wait to see this exciting game back on the turf again.
“Oh yeah, almost two years without Banditland, it’s been hard,” said Josh Byrne. “The team is very excited to have the crowd back behind us.”
And I think you will see some new innovative offensive moves from Byrne, the first overall player selected in the 2017 NLL Draft.
“He’s a special player, he really is,” said Bandits GM Steve Dietrich of Byrne. “He is one of the guys I think is a throwback. He could play in the old style of lacrosse, where you just played up and down the floor. He’s a guy that is a weapon for us.”
Byrne does have unique moves and the uncanny ability to score, be it in flight or running back style cuts to the net, leaving turf marks in his wake. And he constantly works on his game, knowing there are those out there trying to figure him out.
“I think you’re always trying to get a one-up on your competition. People in this league are so good at scouting you and understanding your tendencies, so I think being able to change those up and growing on your strengths [is key].” said Byrne.
“I’m really trying to get my shooting dialed in and be even more of an outside threat, adding to my inside game as well.”
The Great Dhane
What about his other buddy, Dhane Smith, who roams the turf with a wicked right-handed shot, complimenting almost anyone he plays with? He has some outstanding credentials, including league MVP honors and regular-season records for most points and assists. And, as noted in training camp, he feels like a seasoned vet. I would think so, having been selected in the first round (fifth overall) in the 2012 NLL Draft.
Just three weeks ago, Smith said this offense could be the best since he’s been around. It sure looks like it on paper, and during the scrimmage game situations I’ve seen. Kyle Buchanan, acquired in August of 2020, brings that calming veteran presence, too, entering his ninth season. He knows his job by getting the loose balls and teeing up players for shots. He has a scoring touch as well, with five 20-plus goal seasons to his credit.
From the Left and Right Side of the Menu
Hometown kid Connor Fields, Rookie of the Year finalist while playing with San Diego, acquired at the start of the 2021 draft, he brings an element of surprise by scoring goals underneath. I like what he said in camp when referenced “causing chaos with the defense.”
The bandits’ third overall selection in the first round is Tehoka Nanticoke, a powerful righthander who developed his box chops with Six Nations and tendencies of the game at the University of Albany. In 2018, Nanticoke was the America East Rookie of the Year as he led the Great Danes with 50 goals and 82 points. An all-conference fist teamer in ’18 and ’19, Tehoka was also a member of the Iroquois Nationals.
What About the Young’uns?
Adding to the youth depth chart comes Brad McCulley, a lefty first-rounder in the 2020 draft. Another Robert Morris University alum and native of British Columbia, McCulley earned high honors while playing with the Langley Thunder in 2019, leading the team in scoring.
And what more can you say about Chase Fraser and Chris Cloutier rounding out the Bandits offense? Amazing. Incredible. Two Banditland favorites with their scoring abilities, they seem to be always right place at the right time.
From the Department of Defense
The Bandits defense and transition crew are back with a vengeance. Led by team captain Steve Priolo, they’re rounded out by Justin Martin, Matt Spanger, Nick Weiss, Kevin Brownell, Bryce Sweeting, and Brent Noseworthy. Ethan O’Connor returns to the lineup after 32 months from an injury. Justin Robinson, acquired in a trade with Saskatchewan, will add muscle as will speedy Marcus Minichiello.
Minichiello noted that the game has slowed down for him in camp, but he still goes a million miles an hour. Jordan Stouros, drafted in the second round of 2020, made the roster after a college career at Limestone University.
Unfortunately, Ian MacKay and Frank Brown will start the season on the physically unable to perform list. Banditland will miss their exciting transition down the floor and goal-scoring abilities.
The Lord of the Pipes
And then there is seven-time goaltender of the year, from the Dick Clark and Bob Costas ageless club, we have Matt Vinc. With all the hardware and rings, Vinc is a master of his craft. Leaving the shortened 2020 season with an impressive .808 save percentage and a 7-4 record, Vinc was outstanding in camp, a witness of many saves, and catch of a comment from rookie Brad McCulley: “How did he make that save?”
Dietrich, an MVP netminder and NLL Hall of Famer, mentioned in the camp that he has never been around a goaltender in top condition and studies his craft like Vinc. Delvin Shanahan will be the backup.
Four players were assigned to the practice squad. Forward Tye Argent, defensemen Sam La Roue and Dalton Sulver join goaltender Nolan Clayton. All had really strong camps and will be ready to go if called upon.
The Opponent – Still the Reigning Champion of the NLL
Speaking of master of his craft, Calgary Roughnecks’ assistant GM and head coach, Curt Malawsky, is just that. Other than Dietrich, no one is more involved in every aspect of the box game.
As a former player of 12 years in the league, there isn’t one inch of the playing floor he can’t explain without going into detail what a player does and how he does it. He coaches the players with relentless intensity and follows the opponent’s every move at the same time.
Taking the game in five-minute segments, Malawsky can turn a game plan around in a matter of seconds and be successful in doing so. And when you have players such as Curtis Dickson, stellar goaltender Christian Del Bianco, and Jesse King, surrounded with a strong cast, that is why the Roughnecks have been so successful.
OK, no Dane Dobbie, the MVP of the 2019 Championship, and no Rhys Duch. No problem. Just watch Malawsky round up this roster, install a game plan that the Bandits will have to battle for, and be ready for a change every five minutes.
Hey, good meeting.
The NLL is taking a giant step with their new multi-year agreements with ESPN and TSN. Every game will be available on ESPN+ and TSN’s digital platform. Too, TSN will carry a game of the week through the season, and ESPN will do the same with a schedule of 10 games on their linear networks, which will be released later.
The Bandits will continue with radio coverage, home and away, on the newly named 1520 The Bet. Our radio coverage will continue with a 30-minute pre-game show, featuring interviews with coaches and players and up-to-date game analysis.