NLL: Bandits gearing up for another run at league title

Dhane Smith celebrates. Rochester Knighthawks @ Buffalo Bandits, January 31, 2020. (Photo credit: Laura Kupsey)

The Buffalo Bandits started the 2021-22 season perfectly. Literally. They were 6-0 to start the year before suffering their first loss February 12th in Toronto. In that 6-1 stretch, Buffalo beat teams like Calgary, Rochester, Toronto and New York, which was an overtime thriller at Nassau Coliseum. Their offense was red hot, defense was stifling, oh, and they had one of best goalies in the world, in Matt Vinc.

Following that loss to Toronto, Buffalo rattled off seven more wins to one loss, to bump them to 13-2 on the year. Unreal stuff. Within that stretch, they played four games in eight days. A home and home against Halifax, an away game in Philadelphia, and an away game against Colorado, which is where they lost their second game. A stretch like that is unheard of in the NLL, and it demands repeating that Buffalo did as well as anyone could have, considering the travel and late nights, along with playing four full games in that short of a span. The Bandits lost two of their last three games of the season, one to New York and the other to Toronto. Their only win in those three was against Georgia. Finishing the year at 14-4 is nothing to scoff at, as again, their high octane offense was the story all year. We’ll dive into the numbers a little later, but first let’s talk about the playoffs.

Buffalo went into the playoffs as the league’s top seed. While it seemed like they were unstoppable at times, teams like Toronto, Albany, Halifax and Colorado had something to say about it. The playoff schedule was released, and the Bandits drew Albany in a first round, one-and-done matchup. Albany gave Buffalo some trouble in their two meetings in the regular season; however, Buffalo won both. Buffalo’s home-field advantage throughout the playoffs was going to be a story all in itself, as Banditland is quite a difficult place to play. Buffalo downed Albany 10-5 in that opening round matchup in front of a raucous crowd. Vinc was lights out and proved why he has as much hardware as he does. Next up was Toronto.

The Rock accounted for two of Buffalo’s four losses during the regular season. Game one was in Buffalo and it was a day after a tragic shooting at a local grocery store in downtown Buffalo, NY. With tears in everyone’s eyes and heavy hearts, Buffalo played their best game of the season, beating Toronto 18-17 in game one. How could you possibly follow that up? By walking into Toronto the following weekend and beating them on their home floor. Buffalo took game two 10-9 in an absolute nail biter that came down to literally the last shot, at the last second.

Onto the championship. Buffalo was facing off against another team that handed them a loss this season in the Colorado Mammoth. Game one was Buffalo, taking it 15-14. Games two and three? Not so much. Colorado clearly altered their defensive scheme and gameplan to completely shut down Buffalo’s high-powered offense. Colorado took game two 11-8 and game three 10-8, to beat Buffalo for the NLL Championship. Absolute heartbreak for the boys in orange and black. A storybook start, but a heartbreaking finish.

Back to the numbers. Dhane Smith had a career year, with 94 assists and 134 total points. Most important of all, Smith was named NLL MVP. Vinc recorded 747 saves, 14 wins, and a 0.807% save percentage. Oh, and how about winning NLL Goalie of the Year for the eighth time in his career. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Five players had over 30 goals, Smith and Byrne totaled over 200 points, and personal bests were topped by over half the roster.

Still no championship, however. So what was next? The records, accolades, and personal bests weren’t enough without having a championship trophy. The NLL Expansion Draft was looming, and the Las Vegas Desert Dogs were on the clock. The Desert Dogs are going to be coached by former Bandits’ great Shawn Williams, so you know he would have his eyes set on someone in that high-powered offense.

Buffalo’s protected players list was as follows: Byrne, Cloutier, Fraser, Nanticoke, Smith, La Roue, MacKay, Martin, Priolo, Sweeting, Vinc. That leaves quite a few solid players to be up for grabs by Vegas. One name stood out like a sore thumb, that being Connor Fields. The Buffalo kid had a career year, with 32 goals and 35 assists. Vegas was on the clock and their selection was exactly that. Fields, in turn, was dealt to the longtime rival Rochester Knighthawks, so that was a double blow to Buffalo. Losing Fields is a big chunk of their offense gone and now he plays for a rival club. But, if you’re Buffalo, you know you’re losing a pivotal part of your team no matter who you protect or not.

The Bandits did have a first round draft pick to use from trading Brent Noseworthy to New York, so it’s fair to say they’d have a replacement for Fields in no time. GM Steve Dietrich and head coach John Tavares have proven they are more than capable of making some magic happen come draft time.

The Entry Draft was on September 10th, 2022. The Bandits had their fair share of picks, so let’s dive in, shall we? With the 13th overall pick, the Bandits selected Cam Wyers from the Toronto Beaches/Loyola University. The 6’5” defenseman finished last season for Loyola with 16 caused turnovers and 33 loose balls. In his career, Wyers appeared in 54 games, totaled nine points (2+7), 126 loose balls, and caused 57 turnovers. His big frame will surely cause some mayhem in the defensive end and is a huge addition to an already stellar defensive unit for the Bandits.

The Bandits had little time to waste as they also had the 14th overall pick. With that, they selected defenseman Dylan Robinson, another member of the Beaches. Robinson? Haven’t we heard that name before in Buffalo? Yep, sure have. Dylan joins his brothers Brandon and Justin who are already with the Bandits. Dylan in 18 games this past year with the Beaches totaled 15 points (6+9). One would have to assume his brothers will show him the ropes in the NLL and Dylan will have quite the impact. With the 19th overall pick, Buffalo selected defenseman Zack Belter from St. Bonaventure. The North Tonawanda, New York native comes home after totaling eight points (2+6), 73 loose balls, and causing 48 turnovers in 36 career games for the Bonnies.

The rest of the Bandits’ selections are as follows:

73rd overall – defenseman Ryan Sharkey (Canisius College)

82nd overall – forward Christian Watts (Siena College)

88th overall – transition Austin Blumbergs (St Bonaventure)

The Bandits also acquired defenseman Devyn Mayea from the San Diego Seals for the 31st overall pick and a third rounder in 2024.

The draft seemed to have set the Bandits up for another run at the NLL Cup. With a ton of size, youth, and some players having box experience, most of these rookies should come in and make an immediate impact. Buffalo also extended a bunch of players as well. Max Adler, Ethan O’Connor, Sam La Roue, Frank Brown, and even head coach John Tavares all were inked to extensions. With some rest, a ton of refocus, and a short memory, the Buffalo Bandits should be a strong favorite to make it back to the NLL Finals.

Is it December 2nd yet? Let’s get this season rolling!