Teams in the National Lacrosse League have spent the offseason getting ready for the upcoming season, and come Saturday, December 15th, fans will get chance to see how much that hard work pays off. No team has had to work harder than the Buffalo Bandits. Coming off a disappointing 8-10 record last season, the Bandits needed to improve their roster. For them, it meant getting faster and stronger in between the pipes and on defense and transition. Here are some of the key roster changes this off-season.
Matt Vinc, G – What more can be said about Vinc. He’s the reigning Goaltender of the Year, a record sixth time he’s won the honor. He recorded a .782 save percentage (2nd-NLL), 651 saves (3rd-NLL), and an 11.37 goals-against-average. Vinc was instrumental in leading the Rochester Knighthawks to the finals despite the Knighthawks, at one point, having a record of 2-8. This year only sees more record-setting accomplishments for the 14-year veteran. He’s 105 saves behind Anthony Cosmo for the all-time record. However, his knowledge in front of the net comes with age. It remains to be seen how long Vinc will stay in the NLL. He’s 36 years old and played nearly 1,000 minutes last year. The Bandits will have to balance Vinc’s time in net if they want to get the most out of him.
Matt Spanger, D – The focus going into the off-season for the Bandits was get younger, stronger and quicker. Spanger adds those elements to the defense for Buffalo. He also adds a little offense to his game as well. In 18 games, Spanger recorded two goals and six assists. Spanger will definitely be a viable option in the transition game as the Bandits improve in that aspect of the game.
Bryce Sweeting, D – Much like Spanger, Sweeting adds that element of young, strong, pestering defense. He also adds a little offense to his game, with three goals and five assists in 37 games. For Sweeting, though, his focus will be on protecting Vinc in net. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves if necessary.
“I play a good check on defense and try and make it uncomfortable for some of the top players on other teams and make it hard for them,” Sweeting said. “It’s all about giving Vno (Vinc) and Higgy (Higgins) the shots they want and play some tough defense.”
Here’s the rest of the roster:
Goaltending: Matt Vinc and Zach Higgins
Defense and Transition: Steve Priolo, Mitch de Snoo, Bryce Sweeting, Matt Spanger, Ryan Wagner, Justin Martin, Ian MacKay, Matthew Bennett, Matt Gilray, Kevin Brownell, Nick Weiss, Ethan O’Connor, Chase Fraser, Thomas Hoggarth
Offense: Dhane Smith, Shawn Evans, Corey Small, Jordan Durston, Josh Byrne
Practice Squad: Dallas Bridle, Zach Herreweyers, Devlin Shanahan
Injured Reserve: Mark Steenhuis, Jon Harnett
Hold out list: Dylan Molloy
The Bandits’goal for 2018-19, above all else, is improve on last season. Their 8-10 record is nothing to write home about, but it was an improvement over 2017-18 where they finished 6-12. The biggest roster changes were on the defensive side, so it’ll be interesting to watch how the new additions fit into the system. It will also be interesting to see how co-head Coaches Rich Kilgour and John Tavares run a team together. Both of them played for the Bandits in the 90’s and 2000’s so the chemistry should be there. Tavares will likely game plan the offense while Kilgour focuses more on the defense.
One area that the Bandits barely touched in the off-season was the offense. That indicates Buffalo is satisfied with what they have on offense. Although they lost their leading goal-scorer in Mitch Jones to Vancouver, they held onto Dhane Smith, the team leader in assists (68) and points (105) and picked up Corey Small. Buffalo expects Smith and Shawn Evans will lead their offense. One guy on the offense to look out for is Josh Byrne, the Bandits’ 2017 first-overall pick in the Collegiate Draft. Byrne finished last season with 26 goals and 37 assists, and while that wasn’t quite enough for Rookie of the Year honors, he was placed on the 2018 All-Rookie team. With Jones gone and teams expecting Smith and Evans to carry the offense, Byrne will have more opportunities to contribute on the offensive end.
The Bandits’ first matchup of the season re-ignites a rivalry from the past. The Philadelphia Wings host the Bandits, and the two teams have quite a history dating back to the 90s. Buffalo holds the series by an edge, 26-25. The epitome of the rivalry came in 1992 when the Bandits edged the Wings in overtime to win the NLL Championship in their inaugural season. While the Bandits focused more on defense during the offseason, the Wings went in the opposite direction, picking up players with a more offensive game, including Brett Hickey, who scored 50 goals in 2015 and 45 goals in 2017. Buffalo’s new defense will be put to the test with Philadelphia’s sniper offense, but if the Bandits can hold their own, it’ll be a step in the right direction.