After an offseason revamp, the Buffalo Bandits opened their 2013 NLL regular season on the road with a 13-8 loss against the Philadelphia Wings on Friday before hosting the Minnesota Swarm on Saturday. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
The Buffalo Bandits finally get the opportunity to forget about a disappointing 2012 when they begin their 2013 National Lacrosse League regular season this weekend. Buffalo lost their opener on the road against the Philadelphia Wings by a score of 13-8 on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center and look to bounce back during their home opener against the Minnesota Swarm on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at First Niagara Center.
The Bandits will begin their 2013 campaign against a Wings squad that did not fare much better in 2012, as both clubs posted 7-9 records and lost in the opening round of the playoffs. Not surprisingly, both clubs have made significant changes in the offseason.
For the Bandits, the opening day 23-man roster includes 11 new faces, as Bandits management, led by first-year general manager Steve Dietrich, looked to alter the team’s personality.
“It’s a youth movement in Buffalo,” said Bandits veteran forward Tracey Kelusky on this week’s media call. “There [are] a lot of new faces and the youth infusion has been absolutely phenomenal for us.”
Throughout training camp, both Dietrich and head coach Darris Kilgour have emphasized their desire to make the team younger and faster.
The youth movement is being led by the Bandits’ first-round (5th overall) draft pick, Dhane Smith, the cousin of long-time Bandits defender Billy Dee Smith. At just 20 years of age, the younger Smith has been highly impressive throughout camp and big things are expected from him this season.
Dhane is listed as a forward on the team’s website, but his size (6’3”, 195 lbs) and quickness mean he can play on the defensive side as well.
“This kid is an athletic stud; we’ll probably have him out of the back [on defense] here and there,” said Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour. “He’s only a 20-year old kid and he’s got some learning here to do, but as far as athletically and even mentally, the kid really seems to be ready to take on the NLL.
“You’re going to see Dhane all over the floor.”
Joining Dhane Smith on the active roster are fellow 2012 draftees Hayden Smith (13th overall) and Carter Bender (18th overall). Jordan Critch (16th overall) is also expected to contribute this year, but he starts the season on the Injured Reserve list.
In what may be a move to counter some of the youth infusion, the Bandits’ coaching staff has named the NLL’s all-time scoring leader John Tavares as captain for the 2013 season. Incredibly, the legendary Tavares has never worn the “C” in his 22-year NLL career, but will finally have that opportunity now.
“It’s a big honor for him and we’re excited to see him in that role… It only took him 22 years to earn it!” said Rich Kilgour with a chuckle.
The team’s alternate captains will be two seasoned veterans: forward Shawn Williams, who was acquired this offseason via trade with Edmonton, and defenseman Scott Self, who returns for his third season in the black and orange.
The Wings enter 2013 with a new and distinct philosophy: to build a team with 80% U.S.-born players. In a league that has been and continues to be dominated by Canadians, this is a very interesting, if not risky approach.
“We feel that U.S. ball players are really coming into their own in this league,” said Wings head coach and general manager Johnny Mouradian. “We made a conscious effort to draft the U.S. and get back to where Philly used to be when they were winning championships; they had a good number of Canadians and Canadian coaches, but they were predominantly a U.S.-made team.”
The Bandits' weekend does not end on Friday, as they will head straight home to Buffalo to face the Minnesota Swarm on Saturday night.
The Swarm are another team with new faces, as they had the rare opportunity to have four first-round draft picks, all of whom have made the active roster.
Last season, the Bandits were the visitor in the Swarm’s home opener and got run out of the building, losing 19-11 in a lopsided and fight-filled affair. This season, the Bandits host the Swarm in their own home opener and will be looking to return the favor, on the scoreboard at least.
While a revamped roster infused with youth and speed may look good on paper, the Bandits know that winning a championship in this league takes far more than a strong roster.
“That mentality has got to change [from last year], we have to go out and earn everything that we get,” said Kelusky. “That’s typically been Bandit ball, it has been for so many years. The mentality of taking nothing for granted is a big part of what we’re doing this year."