Heading into last September’s NLL Draft, Buffalo Bandits GM Steve Dietrich admits that there was no clear decision for who the Bandits would select with the first overall pick. “It was a tough decision between [Josh Byrne, Jake Withers, and Zach Currier] who ended up going one, two, three; those were the three guys we were looking at.”
Ultimately, despite the cases that Withers and Currier could make for being the Bandits top pick, Dietrich and the front office staff decided to attempt to fill the void of Ryan Benesch – the team had traded him to the Colorado Mammoth in exchange for right-handed sniper Callum Crawford and goaltender Alex Buque a month earlier – with the immense talents of another attacking lefty in Byrne.
Dietrich and his team saw great potential in Byrne, not just because of the numbers he had put up in the BCJALL and at Hofstra University, but also the unquantifiable aspects of his game as well. “He has incredible offensive instincts; a great mind. We thought that he had very quick feet, a quick step and was able to go over the top, through the middle or underneath. We thought he had a complete game and we obviously liked his speed.”
For Byrne, being selected first in the draft – it was the Bandits first overall pick since 2004 when they chose Debby Powless – meant he would be on the team whose assistant coach, John Tavares, is the most prolific left-handed scorer in NLL history.
“John T. being one the greatest lefties to ever play the game, it couldn’t have been a better fit for me,” Byrne said, “To learn from him, different shots, different things. The way he looks at the game is so different. The way he runs all kinds of plays, the back doors he plays, the different outs, it’s quite astonishing to look at. To finally learn all that from him is definitely helping my game for sure.”
Tavares is quick to express that the admiration is mutual. “I thought he looked really good when he first came to [training] camp, “The Bandits all-time points leader said of Byrne. “He definitely showed why he was the first overall pick. He showed a lot of poise, looked in good shape, good shooting from the outside, good feet, good decision-maker, so he looked like he had all the qualities of being a great player.”
While he was able to impress the coaches and the front office prior to the start of the season, Byrne understood the process of finding a role and fitting in as a rookie, particularly such a highly-touted newcomer like he was, would take some time to get the offense clicking with the dynamic lefty as a consistent scorer and contributor.
Through his first few NLL games, there were glimpses of Byrne’s excellence, but it wasn’t until mid-January that the forward’s talents began to create the type of production that many would have expected from him. As the team began to grow as a unit and build chemistry, Byrne was able to play his style of game while playing the type of game that his team needed to win.
“I think through the first couple of games, Josh was getting his feet wet, he didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said of Byrne’s game. “He was giving up the ball more than we wanted him to; he was a little bit too unselfish. Now I think he’s found a balance of being unselfish and doing what he can do with the ball.” In his first career game, he showcased that unselfishness by recording four assists to go along with his first NLL goal.
Byrne’s game has always been able doing what it takes to win, whether that meant distributing the ball or putting the ball in the back of the net. As part of the New Westminster Jr. Salmonbellies, Byrne tallied 118 goals and 108 assists in 43 games including a 2013 campaign where he finished third in points with 112 (56 goals and 56 assists). At Hofstra, Byrne found more of scoring touch in the field game racking up 71 goals compared to 40 assists in 29 games.
Over his last three games, there’s been a significant uptick in goals coming from Byrne. He has had at least a hat trick in all three contests and even piled on five scores against the Bandits fiercest rivals, the Rochester Knighthawks, on February 3rd. His 11 goals in three games nearly doubled his six-game total to begin the year. And, with his opening game withstanding, his assist totals have been on the rise as well. He has compiled ten assists in his last four games whereas in the four games that preceded those he had only five.
A handful of his latest goals and many of his others have come off of what is becoming a signature move for Byrne. He uses his exceptional footwork to find a path to the crease, plant his feet, elevate, and while he’s mid-air, place the ball behind the goaltender. His dunk-style technique is something Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley has seen develop since training camp.
“It shows that he’s highly intelligent,” Cordingley said of the lacrosse IQ shown on the dunk goals. “When you’re diving across the crease, you only have so much time. By him dunking – he has a great vertical – he’s got more time to make a decision with the ball then he would if he were diving across. With his stick up in the air, he has so many options, whereas, if he dives, he only has one or two options. That is his signature move, and I’ve seen him do in training camp, do it practice, do it in other leagues. It’s something that he’s perfected and done really well to make himself more successful.”
Tavares notes out that while Byrne’s points per game total has risen since the beginning of February, Byrne was still doing the things he needed to do to give the Bandits a chance to win. “One thing offensive guys don’t get a lot of credit for is the ability to set screens and get guys open. Josh is very good at setting those screens and doing the dirty work. That’s a characteristic that a lot of young guys don’t have; they’re not willing to do the dirty work. The one thing I’ve liked the most from the get-go, he’s always willing to get dirty for his teammates.”
Cordingley had similar sentiments for Byrne as a teammate saying, “I think he’s special because he’s a guy that wants everyone to be successful and a guy that makes everything better. Those types of guys are special players.”
It can be said that there’s more willingness to get grind it out for your teammates when you know that your teammates would do the same for you.
In Byrne’s case, he’s always trying to learn what he can from he teammates on and off the turf, a few of whom he has plenty of time with because they either live with him or next door. Not only is Byrne roommates with Dhane Smith, who was a very skilled rookie in his own right but has shown that he is one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league, but their neighbors are Byrne’s mentor Mitch Jones and righty forward Craig England.
“I’m trying to learn from the guys as much as I can both on the floor and off the floor,” Byrne said. “Especially a guy like Jones who has been a mentor being on the left side with me. He’s walked me through plays, and we’ve worked to get our chemistry on. With [Dhane] Smith as a roommate, so he’s always there as a vocal leader for me. We talk about what could work and what might not. Having all these guys around me at all times definitely pushes me forward.”
With all the work Byrne is putting in both physically and mentally, it’s no surprise that he leads all rookies in scoring with 36 points (17 goals and 19 assists) and has 15 more points than any other rookie in the league. That total puts him in a position to likely win the NLL Rookie of the Year award which has mostly been given to the rookie with the most points. That is if he continues to add points at this rate.
That’s not to say that other rookies are under-performing. Jake Withers is the best faceoff man in the entire league at 66% and has the second-most caused turnovers with ten only behind Zach Currier who has 17 caused turnovers which is third-best in the NLL. Currier has collected a league-leading 85 loose balls while Withers has the third-most with 82.
Even if he doesn’t win the award for best rookie, Byrne is focused on winning a championship. “At the end of the day, I’m not looking at points. Sure, it would be great to win the award, but, I’ve never won a Minto Cup or a Mann Cup, so the big thing for me is focusing on winning a championship.” He also didn’t win an NCAA National Championship while at Hofstra.
Whether Byrne wins the NLL Rookie of the Year Award or not – Derek Keenan in 1992 is the only other Buffalo Bandits player to win the award – Dietrich has been very impressed with Byrne’s play of late and says that he has no doubt that he made the right decision on draft day for the Bandits this year and beyond. “If we had to do the draft over, he would be our pick again,” Dietrich said. “The other guys in the first round are all having great years, but, for what we needed, and what we continue to need, Josh has been more than we ever could have asked for.”