Thursday, June 18, 2020

The 2019-20 Season

The 2019-20 season figured to be a relatively uncomplicated one for the Buffalo Bandits, at least at first glance. After all, they were coming off a narrow loss in the National Lacrosse League finals to Calgary, but still had plenty of talent coming back. Incentive did not figure to be a problem entering the new season.

“When you get that close, it is heart-breaking, but it is motivating,” defender Steve Priolo said. “We play summer lacrosse, and five days later I was back on the floor. I needed to play lacrosse and get going. The start of our season here is scratching that itch that has been bothering me this summer.”

As we discovered, the season was many different things - but it was not uncomplicated. It was a rather bizarre season right from well before Opening Night to the premature finish.

The drama with the expansion draft. The NLL has added new teams in Rochester and New York for the 2019-20 season. The former version of the Rochester Knighthawks had moved to Halifax, and the new version was rebooted under the ownership of Bandits owner Terry Pegula. The Bandits had a lot of talent on the roster, and they couldn't keep all of it.

Buffalo players were taken in the first two picks of the draft. Shawn Evans went first to Rochester. That made sense from a Knigthhawks viewpoint. Evans was a former league MVP who still had gas in the tank, and was a former Rochester player as well. With the second pick, New York took forward Jordan Durston. Bandits' general manager Steve Dietrich had tried to complete a deal that would have allowed Durston to stay in Buffalo, but couldn't make it work. Durston was one of those players who did the dirty work on offense to provide space for players like Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne to operate.

That should have been enough bad news for a while. But before training camp, Thomas Hoggarth was lost for the season because an injury. Then Chase Fraser suffered a medical setback that figured to cost him a few weeks of the season. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Bandits looked very thin up front.

The defense and goaltending were more or less back intact from 2018-19, although Ethan O'Connor also was lost for the season. However, there was one other change in the team. The Bandits dumped the co-coach concept from the season before, which saw John Tavares and Rich Kilgour split the duties. Now Tavares had the job on his own, and Kilgour departed. Dietrich added the title of assistant coach to the general manager's position. That essentially meant that Tavares gave the orders on the field and Dietrich gave the orders off the field.

“Obviously there’s a lot more responsibility on my shoulders,” he said. “Last year, I split the duties with Richie (Kilgour). Now I’m in the middle of the bench, looking over everything as opposed to focusing on offense. But we have (Steve) Dietrich looking at the back door, and we have (Rusty) Kruger taking the front door taking the offense.”

While the changes didn't figure to make a great deal of difference in the team's play, they came with one bit of sadness. Rich Kilgour had been around the team since Year One, serving a number of different roles with distinction. If there was a Mount Rushmore for Bandits, he probably was on it. If Buffalo was determined to pick one coach, then Tavares was going to get it. But that doesn't mean that the end of Kilgour's association with the team was a good moment for anyone. He deserved a better fate.

The Bandits opened the 2019-20 regular season where they ended the 2018-19 season: San Diego. The crowd of 10,685 saw a very good game on December 7 but were disappointed with the ending. With the scored tied, 10-10, with less than three minutes to go, Byrne scored a huge go-ahead goal. Smith added two more in the last two minutes, and the Bandits were 13-10 winners.

The good feelings last for about five minutes into the next game, which came three full weeks after the opener. Byrne and Smith picked up where they left off, and the Bandits had a 2-0 lead over Halifax. Then everything turned sour. The Thunderbirds scored four straight goals to take a 4-2 lead. Then when Buffalo responded with a pair to tie the game at 4-4, Halifax scored nine straight goals to break the game open. It ended 15-10, only because Buffalo scored the final three goals of the game. One of the problems for the Bandits came on faceoffs; the Thunderbirds had a 22-7 edge, which was a big part of a 102-72 advantage on loose balls.

“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Tavares said about the game. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, and Halifax shot the ball extremely well. They have a great offense, and they capitalized on their opportunities. It wasn’t a lack of effort. It was a lack of skill.”

It was another two weeks before the Bandits played again, and it looked as if they learned some lessons in that span. Buffalo scored early and often to jump ahead of Georgia, 11-3 at halftime. That was essentially the game, which ended up at 16-10. Fraser, back in the lineup, and Smith had six points each. 

That set up a nice divisional game in Buffalo for the Bandits against Toronto. Buffalo added some help up front by signing free agent Garrett Billings shortly before the game. Fraser was anxious to play in his first home game of the season, even though he came down with a digestive illness before the game and wasn't 100 percent. The forward still scored three goals in a 10-8 win.

I knew coming in from last year, we didn’t end the season the way we wanted,” Fraser said. “Personally, I wanted to fill a bigger role, do more for myself and to help this team out. I’m doing all I possibly can to help us be victorious.”

Chris Cloutier broke an 8-8 tie with 5:29 left, and Matt Gilray added an empty-netter.

Things only got better from there. The Bandits went to Colorado on Jan. 25, and cut things a little close since they trailed, 12-11, with a little more than a minute to go. But Byrne scored with the goalie pulled with 1:03 left (his seventh of the game), and Corey Small won the game with a score at 1:59 of overtime.

There was more overtime fun at home on Jan. 31. What's more the script was almost exactly the same. Buffalo was down by a goal with 1:08 left when Cloutier tied the score. When extra time began, Small struck again at 1:53.

“I think I said on the floor, that was about 80 percent Dhane Smith and about 20 percent me,” Small said. “He made the play call on the bench. He told me to find a lane backside and keep your stick open and I’ll find you. That’s pretty much how it happened. Dhane does a great job of drawing the goalie out of the net and opening up the quick-sticks for me. We tried one earlier and it didn’t work, but this time we had the goalie focused on him and it opened up the back side.”

Let's see how this one looked:

The Bandits made it five in a row on February 7, with a 15-8 win against Vancouver in British Columbia. Smith had eight points, while Billings, Cloutier and Byrne had six points each. Two days later, the Bandits had to cross the country again in order to play in Toronto. That figured to be trouble, and it was. The Bandits stayed with the Rock for a half (8-8), but only scored one goal in the second half in a 13-9 loss.

It was tough losing to a division rival, but it at least could be easily excused. The Bandits' next game was a bit more troubling. This was an ugly game - almost as ugly as the 7-6 final score in favor of the Philadelphia Wings. Buffalo scored only two goals in the first 44 minutes of play. It didn't help that Smith and Fraser were out of the lineup. The Bandits did score the final three goals of the game, but it wasn't enough.

“We were on the perimeter quite a bit,” Tavares said. “We were not penetrating their defense very much. That’s definitely something that is concerning, because it’s definitely tough to win lacrosse games when you don’t penetrate. We’ve got to find a way to get it in tighter. (Wings goalie and ex-Bandit Zach) Higgins did his job. He made the saves he had to make, and a few others as well.”

The Bandits had lost two in a row to fall to 6-3 entering a big home-and-home series with Halifax. The Thunderbirds had been one of the biggest surprises in the league for the season, and it was important not to lose touch with them in the standings. With Smith scheduled to be out for several weeks with a broken finger, Dietrich swung a deal to keep the offense going. He sent Dallas Bridle, the injured Hoggarth, and a second- and third-round pick in the 2020 NLL Entry Draft to Rochester for forward Dan Lintner, defenseman Frank Brown and a fourth-round pick in 2020.

“It was a pretty crazy week to be honest,” Lintner said. “I was sitting at my desk when I got the call I was traded here. I didn’t think about it too much at first, but then it sunk in. It was something I had to take on. This is a great place to play. Everyone in the room welcomed me with open arms tonight.”

Lintner and the rest of the team couldn't have gotten off to a better start that night. The Bandits jumped out to a 6-0 lead; no Buffalo team had done that since at least 2005 (that's when the record book starts for such matters). The T-Birds were playing from behind the rest of the way. They got to within 10-8 in the fourth quarter, but Buffalo closed the sale nicely. Lintner had two insurance goals in the final five minutes.

Eight days later, the Bandits returned the favor by playing in Halifax. When Corey Small scored with 1:59 left, it looked as if Buffalo would sweep the two-game series and be in the top spot in the division race at 8-3. But the Thunderbirds scored three straight times to take an 11-9 win. If Buffalo was to remain a contender in the North Division, it would have to go through a tough stretch of the schedule with games against Toronto, New England and Saskatchewan in the remainder of March.

Or so we thought.

The COVID-19 virus was on everyone's mind at this point, as the news about the spread of the illness became more and more ominous with each passing day. On March 11, the NBA announced that it was suspending its season, and the NHL followed a day later. At that point, it seemed likely that the NLL would have to follow the other sports into hitting the pause button. Sure enough, that's what happened later that day.

There was no quick solution to this problem. In early April, the league announced that the rest of the regular season would be cancelled, and that it was looking into its options regarding the playoffs.

"The one thing I take solace in is that they are trying," Dietrich said in early May. "They haven’t thrown in the towel yet. They are just like the NBA, NHL and major league baseball. Everybody is so worried about the health of everyone, first and foremost. The last thing on everyone’s mind is, when are we going to be able to play lacrosse? I do know they are still hoping, and that gives me hope. I hope at some point we can get this going again."

But a month later, on June 4, the NLL had little choice but to cancel its playoffs. There were the obvious health concerns for the participants, as well as immigration questions. It seemed obvious that the league would have to stage a postseason tournament without fans. That might work for other sports with a large television presence, but the NLL didn't have that as a safety net. Ending the season was the appropriate action under the circumstances.

That didn't make it any easier for the Bandits to swallow. They finished the regular season at 7-4, a half-game behind Halifax. Byrne lead the team with 29 goals and 55 points, while Smith had 33 assists in eight games. They certainly had a legitimate chance to do some damage in the playoffs, particularly with Matt Vinc - the best goalie in the history of the game - in their nets.  Depending on the timing, Smith probably would have been back in action as well.

What if? There was nothing they could do about all of it, except prepare for next season ... whenever it started.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)