April 14, 2011

Stevens on National Lacrosse League: Buffalo Makes All the Right Moves

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Tracey Kelusky was the marquee acquisition, but really, all of the Buffalo Bandits' offseason maneuvers have paid dividends. Buffalo is in first place in the NLL East and in the running for home floor advantage throughout the playoffs.

© Larry Palumbo

Things have fallen into place fantastically well for the Buffalo Bandits.

Huge victories in Toronto and in Rochester last weekend moved them into first place in the NLL East with two games left in their 16-game schedule. They are peaking at the right time. They are 10-4 and haven't lost two in a row all season.

''Our guys are very resilient,'' GM-coach Darris Kilgour said of his players' ability to bounce back after their infrequent losses. ''We brought in guys we wanted to be leaders, and they've done the job.''

Go back to last spring: the Bandits finished the 2010 season 8-8 and lost their first-round playoff game 13-11 in Toronto.

''No. 1, we needed to change our offense,'' Kilgour said. ''Even though we had a pretty good game against Toronto in the playoffs, we were getting stale. We needed to add more Canadian content coming out of our back end.''

Kilgour had the next seven months to revamp his lineup.

Bad news began to pile up: Billy Dee Smith, one of the Bandits' top defensemen, blew out a knee playing for Canada at the world field lacrosse championships in Manchester, England in July; Kevin Dostie, fourth in club scoring, ruled himself out of the 2011 season so he could recover from knee injuries; and Ken Montour, who'd been splitting the goaltending with Mike Thompson, had to skip the 2011 campaign due to concussion aftereffects.

But Kilgour does not try to find a bridge from which to jump.

''I didn't feel bad at all,'' he said. ''We weren't winning with the guys we had. We needed to get other guys in there. As for goaltending, Mikey had a great summer in Peterborough helping the Lakers win a Canadian championship, and Angus Goodleaf stepped up to fill our backup role so we were okay there.''

Thompson has been so good that he is a prime candidate for the league MVP award.

''Mikey has been unbelievable,'' Kilgour said.

A flurry of offseason roster moves have all turned out favorably for the Bandits.

The most important acquisition was Tracey Kelusky, who captained Calgary to championships in 2004 and 2009. Buffalo got the shifty forward and a third-round draft pick in exchange for its first-round 2011 pick. It was well worth it. That pick will be No. 8 at best. Kelusky has scored 19 goals so far and has been at his best down the stretch. With his wealth of experience, he'll be a huge asset in the playoffs.

''We're never near the top in the draft, usually no better than ninth or 10th, so it was no big deal trading that pick to get the player we needed,'' Kilgour said. ''Tracey has been unbelievable this year not just on the floor but off the floor, too. We were really lucky to get him.''

The Bandits signed Chad Culp after he was released by Colorado. Toronto wanted him, and he was set to attend the Rock camp when he was sweet-talked into playing for the Bandits. Culp had played for the Six Nations senior team in the summer and a connection there with Bandits assistant coach Duane Jacobs helped Buffalo land him.

''We really lucked into that one,'' Kilgour said. ''I know he was set to go to Toronto's camp, but he wound up with us and he's been unbelievable for us.''

Culp has 20 goals with two games remaining after getting only seven for the Mammoth last season.

After falling out of favor in Boston, Brendan Thenhaus has added quality depth to Buffalo's offensive front.

© Tim Frenz

Meanwhile, Brenden Thenhaus had fallen out of favor in Boston, and the Bandits acquired the stocky forward along with the Blazers' 2011 first-round draft pick for Buffalo's sixth spot in the dispersal draft of Orlando Titans players. That one turned out badly for Boston, when the player they took in the dispersal draft, John Orsen, injured an ankle in the fourth game and was done for the season, while Thenhaus has scored some big goals in Buffalo. Plus, the pick Buffalo got in that trade will be in the top five come September.

''We'd been working on that one for a long time,'' Kilgour said. ''We had Brenden at one time but lost him in an expansion draft. He grew up a bit in Boston and when we got the chance to get him back, we worked long and hard to do it.''

Defenseman Scott Self was acquired from Minnesota for a second-round 2011 draft pick and a first-round 2012 pick. He paid immediate dividends by scoring the overtime winner in the home opener against Toronto on Jan. 22.

''He's underestimated by a lot of people,'' Kilgour said. ''He's bigger, faster and stronger than people think, and he's smart. He's won a lot of championships in Peterborough. He's done an absolutely terrific job for us.''

Finally, Jay Thorimbert was brought in to help on faceoffs and has alternated with Brandon Francis, part of Buffalo's strong First Nations contingent, to give the Bandits a much-improved win percentage on draws this year.

Each of these moves has paid off handsomely for the Bandits.

A big boost, too, has been the every-day availability of all-time NLL scoring leader John Tavares. He missed the first six games in 2010 with a leg injury and his team struggled without him. Today, Tavares is first in team scoring. Johnny T has been dynamite, even at age 42.

First Nations veterans Brett Bucktooth and Roger Vyse, as well as Kyle Clancy, provide good secondary scoring.

Perhaps the most significant change for the Bandits has been the willingness of transition star Mark Steenhuis to accept a more team-oriented approach. The native of St. Catharines, Ontario, amassed 101 points two seasons back. He's way below that now, and the Bandits are the better for it.

''Mark was taking as many as 20 shots a game,'' Kilgour said. ''He controlled the ball. We wanted him to control play sometimes, but not every time down the floor. This year we sat down and hashed it out. 'Look, Mark, no more than 10 or 15 shots a game,' we told him. To his credit, he's bought into that. He's grown up so much. He's become a much better lacrosse player in the last year and a half.''

And who was that firing in the winning goal in the last minute in Rochester the other night?

Jay Thorimbert has helped Buffalo improved drastically on faceoffs, an element that contributed to the Bandits' demise in 2010.

© Tim Frenz

Mark Steenhuis.

The defense has lowered its goals against average to 9.14 -- tops in the NLL -- with bone-crunching effectiveness of late. It's a steel shield.

Three of Buffalo's four losses have been by only one goal. The widest losing margin was three goals in an 8-5 setback in Toronto back on Jan. 29.

''Every game we've played, we've had a chance to win,'' Kilgour said.

Pressure defense to force opponents to the least productive shooting positions is a trademark of Kilgour's teams.
Captain Chris White is a prime candidate for NLL defenseman of the year.

''He's so steady,'' Kilgour said. ''He's so good at what he does that people don't try to take him to the net. You go back and watch the tapes, and there are subtle things he does.''

Second-year man Chris Corbeil also plays a major role.

Said Kilgour: ''Chris is in great shape and logs a lot of minutes. He's still a young guy learning our system. When he puts on 10 or 15 more pounds of muscle, he's going to be an absolute beast. He's got great footwork and a lot of desire.''

Add Self, Darryl Gibson, rookie Travis Irving, steady vet Clay Hill, Jon Harasym, Steve Priolo and the reinvented Ian Llord, and you've got a defense that is difficult to penetrate.

Reinvented? Yes, Lloyd is in top form after being used sparingly in the depths of winter.

''I told him at the start, 'I'm going to try and give your job away to anybody who can take it, because you don't seem to be getting any better.' He put his head down and started working hard,'' Kilgour said. ''Once I put him back in, he was very disciplined and played the way we wanted him to play. Once he made that change, he's been one of our strongest defensemen.''

Buffalo also has one of the league's top transition attacks with Steenhuis, Harasym and Tom Montour.

Yes, everything seems to have fallen into place for the Bandits.

The Peterborough connection has been beneficial. Kelusky, Tavares, Steenhuis, White, Thompson, Clancy and Self were Lakers teammates last summer, winning the Canadian senior amateur title, and carried on together in Bandits colors once the NLL season began.

The Bandits will cheer for Colorado to beat Calgary on Friday night. If that should happen, and if Buffalo can win at home Saturday against Boston and in its April 23 finale at home against Rochester, the Bandits would finish No. 1 overall and have home floor throughout the playoffs. That would potentially put the Champion's Cup game in a sold-out HSBC Arena, and that would be something to see.

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