Just before the season began, I wrote up my predictions for the final standings and some of the NLL awards. In the East division, I have 0 correct out of 4, while in the West division I have 1 correct out of 5. Some of my awards picks could still happen: Dan Dawson for MVP, Kyle Rubisch for Defensive Player, and Kevin Crowley for Rookie. My Goaltender (Mike Thompson) and Transition Player (Paul Rabil) picks aren’t looking too good, and my GM pick (Derek Keenan) ain’t looking great either, though you could argue that the Iannucci / Rabil trades were good trades, and the fact that both players ended up holding out wasn’t Keenan’s fault.
My pick for the Les Bartley Award was Darris Kilgour. This could also still happen – as long as the Bandits run the table while winning every game 15-0. If Darris can get his team to pull that off, people might forget the 6-game losing streak from earlier this year. But assuming that doesn’t happen, Kilgour will have taken a team that won the East last year, lost Chris Corbeil but added Luke Wiles, Kevin Buchanan, Mat Giles, Jeremy Thompson, and Anthony Cosmo, and coached them to a last place finish. Unless they turn it around very soon, this is likely to be their worst season since Kilgour began coaching the Bandits in 2003. Could this be the end of the Darris Kilgour era in Buffalo?
The problem here is that Kilgour is both the GM and the head coach. It’s unlikely that he’ll resign as coach but stay on as GM, and it’s unlikely that the Bandits owner would fire him from one of those positions and not the other. But for the sake of argument, let’s just talk about Darris the coach.
I’ve been of two minds about Darris Kilgour forever. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach (you don’t become the winningest coach in NLL history by accident), though I frequently disagree with how he coaches. The Bandits have had a particular “style” of lacrosse for years. When someone has talked about “Bandits lacrosse” over the last ten years, you know what they mean – tough, physical, gritty “old school” lacrosse, not always pretty and rarely flashy. One of those things that is hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. I don’t think there have been as many player changes on the Bandits as on many other teams; it seems that players like Chris White, Billy Dee Smith, John Tavares, Roger Vyse, Tom Montour, Mark Steenhuis, and obviously Darris and Richie Kilgour have been Bandits forever. The fact that Kilgour has managed to create a recognizable style and get every new incoming player to adapt to it is a testament to his coaching ability.
If you ever listen to the Voodoocast podcast, they talk about the Bandits as nothing more than a team full of goons, and I’ve heard that sentiment elsewhere as well. For years, it seemed that the way to beat the Bandits was to piss them off – they’d start taking stupid penalties and beat themselves. Kilgour mostly put a stop to that and the Bandits started playing smarter, which corresponded exactly to them turning from a pretty good team to a perennial contender.
But this season, that seems to be gone. The Bandits are less disciplined than in the last few years. Indeed, the Bandits have given up 42 power play goals this year, 3.8 per game, more than any other team by over half a goal. They’ve also allowed more shorthanded goals than anyone (tied with the Rock). Mike Thompson has been wildly inconsistent, and the Cosmo experiment appears to have been a mistake. John Tavares and Luke Wiles are in the top 10 in scoring, but after that you have to drop down to #25 to find another Bandit (Chad Culp). They’ve given up 15 or more goals three times this season, and are dead last in goals against per game at 13.3. The next closest team is Philly, almost a full goal back at 12.5.
Just a couple of days ago, I wrote about Kilgour’s “gentle” reaction to the Bandits being down 11-8 in the first half of last week’s game against the Rock. In the second half of that game, the Bandits played perfect “Bandits lacrosse” – tough but not stupid – and outscored the Rock 13-3 in a convincing win, and then they went out and beat the Swarm the next night as well. But a week later, after the Bandits lost 17-6 to the Roughnecks, Kilgour had this to say about his team:
It’s pathetic. My team’s pathetic. My team’s stupid. I don’t even know what to say about these guys right now. I totally question the hearts of basically everybody but about four guys on our team. Other than that, they’re a bunch of bush leaguers and they don’t give a (expletive).
I get that he’s frustrated, but is this the way to get your team motivated to play for you? One week he makes a very smart coaching decision and gets the guys to play as a cohesive unit, and the next he says that almost everyone on the team sucks. There were three fights at the same time near the end of the game, as the Bandits’ frustration boiled over. For all of you who assumed that Kilgour sent them out there and told them to “send a message” or whatever, he had this to say:
That’s bush league. I didn’t send anyone out there to do that. They took it upon themselves to do it and you know what, I don’t care. That doesn’t show me anything. That doesn’t show me one thing. Show me you can play lacrosse, that’s what I want. I don’t care if you can fight.
But then again, it was Kilgour who sent Irving, Francis, and Priolo out onto the floor at the same time, and I doubt it was because he thought they had the best chance of beginning the Bandits’ comeback.
One problem with having a recognizable style is that you may become predictable. After Calgary’s blowout of the Bandits this past weekend, Shawn Evans said (emphasis mine):
We knew exactly what Buffalo wanted to do and how they play. They fell into our game plan. They took penalties. They ran around, they chased us. We did everything right. We killed them on the power play tonight.
Is it possible that Kilgour has lost the room? Have the Bandits been playing the same kind of lacrosse for so long that the rest of the league knows how to deal with them, and Kilgour’s style is no longer effective? Perhaps it’s time for Banditball to have a new face and a new style. I have no suggestions on who they should bring in, nor do I have any predictions on where Kilgour may go. He’s too good and too young to just retire. Darris has been a Bandit so long, it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. Kilgour behind the Rock bench? Or the Roughnecks? Or the Swarm? It’s hard to picture, though so was John Grant in a Mammoth uniform at one point. As weird as it is for a Toronto Rock fan to say this, the National Lacrosse League is better with a strong Buffalo Bandits franchise. I’m not sure Darris Kilgour can deliver that any longer.