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Sabres Analysis

What the Sabres Can Learn From the Buffalo Bandits

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Buffalo Bandits championship Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Bandits won their second straight NLL Cup Championship Saturday night. The back-to-back champions also had the luxury of winning in front of their home fans for the second straight time. As fellow tenants of KeyBank Center, the Sabres can learn a thing or two from their more decorated little brother.

Must Read: Why the Sabres Are Winning the Mittelstadt Trade

Elite Core

The most important part of a championship-caliber team is accumulating talent, and the Bandits have two of the league’s best leading their attack.

Forward Josh Byrne was named 2023-2024 MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, and All-NLL First Team. To top things off, he was also named 2024 NLL Finals MVP as the Bandits defended their title.

It’s an impressive season for one of the league’s most talented players. The Bandits acquired Byrne by selecting him first overall in the 2017 NLL Entry Draft.

He’s not the first player on the team to win the league’s MVP, as forward Dhane Smith is two years removed from the award himself. 2022 was Smith’s second MVP award, as he first notched the NLL’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.

Smith has the current single-season assist record at 96 and is the Bandits’ all-time leading assist man. He was named 2023-2024 All-NLL Second Team, along with Buffalo transition player Ian MacKay.

The Bandits built their core by drafting well and building around their stars. Eight-time Goaltender of the Year Matt Vinc was acquired in 2019, landing two award-winning seasons in Buffalo.

The Sabres have also drafted at the top early and often but misses and failure to find the right support and depth have hindered them. Rasmus Dahlin is a potential Norris Trophy candidate for the foreseeable future, and Tage Thompson is widely regarded as an elite offensive talent.

There’s no MVP-caliber player on the roster, so the Sabres have to make up for it in the aggregate. This can be accomplished if their goaltending duo of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen turns out to be elite like the one in Boston, and the five forwards drafted in the first round over the past three seasons follow the development trend of Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka.

Winning Culture

The Bandits just earned their sixth championship banner to be raised in KeyBank Center – six more than the Buffalo Sabres. There’s a winning standard set by the team that meets the expectations of the fans.

The keystone behind that standard is Bandits legend and head coach John Tavares. The original Johnny T, uncle to Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares, is perhaps the greatest player in NLL history. He helped lead the Bandits to four championships as a player and now has added two as a coach.

It’s that high bar that the Sabres are missing. There’s too much discussion about winning an extra game or two to slip into the playoffs when instead the focus should be building to be one of the NHL’s best teams perennially.

Lindy Ruff returning behind the bench should help add some of that perspective, although he has yet to coach a team to a Stanley Cup win. There’s a certain mindset and expectation that should meet the fans’ demands. That’s what the Sabres should be striving for.

Entertainment

What’s the best part about going to a Buffalo Bandits game? The answer’s easy – the atmosphere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more fun time than kicking it with a packed Bandits crowd. The music, the chants, and the friendly faces make it a destination sporting event.

The Sabres have done a lot in recent years to improve the fan experience. Slowly but surely they’re becoming a more fun team to watch, whether it’s the product on the ice or the arena festivities. A new video board for the 2024-2025 season is the latest addition to the in-person entertainment value.

The biggest kickstarter for a great fan experience is winning. Once you get the roster and culture right, the fun will follow.

Who knows, maybe even a championship or two.