Ten things learned on first day of Bandits training camp
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 01, 2012 @ 10:40pm
The Buffalo Bandits opened training camp for the 2013 season today, beginning what NLL legend John Tavares referred to as a “revamping” phase for the organization.
An entire host of veterans and even a few youngsters from last year’s team, which fell in the East Division Semifinals to Toronto, have either been traded, let go or opted to retire after Steve “Chugger” Dietrich took the general manager job this summer, and new faces were aplenty as head coach Darris Kilgour ran his team through drills and a brief scrimmage.
Absent from last year’s team were captain and defender Chris White (signed with Toronto), forwards Roger Vyse (released, FA) and Kevin Buchanan (traded to Philly), transition players Jeremy Thompson (traded to Edmonton) and Tom Montour (released, signed by Rochester), defenders Ian Llord (released, signed by Rochester) and Darryl Gibson (retired), as well as retired goalie Mike Thompson.
“I think, from a player that loved playing here that was heartbroken when I left,” Dietrich said in regard to his Bandits’ career, “the last couple years I don’t think the passion was here. We set forth trying to keep the glue guys but also bring in some new guys who’d be amazed at playing in front of 18,000 people and know what an honor it is to put on this jersey each week.”
“We got really complacent the last couple years,” Kilgour admitted. “Guys felt they deserved something rather than earning something, and we definitely wanted to get rid of that attitude.”
Filling the void of their departures is a gaggle of highly-touted rookies, a few valuable veteran additions in Shawn Williams, Jamie Rooney, Aaron Wilson and Derek Suddons, and a solid nucleus of returnees. Dietrich and Kilgour have chosen to adjust to the direction of the National Lacrosse League, as last year’s rule changes favor teams able to excel at a high tempo.
“Obviously we weren’t satisfied at all last year, and I did spend every day of the last half year thinking about what needs to change,” Kilgour said to the media following Saturday’s practice. “Chugger’s done a great job of bringing in a lot of different options in this organization, and now it’s up to us to whittle it down and make better decisions than we did last year. I still think this is a championship caliber team.”
Here are 10 things we learned:
1) The team is still very hush-hush on Luke Wiles and Billy Dee Smith: Two staples of the Bandits organization are without a contract, as gifted forward Luke Wiles and intimidating defender Billy Dee Smith both missed the opening practice. Little information was gleaned on their holdouts, unfortunately, and the trade of Jeremy Thompson for Aaron Wilson may indicate that Wiles’ return is in jeopardy.
“No, I’m not really involved with that this year,” Kilgour explained, “and I don’t want to get involved with those guys whatsoever.”
“We’re working toward getting them signed, but I’d rather talk about the guys that are here today,” Dietrich said, giving little hint of progress. “We’re going to do everything we can to get them signed, but as to how far we are, that’s not up to us to talk about.”
Without their second-leading scorer from 2012 and their most physical defender—two fan-favorites to boot—Buffalo would not be considered a preseason favorite for an NLL title.
2) Self and Steenhuis’ injuries are not serious: To follow up the bad news with good news, the injuries that sent veteran defender Scott Self and transition star Mark Steenhuis to the “Physically Unable to Perform” (PUP) list are not considered serious. Both players were in attendance, working out on the First Niagara Center turf on their own once the team’s scrimmage concluded.
“They both had small procedures done—Selfer on his hip—he had some arthritis coming into his hip, so he got that cleaned up,” Kilgour explained. “Finally, we thought Mark had a double sports hernia—it was misdiagnosed four or five times and he played with it all last year—but [recently] they found a small tear in the tendon in his hip. Now we know what it is, and he should be back in a couple weeks.” Neither player seems in danger of missing the start of the season.
3) Dhane Smith is the real deal: Both Kilgour and Dietrich lauded Smith, who scored two goals in the scrimmage at the end of practice. Drafted No. 5 overall in the 2012 draft, the cousin of Billy Dee Smith has already made an impression as an elite athlete.
“Dhane Smith looks great. He’s everything we thought he was so far,” Kilgour said glowingly. “We were wondering how he’d look going up against some of the vets. I thought he did really well today, he got a couple goals in the scrimmage—he’s just super athletic.”
Dietrich later hinted that Smith would be coming out the backdoor—at least initially—in order to improve an area that hamstrung the Bandits last season.
“We needed to get younger and quicker, especially out the back end. That’s some of the areas that Toronto tried to take advantage of: press the ball and press the issue.”
Smith is fine with any role, but he has one that’s ideal to him. “It’s really a dream come true. Buffalo’s camp is one of the hardest ones, so I knew to prepare myself. Honestly it doesn’t matter to me [what position I play], but transition wise I can use my speed, so if I go out the back door and stay on for O because I have a good touch inside, that would be perfect, but wherever they want to play me, it’s fine with me.”
4) Dhane Smith isn’t the lone rookie expected to contribute immediately: Jordan Critch, Carter Bender, Kevin Brownell and Hayden Smith were all considered worthy of selection in the first two rounds of October’s entry draft.
“We had basically isolated Dhane as the guy we thought we’d wanted, and then we looked at Jordan Critch, Carter Bender and Hayden Smith honestly for our second pick, and when we were able to get all three of them, things slid pretty well for us,” Dietrich said with a smile. “Maybe other teams had other guys higher on their list, and for us, those four guys were the ones we targeted, and even Kevin Brownell was a guy we targeted to maybe pick up in the second round as well, but when we were able to get him in the third, we were real happy.”
5) Kilgour was displeased over Chris White’s departure: The head coach and former GM’s quote in regard to the free agent’s move to Toronto speaks volumes.
“Losing Whitey in my mind was a huge loss for us—I’m pretty disappointed that we couldn’t get him signed,” Kilgour said, emphasizing that the contract was the major sticking point, although White’s family in Peterborough played a role, too. “He’s one of my favorite players, I chose him as captain, and I’m really sad to see him go. He was one of the most consistent players over the last seven eight years, and he was a really good friend of mine too.”
While Kilgour has yet to discuss a captain with his staff, here are a few options that might make sense: Scott Self, Chad Culp or Mat Giles.
6) Culper on the loose: Both Kilgour and Dietrich reiterated that the release of several longtime Bandits was to send a message to the returning veterans as well. Dietrich, in particular, spoke volumes about how Chad Culp responded to the roster moves.
“Nick Cotter came in great shape, and Chad Culp came back in better shape than what we thought. I think he took it seriously that we brought in some extra left[y forwards], and he’s in fantastic shape.”
7) Brock love-fest: Kilgour spoke highly of David Brock, a transition player acquired from Philadelphia, as did strength and conditioning coach Joe DiPietro. The 26-year-old Brock is 6’3, 215 pounds and looks the part—he loomed over some of Buffalo’s smaller attackers yet showed the quickness to stay with their pace. An encouraging sign, for sure.
8) Reliant on Cosmo: A holdout from Minnesota last year, Anthony Cosmo came to Buffalo when then-GM Kilgour gave up the farm to acquire the lanky net-minder. With Kilgour calling it a “must” to bring him back in 2012 with Thompson retired, Cosmo signed a one-year deal with the Bandits on Nov. 21. He looked outstanding in the first scrimmage of the year and having him for a full season may certainly pay dividends.
9) John Tavares is healthy and ready to go, but he’s a little surprised: The 44-year-old wonder, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer, will definitely return for another season, even if he’s used a little more as a specialist than years past. Here’s his take on the new-look squad:
“I look back at least year’s team, and you know, we weren’t too far off. Our record during the regular season may not have been great, but at the end of the day, we were one goal away [from the East Division Finals]. I’m a believer of keeping the team together and changing a few faces here and there—doing some tweaking—but it looks like a complete overhaul. We still have veterans as well, as we’re not rebuilding—revamping probably. I think we’re changing the culture, probably, but I like a lot of the talent that’s on the floor, but I just have to get used to a lot of the players.”
10) Cuts and closing: Darris Kilgour said the Bandits would be trimming their roster significantly following Sunday’s practice. Stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, take heart in Steve Dietrich’s outlook for the season.
“I think we have a championship caliber team from what I’ve seen today. I think we have a real good team on paper, but it depends on how they jell and how good we look come January.”
(Game photos courtesy of Dave Marino, Instagram’d photos are my own.)