By Budd Bailey

(The Buffalo Bandits came ever-so-close to an NLL Championship a year ago, falling in the third-and-deciding game of the Finals to Colorado. The team started to turn the page from that over the week as the 2022-23 team gathered for training camp at the KeyBank Center over the weekend. General Manager Steve Dietrich checked in on a variety of subjects after a preseason game with Rochester on Sunday morning.)

Buffalo Sports Page: I know you take losses hard, so I would imagine that you’ve been waiting anxiously for about five months for the start of training camp. It must be nice to be back at work.

Steve Dietrich: Yeah, obviously last year didn’t end the way we wanted it. Disappointing is the word of the day. That’s probably an understatement. Honestly, it sucks to start all over again, but that’s where we are, and we’re going to build for it and move ahead.

BSP: Did you spend a lot of time thinking about what can get you that one extra win at the end of the year?

Dietrich: I thought we had it. It’s confounding sometimes because you think we have the right pieces. We got beat by one team in Calgary, and we did some things differently, and then we got beat by a completely different roster from Colorado. It’s frustrating. But as I said to the guys last time, we’re going to continue to bang on the door. Eventually we’re going to make it through, or we’re going to go down trying.

BSP: You made a few moves in the offseason, although the nucleus is obviously intact. Take us through some of the new guys that are here.  

Dietrich: I thought we scored a lot of pretty goals last year – fancy, behind-the-back stuff.  I thought that Colorado taught us a lot. They took away the middle of the floor and not let us be pretty. That’s where Brandon Robinson, Brad McCulley, Nathaniel Kozevnikov are going to help. They are bigger guys. It’s easy to say they’re going to play more inside out. Last year we played a lot of outside in. The ball was out there. We ripped the ball around. These guys are going to go inside, cause some havoc, and help the other guys like Dhane Smith, Josh Byrne, Chris Cloutier and Tehokah Nanticoke get to the middle.  Defensively, we didn’t change a lot. Carter McKenzie was brought in. I think he’s going to be good this year – a big body. A lot of the guys we drafted have big bodies. Dylan Robinson has a big body. We have to get more physical on the back end, without losing any athleticism.

BSP: David Brock told me that he’s seen all the East teams, and now he’s going around for a second visit.

Dietrich: (Laughs) Brockie is a veteran who we spoke to in the offseason, and he wanted a shot with us. That’s where he had the most success and the most fun. He’s going to come in and battle like everyone else and we’ll see how it ends up.

BSP: You’re having the usual preseason contract disputes with Dhane and Ian MacKay. I guess you are used to that.

Dietrich: Yeah, it used to be Billy Dee Smith and Mark Steenhuis, I guess. Now it’s Dhane and Ian. Those are two guys who are important to the team, and we’ll get it done eventually. We’re haggling over a few things, but we’ll iron it out.  Steve Priolo is out right now (with an injury) but he’ll be back. Chase Fraser will be out for a while. Justin Robinson will be out for a little while.

BSP: Do you have any questions you want answered in training camp? You probably have to replace Connor Fields (lost in the expansion draft).

Dietrich: Without a doubt. With Chase being gone for a while, and Connor gone, that opens up about 70 goals. It’s a lot to ask Dhane and Josh to score more. It’s going to be more from transition, but it also will be more from Kozevnikov. He’s ready to go. Brad McCulley, Thomas Vaeson is a kid we drafted a couple of years ago. Those are the guys who have to step into the slots and take up the slack. We don’t expect them to score 70 goals like Chase and Connor did, but we’re going to play a different style with more bang. Maybe we won’t score 17 a night, but if we score 12 and we win, 12-10, I’d take that.

BSP: You had a nice talk with the new commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, Brett Frood. What’s he like? What can we expect?

Dietrich: Great guy. I’m real excited. The thing I took from him is that he loves lacrosse. It’s in his blood. He used to go a lot of Rochester Knighthawk games when he was younger. Now he coaches his son in field lacrosse in Carolina. He’s a bright guy who was successful in NASCAR, but to me the big thing is that he loves lacrosse. He wants to see this league succeed because A, it’s his job, and B, it’s his passion.

BSP: That can make a big difference, because it is a niche sport and you need someone who is familiar with the culture.

Dietrich: Without a doubt. You want the guy that’ s selling the produce to believe in the product. I’m not saying we didn’t have that in the past. I’m saying it’s exciting about Brett’s love of lacrosse. When he’s out speaking to sponsors, TV executives and so on, he’s speaking with the passion of a guy that actually loves the game. When you hear from a guy that has that passion, it comes through.

BSP: There’s another expansion team, this time in Las Vegas. I assume that the first reaction from the players was, “Oh, boy, we’ll get to go to Las Vegas every so often.”  Are you satisfied the talent is there? There’s been a lot of expansion in the last few years.

Dietrich: I was one who questioned it last year. You looked at what Panther City started to assemble at the beginning. But they did a miraculous job and a marvelous job. Bobby Hanley and Tracey Kelusky should be commended for the job they did. After seeing that, I’m excited. I think the talent is there, but we need more Americans to play and more Americans to start loving the game. It’s coming. They are coming; the kids are playing at younger levels. But we need the college guys who graduate to come to the NLL. I think after Vegas, it’s good to take a break for a little while and see everything is going well – especially for goaltending.

BSP: Are there any rules changes of note coming this year?

Dietrich: I don’t believe so. The big one before was speeding up the game, which I thought was phenomenal last year. I just hope that what is called in Game One is called in the last game of the Finals. Call the game the same. I know that’s something they are striving for. Don Koharski has done a phenomenal job of stepping the role of running the referees. Last year probably was the best I’ve ever seen in consistency. You knew from week to week what you were going to get. Playoffs are a different animal; it is in every sport. You have to adapt as a team.

BSP: Finally, about the only hit in the front office that took place was losing Troy Cordingley (now the head coach in Vancouver).

Dietrich: And great for Troy. I give him a lot of credit. He stayed involved with the team after his coaching time ended and did a great job. I know he wanted to get behind the bench eventually. I’m excited for him and happy for him because that’s his first love – to coach his own team. We added Dan Teat, who will be an Eastern scout. He’s an offensive mind behind the scenes too.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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