The Buffalo Bandits and head coach Darris Kilgour will have some tough decisions to make before Thursday's roster cutdown deadline. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Buffalo Bandits management and coaches took one last look at a deep preseason roster before Thursday’s National Lacrosse League roster cutdown deadline when the team held their final training camp session last weekend. The session also featured a Bandits tradition as the team opened its doors at First Niagara Center for the club’s annual open practice.
A strong showing of Bandits supporters spent their Saturday morning taking in the team’s practice and enjoying an interactive autograph session immediately afterwards. The fans in attendance also had the first opportunity to view Buffalo’s newly-designed uniforms.
While it was all fun and games for the fans, it was anything but fun for the players involved.
Coming off their first losing season in over a decade, the Bandits’ three training camp sessions have been riddled with new faces and clear sentiments from both head coach Darris Kilgour and general manager Steve Dietrich that the team is taking a very different approach in 2013.
“We’re getting the last look at some of these guys,” Kilgour said. “We have to make some decisions coming up pretty quick.”
NLL clubs must cut their rosters down to 23 players and three practice squad members by Thursday, Dec. 20. The Bandits had 34 runners and three goaltenders in camp this weekend.
While Kilgour was retained as head coach during the offseason, he relinquished general manager duties to Dietrich, a former Bandits goaltender and recent NLL Hall of Fame inductee. The first-year GM recognizes how difficult his job is in a league with just nine teams, as the talent pool runs very deep.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher [as training camp goes on],” Dietrich said.
With 14 forwards competing for roster spots, the team’s depth is especially apparent on the offensive side of the ball. Last season, the Bandits carried eight forwards on the active roster so it seems major cuts are on the way.
In all three media sessions during camp, Kilgour emphatically stated that no one has a guaranteed spot.
“All these guys have to be looking around the room and realize the numbers and the competition we have,” he said. “They are going to have to step up and take a spot this year because nothing is going to be given.”
According to Kilgour, even Luke Wiles, the team’s second-leading scorer last year with 70 points (39+31), needs to fight for a spot.
“I don’t know if [Wiles] thinks he’s made this team already, but everybody’s expendable right now,” Kilgour said. “These guys have to understand that we didn’t work hard enough last year.”
Both Kilgour and Dietrich suggested that there could be some real surprises in this year’s cuts, especially given the emphasis on fundamentally changing the dynamic of the team to be more athletic through a youth movement.
“There’s always going to be some surprise, especially when you bring in so many young guys,” Kilgour said. “We needed to change the culture of this team, we needed to get younger and faster and through that some tough decisions have to be made.”
With the depth on offense and the stress the staff is putting on youth and speed, it’s possible that some notable veterans like Tracey Kelusky, Mat Giles or Brandon Francis could find themselves out of a job.
Kelusky, who turned 37 this year, struggled to find his groove last season and it was his foot in the crease that nullified John Tavares’ dramatic buzzer-beating goal that would have sent the Bandits’ opening-round playoff game to overtime in Toronto last year.
One positive surprise in camp has been the play of Nick Cotter. The left-handed forward spent three seasons in the NLL, racking up 80 points in 41 career games, but did not find himself on a roster in 2012. It looks as though that will not be the case in 2013.
“Nick is a guy we brought in as a free agent to give him a look and fill some spots for camp,” Dietrich said. “The guy has done everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s gone out and earned a spot.”
Coach Kilgour was also impressed with Cotter’s performance in camp.
“[Cotter’s] one of the guys that’s really stood out for us,” he said. “He’s been a predominantly offensive player throughout his career, but he played defense throughout his junior career and seems to be picking it up pretty quick. He’s a great transition guy.”
Based on Buffalo’s depth along with the coaching staff’s comments, one thing is certain – just about every training camp attendee will be anxious as the Dec. 20 roster deadline approaches.
“I think everyone is pretty nervous about [keeping] their jobs,” Kilgour said. “But at the same time, I think everybody’s pretty excited that, if they do play for the Bandits this year, that we’re going to be a lot younger, a lot faster and a lot more exciting.”