Buffalo's likely selection of Josh Byrne in the upcoming NLL draft made Ryan Benesch (pictured) expendable, allowing the Bandits to acquire goalie Alex Buque from Colorado.

NLL Execs Reimagine Rosters with Major Offseason Maneuvering

It takes managerial guts to trade or cut a popular player, and nobody should question Steve Dietrich or Derek Keenan in that regard.

Dietrich, general manager of the Buffalo Bandits, and Keenan, general manager and coach of the Saskatchewan Rush, were among the most active executives during a busy summer of player movement in the National Lacrosse League.

The dizzying array of transactions this offseason has as much to do with the state of the league — with expansion on the horizon — as it has to do with aggressive team builders who want to win now while also fortifying rosters for the future.

“We didn’t win. Georgia was a little better than us, so we need to catch up.” — Saskatchewan Rush general manager and coach Derek Keenan

Dietrich saw his team fall from first in the NLL East in 2016 to last overall in 2017. There was an avalanche of angst when it came time to mull over what went wrong.

Something significant had to be done about the defense. That was a given. The Bandits, once lauded for their defensive toughness, had sunk to ninth in the nine-team league in goals against. Ninth? The Bandits? Yes.

Goalie Anthony Cosmo is about to turn 40 and was leaning toward retirement, so the top priority was to fill that spot. Dietrich needed a player to offer, and it would have to be a good one if he wanted a good goalie in return.

Buffalo owns the No. 1 pick in the Sept. 18 entry draft because of its 6-12 bust of a season, and the Bandits are eyeing lefty forward Josh Byrne, the Hofstra star who just set a rookie scoring record in Major League Lacrosse, the professional outdoor league. Byrne could fill, or try to fill, Ryan Benesch’s spot, freeing up a big-name player Dietrich could swap for a goalie.

Looking around the league, Dietrich saw Colorado had a good backup, Alex Buque, who languished on the bench behind goalie of the year Dillon Ward. Mammoth general manager Dan Carey wanted a veteran shooter for his left side to fill the roster opening created by the retirement of John Grant Jr., but he could not reasonably expect to get a pure goal scorer like Benesch for a backup goalie straight up.

So, how could Carey land Benesch?

The Bandits could use a top-notch playmaker to spring Dhane Smith for more goals. Colorado’s Callum Crawford would be perfect. And Carey could offset, or try to offset, the loss of Crawford by giving Jeremy Noble more floor time in an enhanced role on that side.

The deal was done Aug. 1: Buque and Crawford to Buffalo for Benesch and a third-round 2018 draft pick.

 “Trading Ryan Benesch was not an easy decision,” Dietrich said. “He has been a tremendous player for us.”


“In Buque, we’ve acquired a player who is having a tremendous summer season and will come to training camp looking to challenge for the starting goalie position.”


“We were able to acquire a top-flight offensive player in Callum, who has averaged more than 100 points over the last two seasons and who is regarded as one of the best passers in the game.”

The Bandits weren’t done. Captain Billy Dee Smith revealed on Aug. 8 that Dietrich had informed him he will not be re-signed, ending the punishing defenseman’s 15-year run with the team. To go from 8-1 at home to 3-6 at home in Banditland means even the captain is not safe.

At the same time Dietrich was wheeling and dealing, Saskatchewan Rush general manager and coach Derek Keenan, always looking to bag futures, was talking to Toronto Rock owner and general manager Jamie Dawick about his high-scoring lefty forward Adam Jones. Dawick first broached the topic near the trade deadline in March, but Keenan wasn’t biting because he saw Jones as an integral part of his team’s quest for a third straight title. When the season ended in June, however, the Keenan-Dawick talks resumed. The price was steep: first-round draft picks in 2018 and 2019. Dawick anted up July 25.

 “We have made no bones about it,” Dawick said. “We felt we needed to improve our left side. The opportunity to acquire one of the best lefties in the game doesn’t come along too often, and it comes at a price.”

“We always keep an eye on the future,” Keenan said. “With expansion imminent, the Jones trade made sense because between 2018 and 2019, we now have six first-round picks. That’s really important moving forward, because we’re going to lose players through expansion.

“But that was a tough move to make. Jonesy is a great team guy, a great guy. He was only with us for one year, but I’ve got a lot of time for him. The trade just made sense for us for the future.”

Keenan was just getting started. Georgia’s sweep of his Rush in the championship series was highlighted by the superior Swarm goaltending of Mike Poulin. Keenan believes his team can be back in the final in 2018 with a steadier presence between the pipes.

With free agent goalie Aaron Bold asking for more money to re-sign, Keenan looked around the league and decided to take a run at Evan Kirk, the 2016 NLL Goalie of the Year with New England. He dangled Bold and veteran defenseman John LaFontaine. Keenan could trade a defender because he wants to give more starts to young Matt Hossack, who is too good to remain on the practice squad. The Black Wolves were reluctant to part with Kirk, but Bold is a No. 1 goalie with two championship rings. When Keenan added LaFontaine, the eighth overall pick next month and a 2018 second-rounder, New England general Rich Lisk agreed to the deal Aug. 1, when free-agent signings began.

“Kirk was the guy we wanted,” Keenan said. “We weren’t comfortable going into camp with three or four guys fighting for the No. 1 job.”

Three days later, Keenan announced the signing of lefty forward Jeff Shattler — a former NLL MVP and free agent after playing for Calgary since 2007 — to fill the hole left by the trade of Jones.

“We were very comfortable going forward with our young guys Ryan Keenan and Dan Taylor, but when it became clear that Jeff would be available, we had to make a call,” Keenan said. “Getting Jeff as a strong secondary scorer takes some pressure off our younger guys and some pressure off Mark [Matthews].”

Asked why, after hoisting the Champion’s Cup in 2015 and in 2016 and reaching the NLL finals in 2017, he is intent on changing his roster — like, why not just leave things as they are? —  Keenan had a simple and totally logical response.

“We didn’t win,” he said. “Georgia was a little better than us, so we need to catch up.”


Despite backstopping the Saskatchewan Rush to NLL titles in 2015 and 2016, goalie Aaron Bold was shipped to New England in a deal that netted 2016 NLL Goalie of the Year Evan Kirk in return.

The NLL salary cap of just $500,000 per team is a consideration most times a general manager adds to his roster, because a luxury tax kicks in when the cap is exceeded. Some teams are living luxuriously.

Three teams are excited about adding star players without doing a thing. Lefties Cody Jamieson (Rochester) and Rob Hellyer (Toronto) and right-handed attacker Jesse King (Georgia) will be returning after rehab from injuries that wiped out their 2017 seasons.

In this offseason hubbub, Calgary, having missed the playoffs for the first time since its inaugural 2002 season, stood pat. The Roughnecks lost Shattler and Karsen Leung, and added nothing. They will rely on the draft, in which they have the No. 3 pick, so perhaps something will come of that.

Besides Grant, players placed on retired lists include Leung, Brett Bucktooth (New England) and Kasey Beirnes (Toronto).

In shakeups off the floor, Carey went from director of player personnel to general manager in Denver after Steve Govett quit. Chatter has Govett heading up an expansion franchise. He was chairman of the NLL’s board of governors, and that position will be filled during a board meeting Aug. 24 in Toronto.

Rochester revamped its coaching staff by naming former players Mike Accursi and Marshall Abrams assistant coaches. New England tabbed video coach and scout Clem D’Orazio an assistant coach in charge of the defense following Jim Veltman’s decision to forego the 2018 season to allow for family travel abroad.

The 2018 schedule will be released in the next few weeks. The draft returns to the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville, Ontario, on Sept. 18. Buffalo has the first pick, followed by Rochester, Calgary, Georgia, Rochester, Rochester, Georgia, New England and Calgary.