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Smith rising to the top and Bandits hope to follow

The Buffalo Bandits have reached the halfway point of the season. They will take a 5-4 record into Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Stealth (10 p.m., Radio 1520 AM).

General Manager Steve Dietrich has a very predictable reaction to what has transpired so far: not great, not bad.

“Would we want it to be better? Yes,” he said. “Did we expect it to be better? Yes. But if you look around the league, parity has really come across. Colorado (7-2) has run away with it so far, but they have won a lot of close games. New England has a good record, but hasn’t played many games (5-2).

“Some games, we’d like to have back. But I like where we are.”

The Bandits are in second place in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division, a game behind the Black Wolves and a game ahead of Georgia (4-5). Rochester (3-4) and Toronto (2-6) are bringing up the rear in the East, which is a little shocking.

The Rock reached the NLL final last season, which made their 0-6 start that much more surprising. But Toronto has won its last two, and will have something to say about the playoff race before long.

“You watched them play, and you knew there was so much talent there,” Dietrich said. “They came around against us.”

The Rock’s losses raised the won-loss record of other teams, thus scrambling the standings. New England has jumped into that void.

“Shawn Evans has made a tremendous difference in the team,” Dietrich said. “Evan Kirk has played well in goal. He’s been a wall when things break down.

“We knew going in that no one in the East was going to go 14-4 this year. A 10-8 record might be enough to get you a home game in the playoffs.”

From the Bandits’ perspective, the biggest single development of the season has been the rise of Dhane Smith to superstardom. He has 21 more points than anyone else in the league, scoring 76 points in nine games. Smith has 33 goals; no one else has more than 25.

“We always knew that Dhane had so much talent,” Dietrich said. “The sky was the limit for him. But he’s taken a big step forward this year. He’s great in the locker room too, great off the floor. He works hard. It’s up to him how good he can be. He could go down as an all-time great, the best player in the league. He doesn’t have to go that much farther.”

The Bandits haven’t had a league most valuable player since 2006, when Dietrich took that honor. John Tavares won three such awards. The Bandits’ executive doesn’t think this is a case of Smith trying to fill the void of Tavares’ retirement. He believes it’s more of a case of a natural progression.

“Even when JT was playing at the end of his career, he wanted the other guys to take bigger roles,” Dietrich said. “He’d taken a back seat. That was good. Dhane has become the best player we have. We run a lot of offense through him. There’s more pressure from the coaching staff, telling him he’ll have the ball on his stick. When there’s a goal, he’ll be involved many times.”

By the way, the Buffalo offense may seem as if it is doing much better, but it is averaging 14 goals per game so far. That’s less than a goal ahead of last season’s pace.

Dietrich also likes the way some of his young players have taken steps forward. He’s waiting for more improvement the rest of the way.

“Anytime you try to rebuild, reload, retool, you have to play young kids. You have to live with mistakes,” he said. “I took at Mitch Wilde and Kevin Brownell round into solid form. There’s Matthew Bennett and Tyler Ferreira - I still bang the drum for Tyler. Mitch Jones is playing his first full year of lacrosse; he took time out to play hockey. Anthony Malcom is starting to get it. ... They’ve all bought in. We’ll live and die with the mistakes, but they will improve.”

Dietrich’s largest concern is on defense. That unit is giving up 13.3 goals per game, a jump from the 11.5 average of last season.

“I thought the first four games defensively we were really good, but lately I’ve wondered what the heck we’re doing back there sometimes,” he said. “We need to tighten things up. I think we’ll get better as these guys play more games in the system.”

Dietrich said he knows goalie Anthony Cosmo has had some injury problems, and he’s concerned that the team has asked backup Dave DiRuscio to do a little much in the first half of the campaign. But the front office executive thinks the two goalies will be better when the defense in front of them improves.

Finally, it’s March, which means the countdown to the league trading deadline will go on in the next few weeks. There was plenty of activity last year at the deadline. Dietrich will see what’s out there.

“With so much more parity, it’s tough to get a feel for it,” he said. “There’s nobody who wants to be selling their big players if they are still in it. As long as it goes the way it is, the trading may be slower.

“We have some depth now, so we’ll have to make some moves eventually. We can’t keep everybody. If somebody comes available, we’ll be interested. We want to win. We can’t peddle first-round picks, but if someone wants to complete a trade of players, we’ll talk.”