In a year where the leading story of the Western Hockey League bantam draft class is a two-horse race between power forward Tyler Benson and star defenceman Kale Clague, the Regina Pats couldn’t be happier to hold the second overall pick after winning the draft lottery.
“I was definitely pretty happy when I heard we won it,” says Pats general manager Chad Lang. “Moving up from the fourth spot to the second spot is huge. Benson and Clague are talked about a lot. They have gained a lot of hype. They are definitely on our radar, but we have some other guys that are high on our lists, too.”
As it stands, Lang isn’t ruling out any option at the draft, including trading down.
“We still have some hockey to watch and we think there are more players than Benson and Clague who could be franchise players. It’s possible we could trade down if we think the guy we are the highest on will be available in a lower seed.”
Winning the draft lottery has been one of the few reasons for Pats fans to high five each other in recent years as the Queen City Kids have missed the playoffs four of the last five seasons, including this year with an 11th place Eastern Conference finish.
Rob Vanstone of the Leader-Post recently brought up several issues within the Pats organization going forward in their apparent rebuild.
This is all part of a building process, we are told, and it seemed to be well underway when the Pat Conacher-coached Pats finished 10 games over .500 (with a 37-27-6-2 record) in 2011-12. That revival was counteracted by this season's 25-384-5 ordeal, which mercifully ended Saturday night with a 6-2 loss to the host Swift Current Broncos.
So what now? Well, there is the five-year plan to consider.
The plan began to take shape following the 2009-10 season, at which point Brent Parker ceded the GM's reins to Chad Lang. Three years into the plan, the results are mixed - and the same could be said of the message.
If the Pats are bound and determined to adhere to the five-year plan, there should be some contractual conformity. It stands to reason that the most influential people on the hockey-operations side - Lang and Conacher - should have a mandate that extends for the duration of the plan, which is to culminate in 2014-15 (when star winger Morgan Klimchuk is 19).
As Vanstone states in his column, the Pats are headed into their fourth season with Lang as their architect, but it seems there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel that signals a banner season is in the cards.
In Lang’s second season as the GM last year, it seemed he had a great opportunity to add some valuable draft picks and prospects to his arsenal by trading star forward Jordan Weal at the trade deadline. Lang, however, chose to keep Weal in a push for the playoffs. Not to mention, he dealt his own first-round and second-round bantam picks to the Prince George Cougars for Edmonton Oilers prospect Martin Marincin, who was in his 19-year-old season.
The Pats did make the playoffs, falling to the Moose Jaw Warriors in five games in the first round. There is no denying it brought back some excitement to Pats fans. But in the big picture of winning a championship, the Queen City Kids took two steps back rather than a couple forward.
Lang stands by his decision to be a buyer at the 2012 trade deadline, though.
“I don’t regret keeping Weal and adding Marincin,” he says. “I thought trading Weal would send the wrong message to our team. They worked hard to get into that position to be in the top eight and it wouldn’t have been fair to them to trade Weal.”
The 38-year-old general manager’s reasoning isn’t flawed at all. In fact, maybe keeping Weal was the right decision. He was the heart and soul of that Pats team and undoubtedly helped mentor Washington Capitals prospect Chandler Stephenson and 2013 draft prospect Morgan Klimchuk. It seems sending the Los Angeles Kings prospect packing would have deflated the morale in Regina's dressing room.
Nevertheless, it appears trading their top draft picks for a rental player, Marincin, to help them squeeze into the playoffs in a year they were a far cry from a contender is a different story. Precedents show that teams who don’t stick to their rebuild plan tend to flat line as a playoff team.
This year injuries were a factor in Regina’s regular-season woes. But at the end of the day, the Pats aren’t where they would like to be in their apparent five-year rebuild. This season was supposed to be the year they would make some noise in the playoffs and show they have the potential to take a run at a championship in a couple years.
At the 2013 trade deadline, Lang didn’t really go one way or the other. He held on to his overage stars: puck-stopper Matt Hewitt, 80-point scorer Lane Scheidl, and defenceman Colton Jobke. He was, however, in the running for Cougars 2010 first overall pick Alex Forsberg, who asked for a trade. But he was unable to work out a deal with Cougars GM Dallas Thompson apparently backing out of the trade at the last minute.
It is tough to say where the Pats will stand in the Eastern Conference next year. They have lost Hewitt, Scheidl, and Jobke with them moving on from their 20-year-old seasons. But one can expect several players to take upward strides in their game, including 16-year-old centre Adam Brooks and Klimchuk, who broke out this year with 76 points. In addition, most expect blueliner Brady Reagan, 15, to make an impact as a rookie.
One thing is certain in Regina – the pressure is on the Pats’ hockey staff, at least most of them. The contracts of Lang, head coach Pat Conacher, and assistant coaches Malcolm Cameron and Josh Dixon are all set to expire at the end of the 2013-14 season. Although it's believed the Pats want to keep Conacher behind the bench, some in the Queen City are already speculating that Regina will look to different hockey minds if they don’t show significant progress next year.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen