Welcome to the "Herd", Auston!

Regina Bisons select Auston Matthews 1st Overall in Dispersal Draft
by Geoff King | August 1, 2022, 10:33 PM ET

Regina - SK

After a whirlwind past 2 weeks, the initial rosters for the 3 newest SICHL franchises - Jacksonville Gators, Toronto Rex, and Regina Bisons - were selected in a dispersal draft on Monday, July 25th. The new teams barely had time for the ink to dry on the contracts for their GM hires before those same execs - Dustin Moreau (JAX), Taran Wasson (T-REX or TOR), and Geoff King (REG) - were joining a Zoom call to select players.

The 3 teams were picking the bones of the rich and deep Kansas City Krunch, the "draft schmaft" Brandon Wheat Kings, and the Toronto Metropolitans, the 4th swing and miss for SICHL hockey in Hogtown (... can the Rex succeed where so many have stumbled before? Is the 416 area code a curse for hockey?)

The GMs waited nervously as Assistant Commissioner Mike Franceschini spun the wheel of fortune for the dispersal draft order. A few tense seconds later, and the Regina Bisons were identified as the winner of the 1st overall selection in the dispersal draft, and control of the fate of 3 franchises! The next spin gave Jacksonville the second pick, and assurance of either Auston Matthews or Igor Shesterkin, the presumptive top 2 selections from the Krunch. The Rex were left to rue their luck, and decide who would be the third (and fourth) picks.

Regina GM King wasted no time and made Matthews the top selection of the draft. Insiders say the team went back-and-forth all week whether it would be the elite centre or goalie at the top of the list, and in the end, the Bisons chose the scoring forward over the puck-stopper. King shared later: "Top goalies can be flashes-in-the-pan and top scoring centres are more consistent in the long run." Notably, Matthews was drafted 1st overall in 2016, while Shesterkin was selected 113th in 2014; other top netminders like Connor Hellebuyck (2012: 134th), Juuse Saros (2013: 97th), Ilya Sorokin (2014: 90th), showing that elite goalies can be found with later picks.

Gators' GM Moreau was of course thrilled to have Shesterkin fall in his lap 2nd; Rex GM Wasson answered the next mystery by choosing Swiss centre Nico Hischier 3rd.

And now the intrigue of the dispersal draft, and its "snake" format took effect. Unlike the entry draft, where the order of selection continues in subsequent rounds, it reverses each round, and TOR was back up immediately and took D Aaron Ekblad 4th. JAX grabbed wunderkind forward Trevor Zegras 5th, and REG got similarly talented young winger Matthew Boldy 6th.

Two rounds, 6 picks, and every selection had come from the Krunch. And REG was up again with pick 7.

Unlucky seven proved to be King's first, and most critical, mis-step. King opted for highly rated junior defenseman Brandt Clarke, the Metros' 1st round selection in last year's entry draft. By moving away from the seasoned pros with signed contracts and onto the prospects, the Bisons showed their hand to the Gators and Rex, and their plans to play for the future instead of trying to win immediately in the 2022-23 season. JAX followed by taking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 8th, but in 9th Toronto's Wasson reacted to King's bold prospect move and grabbed the whole set of KC draft picks for the next 5 years, followed by solid defender Ryan Graves 10th. JAX's Moreau was no fool and selected the Metropolitan draft package 11th, avoiding the pitfalls of the Wheat Kings' (lack of) draft selections.

King visibly deflated when he realized his mistake. By getting stuck with the Brandon picks, the Regina Bisons were going to have a notably weaker future pipeline, and it was directly prompted by making the power move for the top future prospect instead of the picks. Regina had better hope the Clarke-bird in the hand is worth those picks in the draft bush.

Having the weak Wheat King picks also threw a curve to the Regina strategy; without a 1st rounder in the entry draft to follow their inaugural season, the Bisons would not be able to lean into a "play the kids and hope for the best" strategy. Throwing a bunch of youngsters on the ice to learn and probably lose may have been a valid and fun option, but Regina was now faced with having to do their best on the ice, since there was no lottery draft pick reward for a season of suffering.

Yet, King couldn't blindly pursue a "best player available" draft mantra to win this season, as it would result in an aging and expensive roster that would be difficult to sustain, with little other than Clarke to come. So picks 12 and 13 were the best pros available, defender Cam Fowler and winger Oliver Bjorkstrand, followed at 18 and 19 wth solid 2-way centre Brayden Schenn and up-and-coming blueliner Jacob Middleton. But future selections saw a balancing between players for now and down the road. 24th was another young blueliner, Timothy Liljegren and 25th was another prospect, forward Zachary Bolduc. The Bison GM was trying to tiptoe on that tight-rope. 30th was David Savard (defenseman for now), 31st was Filip Hallander (forward for future). But these last 2 picks show in hindsight King's second mistake - forgetting to pay attention to the expansion draft exposure and protection rules.

(Both Savard and Hallander have been flipped since being selected, as Regina scrambled in the week after dispersal to get the right mix of forwards, defenders, and goaltenders who can meet the expansion exposure requirements while still holding the optimal assets for a competitive team. But we'll cover post-dispersal transactions in more detail later).

It's at this point, though, 10+ rounds into the draft, where the astute observer may remark that the Bisons don't have a goalie yet. And yes, the next selection at 36th would prove to be a goalie. But it wasn't the intended netminder Case Desmith, selected by Jacksonville 1 pick before. Instead, it was King's third mistake, UFA goaltender Carey Price, who would be designated the Bisons' franchise player and awarded a 2-year contract in the hopes of a bounceback season. Gambling on Price wasn't so much the mistake, as was the requirement for FP Price being the mandatory protected goalie for the Bisons, leaving exposed any other netminder to the expansion Okanagan Sun Devils. So any goalie selected to pair with Price would be at immediate risk of departure (37th pick was defense prospect Jack Thompson.)

The next few picks for the Bisons were: 42nd D Radko Gudas, 43rd W Marcus Foligno, 48th D Nick Leddy, 49th prospect C Oliver Johansson, 54th C Radek Faksa, 55th prospect W Prokhor Poltapov, 64th goalie Jake Allen, 65th young D Matthew Robertson, and that's where we'll stop for now. You can see the resultant mix of Bison veterans and youngsters on the SICHL website.

The core of the pro roster was set, and it was notably heavy on veteran defenders and centres, and weak on the wings. And extremely weak on draft picks...

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