End of the (Brief) Auston Era

Bisons send shockwaves through the league, trading superstar Auston Matthews on the cusp of the season to divisional rivals Banff
by Geoff King | November 14, 2023, 9:47 PM ET

REGINA - Visibly fatigued, Regina Bisons GM Geoff King took to the media podium at Tommy Douglas Arena on the weekend to confirm what has been rumoured in the works for days - superstar forward Auston Matthews was leaving the team. Not only was he leaving the team, he was heading down the Trans-Canada Highway to Canada West divisional rivals, the Banff Rockies. Veteran centre Radek Faksa is joining Matthews on the trip west to Alberta.

In return, the Bisons acquire young star Nick Suzuki to replace Auston as first line centre, along with two blue chip prospects - blueliner Olen Zellweger and winger Jimmy Snuggerud - and two second round selections. Not quite the "haul" that was hoped for in return for a player of Matthews's stature, but Suzuki is no slouch, and Zellweger and Snuggerud were 2 of Banff's top 4 prospects, and represent a strengthening of the futures pipeline for the Bisons.

"It's no secret that we have considered trading Auston dating back to last season's trade deadline. Though we were thrilled to make him the first selection in the dispersal draft with the purpose and intent of building the franchise around him, circumstances over the past year plus have shown this to be a challenge. First, with no disrespect to the roster, we have not been able to give Auston wingers of his calibre. This resulted in many games last season where Auston was taking 8-10 shots a night, yet only producing 1 assist. We watched the game tape, and he was clearly trying to force things - taking shots from distance or bad angles, because he didn't fully trust his linemates. He led the league in shots (443) but had the poorest shooting percentage of the top 30 scoring forwards. So it was clear we either needed to get him better linemates, or face several more seasons of him outscoring the roster by a clear margin."

King sighed, "Unfortunately, we do not have the assets in draft picks, prospects, or farm players to be able to nab wingers through trade. I had hoped in free agency to be able to do so, but the prices for top wingers exceeded my expectations, sometimes by triple, and I couldn't justify the commitments being demanded. After losing out on the top wingers, and then not being able to backfill for Cam Talbot with a true number one goalie, we realized the writing was on the wall for making the playoffs in this incredibly tough Canadian Conference. We went all in last season, only to come up short. And I sadly expect a regression in some areas. So it just didn't seem right to futilely chase a playoff berth with Auston in his prime years. It was time to officially start the dreaded "rebuild"."

"We think Nick will be a great player for us, and we don't expect him to replace Auston, but he'll take most of his minutes, and then we've got an incredible pair of young players in Zellie and Snuggie coming back. We just had not seen offers with players of the calibre of these three for Auston. And then I'm confident in our scouting staff being able to get some quality players out of those second rounders. And, it's not the prime consideration, but Nick is locked up for four more years at $7 million per season, while Auston will be looking for north of $10 million in the offseason, so there's probably $9M to $15M we can save in years 2-4 that we can re-invest in free agency. Plus we moved Radek and his the $4M contract. So it definitely gave us financial flexibility. I know that's not what fans want to hear, they want to see the star players on the ice, but there's a fiscal reality to professional hockey."

Moving on from the blockbuster trade, King expanded on free agency, and the acquisition of new goaltender Jack Campbell to be the Bisons number one, with an eye-opening $12M signing bonus using up much of that financial flexibility King just talked about. "We've seen Jack have success in the past, and unfortunately he's developed some bad habits in the past year. We think he needs to rebuild his approach from the ice up, so to speak, and will have goaltending coach Rick DiPietro working with him daily." The Bisons are likely to experience netminding challenges, as veteran Michael Hutchison, signed for depth in free agency, was lost to the suddenly goalie-poor Nova Scotia Schooners in the waiver draft, so unproven Erik Kallgren will have to back-up Campbell. Isaiah Saville returns to the Santa Carla Vampires as their number one, with new signing Maxime Lagace spelling the youngster. King otherwise added some blueliners and minor leaguers via free agency.

Finally, he talked briefly about the entry draft, which seemed like ages ago. In the first round, the Bisons selected from the USNTDP centre Oliver Moore. "We were thrilled to get Oliver, and had him ranked in the top 10. For him to drop to us at 16 was a gift. We were worried he was going to go to Philly and my former boss Norm Donovan, but thankfully the Ants opted for Yager. He's a good kid, too, but we're glad to get Moore." Moore was considered the fastest skater in the draft, and committed to U. of Minnesota, where coincidentally Snuggerud plays, so Bison fans will be able to watch 2 of their top prospects play just south of the 49th for the Gophers.. Regina still had a weakened draft pool thanks to landing the Brandon picks in the dispersal, plus King traded some in the vain playoff pursuit last year. So after Moore in the first, he had to wait for the third round to select rearguard Cameron Allen (who was touted as a potential first rounder in early rankings, so a talented player may have dropped), followed by a slight surprise in the fourth with Russian netminder Ruslan Khazheyev (possibly a round early, but goalies were going fast), then two more CHL blueliners in Matthew Mania and Hoyt Stanley. So the team was taking best-player-available but clearly focused on building from the back. Forwards Jonathan Castagna, Florian Xhekaj, and Vilmer Alriksson were selected in the fifth and sixth rounds, before dman Charles-Alexis Legault rounded out Bison selections in the seventh.

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