2022-06-15 13:50:58 By : Ms. Linda Qin

Regina Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock's goal is to maximize Connor Bedard's anticipated final season with the WHL team.

The Regina Pats are hoping that Connor Bedard can fill the net and the rink next season.

The offensive prowess is well-established. As a 16-year-old, Bedard amassed 100 points — including 51 goals — in 62 games for the 2021-22 Pats.

Now, can they parlay what is expected to be his final Western Hockey League season into a box-office bonanza?

“I’ve tried to downplay everything all along, but there’s no indication that this isn’t a generational player,” Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock said Sunday at the Co-operators Centre, following the team’s spring camp.

“So come and see him when it costs $20, because it’s going to cost hundreds to see him where he plays next.”

That will be in the NHL, presumably after Bedard is drafted first overall in 2023.

Between now and then, the Pats are in the unique situation of building around a player who will experience the apex of his major-junior career at 17, whereas the conventional peak age is 19 or 20.

That could be construed as a problem, considering the tight time frame and the many strides that must be taken in order to transform the Pats from a non-playoff participant into a powerhouse that features Bedard as the centrepiece.

But Paddock prefers an alternate, glass-half-full, arena-completely-full scenario.

“To have the best player in the league, we have to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a luxury and we have to make the best out of it that we can.”

This is hardly a foreign concept to Paddock, who not long ago faced and embraced the challenge of icing teams that were of WHL championship and Memorial Cup calibre.

When Paddock took over the Pats’ hockey-operations side in the summer of 2014, Sam Steel — the second overall pick in the 2013 prospects draft — was entering his first full WHL season.

The blueprint at the time called for the team to build toward the 2017-18 season, in which Steel would be 19. But the Pats progressed so quickly that he actually enjoyed his finest major-junior season at 18, when his 131 points were the most in the CHL.

Steel helped the 2016-17 Pats win a franchise-record 52 games and capture the Eastern Conference’s regular-season and playoff titles. In the midst of that season, the Pats were awarded hosting privileges for the 2018 Memorial Cup.

So, while doing his utmost to win a WHL championship in the spring of 2017, Paddock also had to be mindful of personnel matters that affected the team’s performance in May of 2018.

Hence the imperative of being all-in for back-to-back seasons, and of trading top prospects and prime draft picks for short-term fortifications.

Fast forward to June of 2022. Once again, the Pats are staring at a potentially historic season — albeit without the security blanket that a guaranteed Memorial Cup berth provided just four years ago.

The Pats have not appeared in a post-season game since losing 3-0 to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the Memorial Cup final. Regina’s regular-season record, dating back to September of 2018, is 76-127-12-8.

Even with Bedard in the lineup for all but six games, the Pats went 27-36-3-2 this past season — during which they had a 4.02-goals against average and an .866 save percentage.

“Clearly, our goaltending needs to be better than it was last year,” Paddock said, “and I expect it to be better.”

That is a realistic expectation in light of a trade that brought 20-year-old Koen MacInnes to the Pats on May 19 — the same day as the 2022 prospects draft. The Pats are high on Matthew Kieper, 18, and Kelton Pyne, 17, but also wanted to add experience to the equation.

Not long after acquiring MacInnes from the Everett Silvertips, Paddock traded up to acquire the fifth overall draft pick from the Swift Current Broncos. The Pats spent that selection on highly skilled centre Cole Temple, who was impressive during the rookie camp.

Paddock’s decision to draft a player of that calibre is indicative of an organizational philosophy that guards against selling the farm in order to cash in on Bedard’s farewell season.

The Pats could have used their original pick (sixth overall) in order to acquire seasoned, established reinforcements for the pivotal season ahead. Instead, they claimed Temple and added him to a strong core of younger players.

“When you talk about how things are going to go, there are too many factors to answer that definitively right now,”  Paddock said.

“Just like we would every year, we’re going to make our team the best we can make it and see where that goes. I’m not trying to walk a fence, but that’s what we always try to do.

“We haven’t always had Connor Bedard. We haven’t always had teams like we did going into the ’16-17 season. But things change. Players change.

“With players coming back, some take big steps or some don’t take steps. So once we hit the ice in September, we’re going to see who’s taking steps.”

And if Paddock needs to take steps to improve the team for one magical year, he is certainly amenable to that.

The alternative would be to peddle Bedard for a potentially transformational treasury of assets, but such an eventuality seems like a longshot.

Paddock’s clear priority is to provide the Pats’ marquee player with a supporting cast that is worthy of his talents.

“Connor is a Regina Pat,” Paddock stated, “and we’ll do everything we can to enhance that group around him.”

The sports world is ever-changing, as are the times. Supplement your steady diet of sports coverage by subscribing to the Regina Leader-Post’s 306 Sports Fix newsletter. Each week, sports editor Rob Vanstone will provide additional commentary on the Roughriders, Pats and other teams/sports of interest, along with a peek behind the curtain. Click here to subscribe.

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