By Mark McKelvie @Mark14McKelvie
The London Knights and the word disappointment aren’t used together often, but for the back-to-back defending OHL champions anything but a MasterCard Memorial Cup title this season would be a disappointment.
Despite two straight league titles and two straight appearances in the national championship, the Knights fell short of their ultimate goal of capturing major junior hockey’s most coveted prize.
This season, as hosts of the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup, the heavily favoured Knights have already guarenteed a spot in the championship but have their sights set first on recapturing the league crown.
“There is always that chance (of being distracted) but at the end of the day I think we have a good leadership group here,” said Knights’ General Manager, Mark Hunter. “We have solid kids that want to win and they have shown that the last couple years.”
On paper the Knights plan to have almost all of their top guns from last season back this year, but what is on paper may not be a reality.
The Knights have sent more than half of their roster to NHL camps leaving management waiting in the dark to see who will return.
“If you ask me a month from now what we need I would tell you, but right now we don’t know who is going to make the National Hockey League.” Hunter said.
If one or more of the Knights are able to break into an NHL lineup full-time, the Knights could be left with some areas to address. If they all return, they are setting up to be a powerhouse and could challenge to become the first team since the 1980 Peterborough Petes to win three straight Robertson Cups.
One of the players who has a legitimate chance to make the NHL is Bo Horvat who was selected ninth overall in June by the Vancouver Canucks. Horvat had a coming out party last spring leading the Knights in goal scoring during the post-season and claimed playoff MVP honours after scoring the Game 7 series-winning goal against Barrie. The Rodney, ON, native was scooped by the Canucks who traded goaltender Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the extra first round pick.
The Knights developed two more first round NHL picks this year including Max Domi who was taken three picks following Horvat by the Phoenix Coyotes at 12, and towering import defenceman, Nikita Zadorov who was selected four spots later by the Buffalo Sabres at 16th overall.
Mix in Finnish defenceman Olli Matta, who was a first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, and potential overage forward Alex Broadhurst, who is at Chicago Blackhawks camp, and Hunter and the Knights could be left in limbo to start the season.
“Most of them will be back but you never know how these young men will play,” said Hunter. “I don’t know how the Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Vancouver organizations are thinking but I don’t worry about those variables because they are out of my hands.”
What isn’t out of Hunter’s hands are the new faces in the Knight’s lineup this season including two players fans won’t have any problem identifying on the ice.
Mitch Marner was the Knights’ first round pick back in April’s OHL Priority Selection and while Marner is only 5’10” and weighs just 164 pounds, Hunter expects a smooth entrance into the OHL for the rookie.
“I think he will be pretty good, my gut feeling is saying he will be a good player and there always is an adjustment period for a young player but as long as he doesn’t get hurt or sick I think the transition will be good.”
From a small centreman to a large winger, Michael McCarron joins the Knights as an 18-year-old from the U.S National Team Development Program. McCarron stands at 6’6” and was the Montreal Canadiens first round pick back at the NHL Draft.
“He is a big man and he gives the team size with skill so we are pretty happy about him,” said Hunter. “But he has got his work cut out for him, he has got to go show his stuff this year coming up because there are a lot of hungry players in the OHL, so he has to make sure he is ready to go.”
Going with the theme of hunger and that drive to succeed, Hunter has a couple players in his lineup he expects to raise their game to the next level this season.
“Remi Elie and Kyle Platzer I think are two good young guys that got drafted in the second and fourth (rounds) and I expect big years from them and for them to contribute right away,” Hunter said. “We schooled them all last year and they are ready to go.”
The emergance of Elie and Platzer add to the Knights’ long list of veterans they can turn to for leadership and production with the departing of leaders Seth Griffith and Scott Harrington including twins Matt and Ryan Rupert, Chris Tierney, Brett Welychka, and Josh Anderson all ready to further their stride.
Hunter says Jake Patterson and Anthony Stolarz will once again be the goaltenders but noted that 2012 first round pick Liam Herbst is waiting in the wings.
As for how the Western Conference will shake out Hunter isn’t one to make any predictions on any team including his own.
“Well there are always things like injuries, guys playing in the NHL and things you don’t know about with any team that we all have to work around,” said Hunter, noting the conference will be competitive as always. “I think there will be parity in the conference but one thing I’ve learned in my 20 years doing this, you can’t foresee anything.”
Those who do like to make predictions expect the Knights to be back at the top once again no matter how many players might make the jump to the next level. It might take weeks before anyone gets to see the true Knights lineup, but the club is assured of playing games next May and Hunter hopes his club can earn their place among the best.
“Will there be some good teams? There is always a couple that take off and hopefully we are one of them but only time will tell.”
Click here to watch the Knights’ 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2013-14 season which begins Thursday September 19.
Read other OHL 20 in 20 season previews:
Central Division: Barrie Colts, Mississauga Steelheads, Niagara IceDogs, North Bay Battalion,
Midwest Division: Erie Otters, Guelph Storm, Kitchener Rangers,
East Division: Belleville Bulls, Kingston Frontenacs, Oshawa Generals,
West Division: Plymouth Whalers, Saginaw Spirit, Sarnia Sting,