The OHL season is creeping up on the halfway point and with the Canadian Junior camp opening up this week it’s a good time to review the progress of a few of the Knights.
Rick Nash-Hard to find too much bad to say about this guy, he has worked his way up into the top 5 scorers in the league, competes hard every night, uses his body, plays thirty minutes a game a lot of nights, and is hungry for the puck. He is the only 17 year old invited to try out for Team Canada, is rated the top skater in the OHL by central scouting and will likely be no lower than second in North America when they come out with those ratings. He is worth the price of admission most nights.
Dennis Wideman-This undrafted 18 year old defenceman is really rounding into top form. Now that Lubos Velebny has been dealt, he is the top defender on London and quarterbacks the power play. Is averaging exactly a point a game, his plus minus is respectable for the amount of minutes he plays, and is the best open ice hitter on the Knights. His strong points are his puck handling and shot, he has to bulk up a bit and make sharper passes on the breakout. Look for a team that needs some depth on D in their minor ranks to draft him next June in the later rounds.
Corey Perry-This sweet sixteen year old has had one impressive autumn. He was recently named to play for Team Ontario in the under 17 championships this Christmas. He is tall and lanky, but is like the Timex watch, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He never shies away from going to the net, and if knocked down, he gets right back up and keeps involved in the play. Needs to work on his strength and skating. His skating is deceptive, often he seems to be on stealth mode, he seems to be out of the play, then next thing you know he is on the puck and caused a turnover. He makes excellent passes down low in traffic and has nice hands around the net. Could be one of many OHLers picked in the first round in 2003.
Mike Stathopulos-The undrafted 19 year old center continues to be one of the Knights on ice leaders and works his butt off most games. Has scored 42 points in the first 32 games and will be counted on a lot more than usual when Nash, Perry and Dylan Hunter are out of the lineup in December. Is the Knights best passer and carries the puck well. Size and skating have kept him from being drafted so far, is a good bet to come back next year as an over aged player.
Lubos Velebny-The 19 year old Leaf draftee was traded to Belleville last week but was one of the Knights key defenders in his stay here. Possesses a booming shot, but has it blocked way too much. Suffers from the occasional “Cuteitis” in his own end and will turn the puck over. Has the size, skill and skating to play pro, but faces lots of competition for a job in St. John’s next season. Will be interesting to see if he flourishes in the much larger ice of Belleville and with a much stronger team.
Dylan Hunter-The sixteen year old center has also been named to Team Ontario and he has played in several roles, and has done well, but he is best suited on the checking line at this stage of his career. Like his father Dale, is intense and likes the rough stuff, but right now he lacks the skill his Dad brought to the game. Needs to work on his skating and puck handling. Still too rough around the edges to speculate on where he will get drafted in 2003.
Ian Turner-The over age defenceman has been steady on the point, chips in with a few points and survived being scratched several times while the team was deciding on which over ager to move. He may find work in the ECHL next season or at a lower level, but probably won’t move much past that level of hockey.
Patrick Barbieri-The nineteen year old rookie forward masks his lack of ability with a good work ethic and hustle. Goes to the net and corners with enthusiasm and might be a strong candidate to return next year as an over ager.
Management-Dale and Mark Hunter bought this team and talked about a three year plan of bringing this team back as a contender, the third year being next year and the first in the new arena currently being built. In their first year, the Knights snuck into the playoffs on the last day, mainly due to a total collapse by Kitchener. This year, the Knights got off to a good early start, taking advantage of a few teams who were missing key players still in pro camps and the local media started to believe that they were contenders already. Well reality has kicked in and wait to next year will soon be the cry around the IceHouse. The Hunters ran a strong draft in June, the early returns look good from Corey Perry and Dylan Hunter, both of who were named to the under 17 Team Ontario. The Knights also have two other players outside the OHL named to the squad from this years draft.
So the Hunters have to get high marks for the draft. The European draft brought in two defenceman, but one went home after one game and they recently traded the other. They demoted head coach Lindsay Hoffard to associate coach and Dale has stepped behind the bench and the results have been neutral at best. They also carried an extra over-ager for well over a month and I think this hurt the team with the uncertainty over who was going to be traded or who was going to be scratched. They have made two major trades which I think will help the team this year and next. All in all they have done OK with the mess that they inherited, but they have to stay on track for the 3 year plan and the trading deadline of January will be a good test to see if they still are focused on building a winner for next year.
Dan Bois-The 18 year old patrols the right wing and is the captain of the team. Early in the season he was taking lots of dumb penalties, but is starting to get them out of his game. Is best suited as a pest who can check and drive the other team crazy, the Knights will need more offence from him, especially in December when they will lose Hunter, Perry and Rick Nash for several games due to provincial and national team invitations. The Avalanche don’t have many guys like him on their roster and that might earn him a contract but will have to pick up his play over the next year and a half.
Sean McMorrow-This 19 year old Sabre draftee is one of the toughest guys in the league. He has gained himself quite the reputation with officials as his recent suspension for instigating shows. (McMorrow hit a guy from behind, so two guys came at him, and he dropped the gloves and went at one of them. The other one was involved with him on 2 different occasions but received no penalty for third man in and McMorrow gets the instigating call and the subsequent suspension, go figure). His skating is so poor he can’t use his size effectively on a forecheck to hit people legally. The Knights put him on the power play the other night and he did what he had to do, get in front and cause havoc. He recently gained his first point in his 4 year OHL career so you get the picture on his skill level. He can punch with the best of him, but as long as his skating is as weak as it is, he has no chance of making the show. There are very few old style goons left in the NHL, you have to be able to contribute elsewhere and right now he can’t. He leads the team in misconducts and his penalty total is second to Bois. But he does what he does best very well and that is fight and intimidate.
Charlie Stephens-The overage center has yet to live up his expectations and is running out of time despite having good size and talent. He seems to lack the intensity and hockey sense needed to take his game to the next level. Will only use his size when he gets upset, so someone on the Knights should get him good and angry early in the game. The Avalanche may give him a shot at Hershey next year, but might be better suited for the ECHL. Is likely on the bubble, but a strong second half could earn him a contract. Needs to make plays a second faster and get his shot going. Needs to get hungrier for puck around net and use his size to gain favourable position.
Slovakian goaltender Jan Chovan came over in the Velebny deal and this 18 year old should give the Knights a season and a half of quality goaltending if the first few games are any indicators. Will play for Slovakia in the World Juniors and was drafted by the Leafs.
Avalanche pick Aaron Molnar returned from pro camp as an over ager and was lit up in his first game back by Plymouth. He left the ice to a chorus of boos as many fickle fans forgot about his heroics the previous season when he started every single game for London. This season his head and heart did not seem to be in it, and he has been placed on waivers. No one in the OHL has picked him up and he may have to look for a job elsewhere and his pro future is very much in doubt right now.
Overall, give the Knights a C, they have a bunch of kids who probably shouldn’t be in the league, but they are trying. There are a large number of rookies on the team and they aren’t getting great support from their overagers and they are one European import short. They do own the rights to Anaheim first rounder Stanislav Chistov and if they could get him over next season it would go a long way in their journey from pretender to contender. The team has gained a reputation as a dirty team, but they do have some good prospects and should be far better next season. December will be a critical month for them in their quest to make the playoffs, and they could be without super start Nash for 9 games if he cracks Team Canada. If they can hang in until after the trading deadline, they might be able to sneak into the playoffs.