The London Knights recently dispatched the Windsor Spitfires in 7 games, setting up a rematch with last years’ first round victim, the Plymouth Whalers. Going into the series, the Knights had only one defenceman with any OHL playoff experience, and many people thought that they would be in tough against the bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled Spitfires. Spurred by the strong play of three rookies on defence drafted in the OHL draft of 2001 and led up front by their first round pick of that year, the Knights proved once again, that the game is won on the ice, not on paper.
In the 2002-03 regular season London used 7 players from their 2001 draft. First rounder Corey Perry followed up a strong rookie season by leading the team in scoring with 78 points in 67 games. The tall, skinny right winger struggled at times, mostly with the unrealistic expectations put on him, but shone down the stretch, and was a main cog on a lethal London power play. Against Windsor, Perry took a ton of abuse, as the Spits tried to rough him up during and after the play. He shrugged it off and potted 12 points in the series, seeing lots of ice time as he was on the first line, the power play and penalty killing unit. Perry is ranked somewhere around the third round for the upcoming NHL draft, but another strong performance against Plymouth could vault him into the second round, and maybe even a late first round pick. Perry sees the ice very well and uses his reach at six foot three inches to stickhandle the puck away from opponents and he is a gifted passer.
Weighing in at just over one hundred and eighty pounds means he gets knocked off the puck a lot, but he has recently started working with a strength coach in hopes of entering next season at well over two hundred pounds. If he can increase his strength and improve his skating, he could have a real break through year next season. But for now his focus will be on the Whalers, and his play on the special teams might decide the series, as the Whalers clicked on nearly half of their power plays in their four game sweep of the Owen Sound Attack. The Knights will obviously have to do a better job on the penalty kill and get their power play going around the 25% clip if they want to advance. Perry also has to keep producing 5 on 5, once he started scoring in those situations; London took control of the Windsor series. He will see lots of big Nate Kiser, the Whalers defensive defenceman who will try to make his life miserable.
The second round pick from the 2001 draft, center Dylan Hunter finished fifth in scoring in the regular season with 42 points in 68 games, but had the worse plus minus on the team, -14, which was 11 lower than the next player. Lack of effort and poor positioning continues to plague his game, and he did very little against Windsor. He did score the winning goal in game 7, and still sees action on the second power play unit, but if he doesn’t pick up the pace against the lightning quick Whalers, he may become a huge liability. He assumes the role of quarter back on the half board offence the Knights run on their power play, but doesn’t move the puck as quickly as Perry or Mike Stathopoulos on the first unit, and doesn’t threaten anyone with his shot, so that decreases his options.
The big story for the Knights in their first round win was the strong play of three rookie defencemen, their third, fifth and sixth round picks from the 2001 draft. Kyle Quincey, Danny Syvret, and Marc Methot passed the test with flying colours. At many points in the series, the Knights would go with four defenders for prolonged periods of time, and these three were among the four. None of them have yet to crack the rankings for this year’s NHL draft, but their solid play in the playoffs might sneak one or more of them into the late rounds.
I feel that Quincey has the best pro potential. At six foot two inches and 191 pounds, he is a big kid who should develop into a big man. He picked up 18 points in 66 regular season games and was a solid plus 6, tied for fourth best on the team. He saw limited power play time, but with Dennis Wideman more than likely moving onto the professional ranks next season, he will see a lot more duty, and his points will go up accordingly. He scored perhaps the nicest goal of the season for the Knights late in the season in a laugher against the dreadful Saginaw Spirit. He went on an end-to-end rush and pulled a spinarama at the blue line before scoring. The entire play showed the increased confidence the youngster had, where at the start of the year, the puck wasn’t on his stick very long, it was chip it out quick. Against the Spits, he contributed 3 points and saw lots of action against the Spits top line centered by Leaf pick Kyle Wellwood. Against Plymouth, it won’t matter whom he is against as they bring two very strong lines to the rink. They are a faster, but smaller team than Windsor, and his positioning and angles will be put to the test against speed demons like Chad Larose and Karl Stewart.
Quincey’s partner, Methot is another big kid, with virtually the same measurements as Quincey. After getting 15 points in 68 regular season games, he was a pleasant surprise with 5 points in round 1. Methot was the most improved of the rookies, as he really struggled with his angles and the speed of the forwards at the start of the year. He has now settled down into a decent defensive defenceman, who should be a strong OHLer over the next two seasons.
Syvret is usually paired with veteran Dennis Wideman, at regular strength and on the power play. He is the smallest of the three rookies, just under six feet tall and around 190 pounds, but is the better skater. He had 22 points in the regular season, and had 3 assists in the first series. His good skating helps him out, as he sees lots of odd man rushes as the offensively minded Wideman often takes many chances in the attacking zone. Syvret needs to shoot more, as he often passes up on clear shots to try to pass back to Wideman who has one of the heaviest shots in the league. He still struggles with decision making on the power play, but with the departure of Wideman next season, he will likely settle down and take matters into his own hands more.
Two other Knights from the 2001 draft saw action in the regular season, but none in the playoffs. Ninth round pick Jayme Helmer saw limited duty, playing in only 10 games, only when the Knights were in injury or suspension trouble. Another second round pick arrived with a lot of fanfare, but had some bumps in his rookie season. Goalie Gerald Coleman came from the under 17 American program, but had trouble adjusting to the faster pace of the OHL. He covers a lot of net at six foot four and 186 pounds, but he was dropping down too soon in the early going and was leaning a lot, leaving corners open. He should be a solid goaltender as he improves his technical game and gets his confidence back and he will likely be picked in the middle rounds this June in Nashville. He only saw action in 27 games this year, but will see much more next year as number one goalie Chris Houle graduates after the playoffs.
Mark Hunter the general manager of the Knights has a lot to smile about these days. Five or more playoff gates, combined with an increase in ticket prices, will pad the bottom line. But more importantly, his class of 2001 and top picks from 2002 Dave Bolland and Adam Nemeth are earning valuable playoff experience. This is a team that has its sights on hosting the Memorial Cup in 2005, assuming that Molson and Labatts can settle their differences for a week. If they can’t host it, they are well on their way to be a strong contender to earn their way in, with the class of 2001 providing a very solid core to build around.