OHL: Kitchener Rangers Win OHL Title

By Jason Ahrens

The Kitchener Rangers claimed the
OHL championship title on Saturday night, by beating the Ottawa 67s in five
games.  The Rangers march to the cup
began by winning the regular season crown. 
In the first round they dispatched the Sault Greyhounds in 4 straight
games.  They met their bitter rival
the Guelph Storm in the second round and avenged their defeat from last year by
taking the Storm in 5.  In the Western Conference Final, the Rangers faced their
hardest task, beating the Plymouth Whalers, which they did in 7 games, despite
being down 3 games to 2 heading back to Plymouth. 
In the finals, Ottawa won the first game in overtime despite being badly
out shot and outplayed.  The Rangers
won the next 4, two in overtime and two by 4-1 margins.

The recipe for Kitchener’s success
started  in the summer of 2001 when Peter Deboer and Steve Spott were lured
away from Plymouth to become the coach and manager of the Rangers. 
The Rangers organization was in disarray and in bad need of leadership,
but it did have a couple of aces for the new coaches to work with, Derek Roy and
Steve Eminger.  The Rangers went out
and drafted another star player that year, selecting center Mike Richards in the
first round of the OHL draft.  They
picked up a sniper in the European draft, Czech winger Petr Kanko. 
The OHL was the host league for the Memorial Cup in 2002 and the Rangers
at one point were looking like strong contenders to bid on it. 
A horrible losing streak in December knocked them out of contention of
the bidding process, as you have to be in the top 4 teams in your conference to
make a bid on hosting the cup and because of the losing streak the Rangers had
slid out of the top 4. The leaders of the team went through some adversity too. 
Derek Roy had a tough autumn as he
was handed a severe suspension by the league and then wasn’t invited to try
out for the Canadian Junior team because of a glut of offensive centers. 
Eminger was invited but was the last cut on defence.  
At the same time,
Kanko was dealing with the language barrier and the
cultural differences. The Rangers went on to have a decent regular season but
were crushed in the first round by Guelph in four straight games.

Over the summer of 2002, the
Rangers plugged a few holes.  They
acquired Greg Campbell, a Florida Panther pick, from the Whalers. Campbell
played on a line with Roy all season and brought a good set of hands to the
front of the net, and he wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty in the corners.  His strong two way game with a bit of physical presence was
what the small Rangers were looking for. The OHL draft brought them another
talented forward in Evan McGrath.  They
also brought in some grit and size by trading for defenceman George Halkidis and
winger David Clarkson.  With a good
nucleus back, the team was poised to have a good year, but NHL training camps
threw them a curve.  Derek
Roy stuck around at the Buffalo Sabres camp a long time before being sent
back.  Eminger had a strong showing
at the Washington Capitals camp and made the team, leaving a big void on the
blue line for the Rangers.  They
used their three over age cards to shore up their back end, newly acquired
Halkidis joined with returning veteran TJ Eason on defence, and Scott Dickie
returned in net for one last season.  The
Rangers played all of December without Roy and Campbell who made the Canadian
junior team and played a key role in winning the silver medal at the World
Junior Tournament.  They were
reunited with Eminger who was assigned to the team by the Capitals. 
The Rangers were then thrilled to have Eminger returned to them after the
tournament.

The Rangers advanced through the
2003 playoffs because their best players were their best players. 
Captain Derek Roy was named the Most Valuable Player of the Playoffs, a
real no brainer.  He played well
over 20 minutes a game and averaged a point and a half in the playoffs,
registering a point in all but one of the 21 games he played. 
He was a force on the penalty kill, and usually was pitted head to head
against the other team’s top line.  That
meant seeing lots of highly touted Dustin Brown and fellow Sabre draft pick Dan
Paille in the Guelph series.  Against
Plymouth, it meant lining up across from another Sabre pick, Chris Thorburn, or
maybe against the OHL Over age Player of the Year, Chad Larose. 
His next challenge was the OHL Player of the year and top scorer, Corey
Locke of Ottawa, who Roy outplayed by a large margin in every game except game 4
where Locke had 3 goals (2 on the power play). 
When Kitchener went with four lines, Roy would usually play on the first
line, take a breather and be put right back out with the third line wingers. 
His most memorable shift was when Kitchener was down two men in game 3
and Ottawa had a chance to crawl back into the game. 
Roy killed nearly 30 seconds by ragging the puck and then forced the 67s
to take a penalty when a frustrated Matt Foy finally dragged him down. 
Roy is one of the most dynamic puck handlers in the OHL and uses his
speed and puck handling to attack the net. 
His only weakness is a tendency to cut to the middle on his backhand
where he often fails to get a strong shot away. 
He will be a very strong candidate to make the Sabres next season.

Another reason Roy is so effective
is the play of a very strong second line which is centered by Mike Richards with
Petr Kanko and Nathan O’Nabigon on the wings.  O’Nabigon was acquired from Mississauga to provide some
grit.  He goes to the slot to look
for rebounds or to get open when his highly skilled line mates shake their
checks. Richards is a lot like Roy, a smallish highly skilled center who should
go in the first three rounds this June at the NHL draft.  Kanko, a L.A. King third rounder, zooms around the ice like a
buzz saw, and is very dangerous with the puck and he loves to throw big body
checks.  If he had been born in
Kingston instead of the Czech Republic, he would be a Don Cherry favourite. 
This line absolutely destroyed Ottawa’s second line. 
Richards feasted on former Edmonton Oilers pick, Lou Dickenson. 
The over age center had the speed to match up with Richards, but as he
showed throughout his five year OHL career, he lacks the effort, positioning,
desire, and hockey sense to go with his abundant talent. 
Kanko on the other hand, loves to compete and was a constant thorn in the
side of the opposition all year long.  Think
Esa Tikkanen or Darcy Tucker, and you will have a good idea what his NHL career
may shape up to be.  Kanko,
O’Nabigion and Richards had a strong final series, picking up a number of key
goals to lead their team to the title.

On defence the Rangers went mostly
with their top 2 pairs once Coyote pick Marcus Smith returned from injuries to
pair up with Eminger.  Overager
Halkidis and Andre Benoit were a very effective duo and contributed a lot on the
scoreboard; none bigger than the double overtime game winner by Halkidis in game
4.  Both pairs move the puck well,
take care of business in their own end, and can log a lot of minutes. 
The third pair of  Eason and Thomas Harrison are no slouches either and give the
Rangers a very strong defensive corps.  Eminger
is the kingpin on defence, usually playing 25 to 30 minutes a game. 
He is always matched up against the other team’s top line, and he plays
in all special teams situations.  He
is an effortless skater and loves to change speeds and directions. 
He could stand to work on his first two steps and go straight up the ice
more.  He is a strong passer and
always has his head up.  He does not
possess a very strong shot and will have to work on this as his career
progresses.  But he is a guy who
should play for a long time in the NHL.  He may never be a big scorer, but
he will log a lot of minutes and get his share of assists.

The lone rookie to play for the
Rangers in the playoffs was their first round pick of 2002, forward Evan
McGrath.  He scored the first and
the last goals of the final series and both were beauties. 
One was a one-timer with a lightning quick release; the last one was a
gorgeous deke on a breakaway.  He
saw action on left wing with the third line when Roy was double shifting, but
when the Rangers went to three line hockey his ice time diminished. 
He saw some time on the power play and did well in his first post season. 
Like 95% of the sixteen years old players in the OHL, he has to get
stronger physically, but he has good size, skating and puck handling abilities. 
He will move to the second line center role next season and should be a
decent prospect for the 2004 NHL draft.

Goaltender Scott Dickie played
every minute in goal for the Rangers this postseason and his played ranged from
spectacular to scary.  He played
well in all the over times against Ottawa, but sometimes was known to let a weak
one in during regulation.  He
appeared vulnerable when Ottawa had the puck behind the goal line as he had
trouble getting square when the puck would go back out front. 
All in all he played strong steady hockey, and as an overager, he is
looking for a contract in the professional ranks next season.  Look for him to stick with an ECHL team and time will tell if
he can move up from there.

Next week the Rangers will compete
for the Memorial Cup.  They will
likely use three lines for a good chunk of the game, and the top 2 lines play
the transition game as good as any.  They
are not an overly physical team, but it’s the old adage, you can’t hit what
you can’t catch.  When you do
catch them, they have a number of skaters who are very strong on their skates
and hard to knock off the puck. They play a very aggressive penalty kill, using
their speed to take away space and time.  Their
power play is more freelance than structured, when the puck goes to the point
they like to go from partner to partner, or they set a pick to allow the defence
to move to the middle where they like shooting low wrist shots hoping for a tip. 
Down low the forwards will try to beat you with their speed on the cycle
or just plain beat you one on one.  Expect
to see a lot of Eminger and Roy, and get ready for the manic play of one Petr
Kanko, he of the blonde Mohawk.  This
is a team that has at least six guys (Roy, Campbell, Kanko, Richards, Eminger
and Smith) who will play at the AHL level or above once they are done their
junior careers and if Dickie can give them steady goaltending, expect them to
make a lot of noise in Quebec City.

Discuss the Memorial Cup on the Hockey’s Future Prospects Board.