OHL: London Knights season preview

By Jason Ahrens





London Knights Preview



 

The 2003-04 version of the OHL London Knights is shaping up
to be one of the better teams in recent history. Not since the team made it to
the OHL finals in 1999 has it had as many players with professional potential.
The team has arguably the best crop of 18-year-old players in the league, which
means it should be very competitive over the next two seasons.

 

The Knights finished off an impressive preseason, recording
only one loss. They then opened up at home thoroughly thumping the Peterborough
Petes, 6-1. The team is hoping to build on its strengths from the previous
year; strong team defense, a potent power play, and a lunch-bucket mentality
from all its players. This year the team hopes the experiences learned by its younger
players pays dividends this year, and it has added a lot of skill and speed
over the summer.

 

GM Mark Hunter had perhaps his best summer since buying the
Knights. In the OHL rookie draft, he snapped up talented right-winger Tom
Mannino
with the tenth pick. He convinced Mannino to join the Knights
rather than protecting his NCAA eligibility and staying in the junior B league.
Once a player plays one game with an OHL team, they are not eligible to play in
the NCAA; so many young players are forced into a tough decision. Hunter then
hit a home run when Danny Richmond, a talented defenseman with the
Michigan Wolverines decided to forego his scholarship and join the Knights for
the upcoming season. Richmond was picked in the second round by the Carolina
Hurricanes in the 2003 NHL draft, going 31st overall. He hopes to fast track
his professional career by joining the OHL, a league where he will get to play
more games than he would in the NCAA.

 

Hunter also got a big monkey off his back by finally getting
two European players with talent to report and stay with the team. Each team in
the Canadian Hockey League can carry a maximum of two European players, but in
the years that Hunter has owned the Knights, he has never had two players stay
with the team in a season, and the ones that have played have been fringe
players. This season the Knights have two talented forwards; both are eighteen,
so they can play with the team for two seasons.

 

Ivan Khomutov is a tall lanky player with a
load of skill and a wicked shot.  He was
drafted in the fourth round by New Jersey in the 2003 draft. The Knights also
grabbed a small, speedy winger from Belarus, Vadim Karaga.  He might be able to do for the Knights what
LA King draftee Petr Kanko did for the Kitchener Rangers — provide an
immediate impact, play on the top two lines, score goals from all areas of the
ice, play in traffic, and drive opponents crazy with his stick or mouth.
Lastly, but not least, Hunter picked up over-age forward Scott Sheppard from
the Ottawa 67s for a mid round draft pick. 
Sheppard played on the top scoring line in the league last year, and if
teamed with Khomutov and third year right-winger Corey Perry (Anaheim
first rounder 2003) on a line, he may be able to make that claim again this
season.

 

The Knights still have a few decisions to make. They have
three goalies in camp still, but it appears that Tampa Bay draftee Gerald
Coleman
has the number one job wrapped up, but he is being pushed by two
goalies who played Junior B last season. The Knights may be able to package one
of them and a forward to fill in perceived holes or to obtain some draft picks.
On defense they are down to seven players, but the status of over-age Dennis
Wideman
is still cloudy. Wideman is at the Buffalo Sabres camp, and how he
performs there will decide whether he is returned to the Knights or not.
Wideman has been one of the top offensive defencemen in the league the past two
seasons, and often played 35-40 minutes a game last season. If he does return,
coach Dale Hunter will be able to reduce his ice time, as he has a talented
defense corps. Joining Richmond and Wideman on the point are two recent NHL
draftees, Kyle Quincey (Detroit) and Marc Methot
(Columbus) who return for their sophomore season.

 

Also back for second seasons are Danny Syvret and Adam
Nemeth
. Syvret played well last season and took a regular shift on the
power play and even strength. He has grown a fair bit over the summer and if he
shows improvement with his decision-making with the puck and in taking the body,
he may get drafted this spring in his second crack at the draft. Nemeth played
sparingly in his first season, but did play a larger role late in the season,
especially in the second round of the playoffs against a very talented Plymouth
team. His ice time will be increased this season, but if Wideman returns, he
will be the sixth man.  Big Ryan
Pottruff steps in as the seventh defenseman on the depth chart, but will be
broken in slowly.  He saw a lot of
action in preseason with so many defensemen away to pro camps and he played
well and showed good skating ability.

 

Up front, the Knights have sixteen forwards still in camp,
but with three overage forwards, one will be released if Wideman returns on
defense, as a team can only use three overagers in a game.  The second round pick in this years rookie
draft, Josh Beaulieu may become a victim of the numbers game and be sent
to Junior B once everyone is back from pro camps.  The Knights had one of the best power plays in the league last
season, and with the forwards they have this year, and the way they played in
an impressive preseason (only one loss), they should be deadly a man up this
season.  Perry is a gifted playmaker and
he will have two good players on his line this season, whereas in past seasons
he usually only had one player who could play at his level.  Perry has put on around 15 pounds of muscle
this off-season, and if he is stronger on the puck, he could put up huge
numbers.

 

Two 17-year-olds looking to make a bigger impact this season
are Dave Bolland and Robbie Drummond.  Bolland stuck all season with the team last year, but rode the
pines for most of the first half.  He
saw more ice in the second half and showed some potential to be a scoring
forward who could be a physical presence in the corner.  Drummond saw spot duty before being sent to
Junior B, but this preseason he showed improved confidence and will bring some
speed to the team.  He is tiny, but is
hard to hit with his speed, and showed no fear in cutting to the net.

 

Perhaps the hardest decision facing coach Hunter will be how
to utilize his son and two nephews. 
With the talent added over the summer, they will be hard pressed to
obtain the ice time that they had last season, and will have to work hard to
avoid the wrath of the fans who became frustrated with the play of the Hunter
boys last season.  Both Dylan and Logan
opened up with big nights offensively and are in far better shape this season.