Heading into the Christmas break, the London Knights remain one of the top teams in the OHL. Over the past few weeks they have battled for top spot with the Guelph Storm and are currently two points behind but have a game in hand. The Knights have risen from a middle of the pack team to a strong contender based mainly on the strong play of their corps of players who have been drafted by NHL teams. The Knights also have a pair of blue chip forwards for the 2004 NHL draft who have played well and they and other prospects on the team eligible for this draft or the 2005 one will be featured in an upcoming article.
Corey Perry has emerged as perhaps the most dangerous player in the OHL this season. The 18-year-old right winger was picked in the first round, in the 28th position by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the 2003 NHL draft. Perry entered his third season just like he finished his second one, strongly. There are two major differences in his play from last season though. First, the surrounding cast is far stronger with the key pickups that the Knights made. At times last season Perry tried to do too much by himself and was ineffective when in that mode. He was at his best on the power play and played a very effective role in quarterbacking the Knights half board offense. He excelled at distributing the puck and made the right choices on whom to give it to. When playing five on five he started plays, but had trouble finishing them, as he would often be knocked to the ice by defenders. After a hard summer of working out and improving his eating habits, Perry gained nearly 15 pounds of muscle. Perry is now 6’2″ and just under 200 pounds. That is the biggest difference in his play this season. He has the strength to stay on his feet and hold off defenders, and finish what he started, which often results in a Knights goal or at least a scoring chance. Perry has the potential to lead the league in scoring this season and be named the OHL player of the year. He was invited to tryout for the Canadian World Junior team, but was one of the last cuts. How he reacts to that disappointment remains to be seen but if he can use it as a motivational tool, opposing teams beware.
Pro Potential — Perry has all the tools to be an elite player in the NHL and play on the top two lines of a team. He has been more of a playmaker than scorer at the OHL level, but as his strength, speed and confidence have improved, he could be a legitimate 30 goal threat at the NHL level. Perry will have to continue to work hard on his skating and strength, but his hands are among the best. He has great hockey sense and on ice vision. His game isn’t that much different than former Knight Jason Allison who shrugged off criticism of his weaknesses and put up some big numbers at the NHL level.
Strengths — Perry sees the ice perhaps better than anyone in the OHL He uses his reach to keep the puck away from defenders and then glides gracefully by them and then often gets a quality shot away or sets up a teammate. His long reach and anticipation have helped him become a very effective penalty killer as he is able to pick off long passes. He is consistent; it is very rare that he is not on the score sheet for London. He is currently on the league’s longest point streak of the season at 18 games and counting. He has 19 goals and 35 assists for 54 points in the 29 games that he has played.
Needs to work on- Skating has improved but will find the next level a challenge, as time and space will be greatly diminished. Needs to release the puck sooner on his shot. His windup is too long on his slap shot and he sometimes hangs on to the puck for the perfect play, which has worked quite well this season, but he will have to shoot quicker when playing pro. His shift lengths are too long at times. Will have to adjust that part of his game when he attends his next pro camp. He gambles with the puck sometimes when it would be safer to just chip it out.
Gerald Coleman had an up and down rookie season last year with the Knights. The big American goalie came into camp with impressive credentials and stats from the American Under 17 team, but he soon found life in the OHL more difficult. He also had to deal with riding the pines a lot as the Knights had all-star goalie Chris Houle back in net and he earned the bulk of the starts. Coleman showed enough raw potential for the Tampa Bay Lightning to pick him in the NHL draft in the seventh round 223rd overall. He went to Tampa for his first pro camp and by all accounts played well and learned a lot. This season he is basically splitting the duties with rookie Andy McDonald in net and is putting up very impressive numbers.
Pro potential — Guys with his size and athletic ability leave scouts drooling, but he is still a very raw product. At 6’4″ and 190 pounds he covers a lot of net. He may be one of these goalies who earn their spurs in the minors for several years, and if they persevere, they step into the NHL in their mid twenties, but then play for ten seasons.
Needs to work on — Eliminating the soft goal. London has not lost very many games this season, but in a few of the losses there were some goals that Coleman wished he could have back. Has a habit of flopping on long shots when he should be standing up, and on occasion has stabbed at the puck and missed it or had it bounce off his glove and in. Needs to continue to improve his skating, for going side to side and for getting out of the net to retrieve dumped in pucks.
Strengths — Uses his big body to eliminate shooting areas. He has made some stellar saves in scrambles by blocking out most of the low area or by diving across at the last second to save a sure goal. Has improved his confidence over last season when he seemed to doubt himself a lot. His stats have reflected his improved play; he is currently fifth in the league for goals against average at a stingy 2.52 a game and sixth in save percentage at .918. He has 11 wins and 6 losses in the 17 games he has played in.
Danny Richmond was a surprise addition to the Knights over the summer. The defenseman had been a late round pick by the Knights a few years ago. They knew that he was intending to play with the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA but took a flyer on him. Once he was drafted by Carolina Hurricanes in the 2003 NHL draft with the first pick in the second round (31st overall), he decided to try to fast track his pro career and gave up his scholarship in order to play more games in the OHL. He arrived in London with a lot of fanfare and hype, and came close to never playing a game in the league. He was a very late cut at the Carolina camp but was sent back to London after some consideration about sending him to the AHL He has had some high highs and a few struggles, but overall has brought some flash and dash to the team, and he plays a feisty game. His arrival paved the way for the Knights to acquire highly touted Rob Schremp (ranked 2nd in the OHL by Central Scouting for the 2004 NHL draft) as they had a glut of defensemen and could afford to give up promising defender Kyle Quincey (Detroit 4th round 2003) as the cornerstone of a deal with Mississauga. He will be absent from the team for seven games in December and January as he will be playing in the World Junior Championships for Team USA. In 29 games Richmond has 7 goals and 12 assists for 19 points, is a plus 5 and has 59 penalty minutes.
Pro potential — Richmond has big league wheels and some high-end offensive potential. He is not a very big defender by pro standards at six feet and 180 pounds and he makes questionable decisions with the puck so he may have to earn his spurs at the AHL level or be broken in as a power play specialist. The style he plays is the combination of Bryan Berard and Phil Housley. Like those two, it will be up to the coach to make sure that his defensive shortcomings do not outweigh his offensive skills.
Needs to work on — Decision making with the puck, especially when he is last man back. Richmond tends to lug the puck a lot and sometimes tries to beat a fore checker but coughs the puck up, creating a scoring chance for the other team. His passing out of his own zone is weak in general, as he initially seemed to struggle with the red line being back in play, eliminating the long passes that were available in the NCAA. The redline in play allows OHL defensemen to hold the line longer, making outlet passes harder to make and this is an area that he still struggles with.
Strengths — His skating, forward and backwards, he glides on the ice gracefully and can kick it up a notch when he has to. He plays with grit, he is one of the smallest defenders on the Knights, but has no fear of mixing it up. Pinches in off the point into open ice where passes from talented Knight forwards often find him. This is one wrinkle that has made the Knights power play even more dangerous. Last season the defenseman who lined up beside Dennis Wideman rarely touched the puck on the power play. The Knights used an assortment of people on the point, but option A was a goal mouth pass to the winger parked on the edge of the crease, or back to Wideman for his point shot. Teams could have basically ignored the fifth guy out there. This season, Richmond gives teams headaches with his darting in and out and his ability to one-time the puck. His goals have been big ones as he has scored three game winning goals.
Dennis Wideman was another player that the Knights had to wait to see if they would get back from a pro camp. The fifth year player got a long look at the AHL camp of the Rochester Americans before being sent back to London. This is his fourth season with the team and the Knights rely heavily on him in all situations of the game. Oddly enough his scoring stats have declined since his big year as an eighteen year old when he posted 71 points in 63 games and caught Buffalo’s eye as the snapped him up in the eighth round of the 2002 draft. In 24 games this year Wideman has 9 goals and 13 assists for 22 points and is plus 16. These totals put him at 6th place in defense scoring but he would be a touch higher if he had been playing since the start of the year, but he is well off of the pace of the frontrunners which is a bit of a surprise. This season he will not have to log the 35 minutes a game that he did last year, as the rookies of last season are now more experienced and capable of taking on a bigger role. Richmond’s arrival takes some of the offensive pressure off of Wideman and the breakout years enjoyed by several of the forwards makes his role less focused on scoring and more on puck movement.
Pro potential — Wideman has one of the best shots in the league and that will be what gives him a chance to play at the AHL level and prove that he belongs or that perhaps he could do even better. He is not very big for a pro defenseman at 6 feet and 200 pounds but plays the man well and is a good open ice hitter. At the next level his strength will be a big question mark and he will have to work harder in his own end. Look for him to get a shot at Rochester next season, if not, he will start the year in the ECHL and work his way up over time.
Needs to work on — Staying high in the offensive end. Too often he moves in towards the net when the Knights have good pressure applied, but this is where teams tend to collapse when they are in trouble. By him joining the crowded area, he has little room for the puck to get to him or for him to get a wrist shot away. If he stayed high, he would be wide open with plenty of time for a big wind up or to make a pass back down low to an open forward. His outlet passes could improve, he is sometimes too patient with the puck and doesn’t move it quickly enough, which can cause troubles when teams have an aggressive trap.
Strengths — His shot is maybe the heaviest in the league. His slap shot can over power goalies, but he has not gotten it away much this year, due to several reasons; including teams covering him closely, the added wrinkles that the Knights have added offensively, and the above mentioned habit of his for wandering off the point. He throws one of the better hip checks in the league and can catch forwards napping in the neutral zone with it. Is very patient with the puck, often when teams are trailing in the third to London by one or two goals they apply a full trap with no fore-check, hoping to make London cough up the puck in the neutral zone. Wideman is excellent at recognizing this ploy and will sit in his own end and play catch with his partner, killing off valuable seconds, almost minutes from the clock.
Marc Methot has made a nice transformation from a big raw rookie defenseman to his current role as a steady, reliable defender. The Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Methot in the sixth round in 2003 and they must be impressed with the improvement of the 6’3″ 220 pound defender. In 30 games this season he has 4 points and is a very solid plus 18, which places him eighth best in the league. He is a regular on the penalty-killing unit that is ranked number one in the league, and is usually part of the second pair of Knight’s defenders.
Pro potential — Methot could be a guy who after paying some dues in the minors makes the NHL as a defensive defenseman or as a depth guy. He has the size and strength, his skating has improved and his overall game keeps getting better.
Needs to work on — Could use a dose of the nasty bug. He has only 28 penalty minutes this year. He does a decent job of keeping the front of the net clear, but if would get meaner and bend the rules a bit, he might find that few forwards would be willing to try to camp in the slot when he is on the ice. His puck handling has come a long way from last year when the puck was never on his stick very long, but he can still make some strides in this area.
Strengths — Stays at home and lets the forwards worry about offense, he plays his angles well, rubs guys out along the boards nicely, and is making better outlet passes.
Ivan Khomutov was selected by London in the first round of the CHL European Import draft in the summer of 2003. He was a fourth round pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 NHL draft. The skinny forward from Russia came to town with the reputation of having a big league shot but a suspect work ethic. At 6’3″ and just under 200 pounds, he has the frame for pro hockey once he fills out some more. An arm injury has limited him to a mere 13 games this year but he did tally 12 points in those games. The Knights hope to have him back in the lineup after Christmas.
Pro potential — He is still very rough around the edges and will take some time to be polished up. He has the skill, size and shot to get to the next level, but has to adjust to the cultural and language barriers that face him as well as a different style of hockey.
Needs to work on — He has misfired on a number of passes as they rolled off his stick. He seems very unsure on where he should go on the ice, especially when he does not have the puck. The Knights breakout routine seems to have him baffled, as he wants to circle out high. Has to adjust to the more physical style of the OHL.
Strengths — When given the time and the space, he has an impressive wrist shot. When he has the puck, he tends to try to make good plays, he just seemed to have some bad luck with his delivery of the passes. He has shown flashes of being an above average stick handler.
Danny Bois is back for his over age year with the Knights, his fourth with the team and a team record third as captain. The crash and bang right winger spends his time on the second or third line, when not in the penalty box or in the stands for a suspension. Bois recently returned to the lineup from an eight-game suspension, which is just one of his many trips to see OHL commissioner David Branch about on ice transgressions. Bois was originally drafted by Colorado in the fourth round in 2001, but they never offered him a contract. He attended the camp of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2003.
Pro potential — Needs to improve his skating if he wants to make the AHL. His bread and butter is his physical game, but he lacks the speed to be able to make effective hits at a higher level. He has the tools to be a middleweight fighter, as he possesses a very impressive left hand that can catch opponents off guard. The goals he scores are usually on the doorstep of the crease, so he won’t have a problem in making that adjustment at the next level.
Needs to work on — He has to eliminate a few of the needless minor penalties that he takes. He plays an aggressive game and you can live with aggressive penalties, but some of the retaliatory ones have to go, especially in tight games. As a repeat offender, his suspensions keep getting longer and longer, so he will have to be careful of that in the second half as the Knights need him on the ice, not watching from the stands. He is carrying the puck better this season but could polish up his overall puck skills and his foot speed.
Strengths — He follows through on his checks and can deliver the odd bone crunching one. He goes to the net with his stick on the ice and is rewarded with some tap-in goals. He will stand up for teammates. On a team with no enforcer, he has to tangle with some pretty tough customers.