May 5, 2007
Knights plan to take best player
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, FREE PRESS SPORTS COLUMNIST
Ontario Hockey League teams will be restocking the meat freezer today when the priority draft takes place.
Scouts, general managers and coaches will get the chance to select players they've been watching, in some cases since they've been barely out of diapers.
The Erie Otters, courtesy of their last-place finish, have the first pick and will select Ryan O'Reilly, a centre with the Toronto Junior Canadiens who is from Seaforth.
The Otters will be followed by Windsor Spitfires, St. Mike's Majors and Peterborough Petes.
The Spitfires like Taylor Hall from the Kingston Predators. St. Mike's want Mississauga IceDogs' Casey Cizikas. The Petes have their eye on either Michael Latta from Waterloo or Zack Kassian from Windsor.
Most scouts rate this an average year.
The London Knights are in familiar territory. For the fourth year in a row, they'll pick 20th, last in the first round.
"It's tough picking there every year," Knights general manager Mark Hunter said. "But that means you finish first (and) I'd rather pick there than somewhere else."
The Knights have a number of holes to fill, especially on defence.
They'll also be spending an uncomfortable few months after June's National Hockey League draft wondering what's going to happen to leading scorer Pat Kane.
Kane will be one of the top three picks by NHL teams. The Knights will likely have to wait until the end of September to see whether he'll be back or if he'll stick in the NHL.
So what do the Knights do with their picks?
"I think we pick the best player available regardless of position," Hunter said.
What's fascinating about the draft is the jockeying that takes place.
Players often dictate where they want to play by sending letters telling teams not to bother drafting them or by telling them they intend to go to school rather than play in the OHL.
Teams often take a chance on good players in the middle or later rounds hoping that eventually they can entice them with sizeable financial education packages to come to the OHL.
The Knights owe much their success to taking flyers on players and bringing them into the fold later on. They have also benefited from players who wanted to play only for them.
Even though Philip McRae hasn't panned out, he was a top-five rated player who wound up being picked by the Knights at No. 20 last year.
Pat Kane and Kevin Montgomery were both 2004 picks who went in the fifth round. It took a while, but Hunter got them both here.
Sam Gagner was a fourth-round pick in 2005 and he came to London after playing in the USHL for a year.
The Knights are playing it close to the vest with their No. 1 choice. One thing is certain, if the Knights risk a No. 1 pick, they know the guy they draft will come and play here.
A hot topic of conversation of late has been Beau Schmitz, a big American defenceman who is represented by Siskinds Sports Management in London.
There have been rumblings the Knights have gone after Schmitz in a big way.
He's one of those players who would be a certain top-five pick had he not signed a letter of intent to play with in U.S. under-17 program.
"We are aware of the interest by OHL teams in Beau, but Beau has committed to the under-17 program," said Brian MacDonald, Schmitz adviser at Siskinds.
MacDonald said he recommended to Schmitz that he fulfil the under-17 commitment.
"Everybody's up for draft," Hunter said when asked about Schmitz.
International Scouting Services has Schmitz going to the Knights and rated as the top defensive defenceman and in the top five in skating and smarts.
There are two other impact players in this draft who are looking at playing in the NCAA. Matt Duchene from Haliburton and Cam Fowler, who plays with Detroit Honeybaked, the same team Kane played with. Fowler is also committed to the American under-17 program. Fowler is committed to Notre Dame for 2009, but there may be a team with lots of money willing to take a run at him.
In previous years, area players have made a big splash. Last year, Nazem Kadri of the London Junior Knights went 18th overall to Kitchener and Junior Knight Cody Lindsay went to the Ottawa with the sixth pick in the second round.
There may not be any area players picked in the top two rounds this year, but there is a large group that will probably go between the third and sixth rounds. Junior Knights players rated include Robert Flick, rated 57th by ISS, Stephen Gaskin, Josh Sidwell, Colin Martin, Marc Nother and Anthony Donati. Tyler Kearns and Taylor Hayman were added to the list off good showings in the minor midget OHL Cup.
The Elgin Middlesex Chiefs also have several players who will be drafted with Jay Gilbert, a defenceman, at the top of their list. Other players include Brendan Barletta, Chris Bodo and Daniel Chadwick.
The Knights also have two picks in the second round. They haven't had a second-round pick since they took Josh Beaulieu in 2003.