Hunter never quiet at deadline

RYAN PYETTE, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 1:04 AM ET

Two years ago, Mark Hunter made the biggest trade in junior hockey.

He shipped the MVP of the 2008 world junior championships -- goalie Steve Mason -- to the Memorial Cup host Kitchener Rangers.

Last season, the London Knights GM pulled off one of the biggest trades in junior hockey history.

That's how John Tavares -- the 2009 world junior tournament MVP -- and Michael Del Zotto became Knights before the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires snuffed them out in an unforgettable OHL Western Conference final.

After setting off those fireworks, it's difficult to imagine Hunter sitting and watching on the curb come trade deadline time in a week-and-a-half on Jan. 11.

He usually finds himself in the centre of the action.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It's (the market) all over the map right now. We're just trying to see where it settles."

Add players or sell assets?

That question follows Hunter everywhere he goes, including the Toronto Marlies midget tournament this week where he spent three-and-a-half days scouting the top draft-eligible players.

Many have pegged the OHL as a two-horse race this season.

In the West, there's world junior star-laden Windsor, prepped for another march to glory by GM Warren Rychel.

And in the East, there's Barrie. The Colts just fell to Owen Sound on New Year's Eve for their first loss in 24 games.

The Knights are in an all-out arm-wrestle for second seed in the Western Conference and top spot in the Midwest Division with Kitchener. The Rangers are on the rise again and should be even better next year.

So there's plenty of chatter that Hunter would be best served by blowing up this London roster. And by blowing it up, that means starting by dealing away the player who would net the greatest return -- star forward and Toronto Maple Leafs first rounder Nazem Kadri.

But where would he go?

The Spitfires are willing to pay for goalie insurance and another veteran defenceman.

The Colts opened the vault for Guelph captain Matt Kennedy.

"Not everyone (thinks the Knights should sell his top talent)," Hunter said with a sly grin. "I like our team."

They can, of course, be maddeningly hard to like at times.

London opened the second half of the season with a strong win in Guelph on Tuesday, then followed up with an eye-rubbing loss to last-place Sarnia on home ice.

It was only the Knights' second defeat in 19 games at the John Labatt Centre. For the most part, they've been great at home and average on the road.

There are 11 players on the Knights roster born in 1990. By OHL standards, that makes them an "old" team.

Only three can return as over-agers next season. Based on his midseason jump from the junior B Nationals, one of those spots would likely have to go to speedy Stephen Sanza, who sat out Thursday after getting rammed head-first into the boards by Guelph's Adam Comrie on Tuesday.

"But I haven't thought about the over-agers for next year yet,"Hunter said. "You can't. Guys have contracts -- Kadri, Phil McRae, Zac Rinaldo (the Philly prospect available to return to the lineup today in Sarnia after serving his two-game suspension for a head check) ­-- so guys move on.

"You end up waiting to see what the NHL does."

Look at the potential veteran defence the Knights could've iced this year.

John Carlson and Michael Del Zotto stayed in the pros as 19-year-olds. Russian Anton Klementyev, now suiting up at the world juniors, remains with the Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate even though he rarely plays and would've had much more ice time in London.

Former Knight Vladimir Roth just had a four-point game for the Czech world junior team. But London doesn't miss him as much since Swede Kalle Ekelund has performed well on the blue line so far.

The Knights'current defence has been better than expected. That's not their problem.

But for trading purposes, Hunter doesn't have the back-end surplus of talent that other teams covet or enough draft picks to lure raid non-contending teams into a deal.

It's a difficult, nearly handcuffing, situation.

The Sting know what that's all about.

Sarnia didn't move a lot of their veteran big-name players at last year's trade deadline.

They kept those guys to the finish line and it meant new GM Dave MacQueen had to begin the team's turnaround from scratch this season.

The plucky Sting have beaten all the top contenders this year but they're still looking at contending for the No. 1 pick in the OHL draft next May.

And the Knights?

At this stage, they're expected to go for the Cup every season.

The players profess faith Mark Hunter will do what needs to be done to make the Knights playoff ready.

"It's my last year and I want to take a crack at it,"over-ager Leigh Salters said this week. "I know guys don't want to be moved but if that's what (Hunter) has to do to make us better, than you hope we do something to help us out."

That's Mark Hunter's reputation.

His magic-making ability is on the clock once again.


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