Depleted Knights get some breathing room

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:56 AM ET

The London Knights are breathing a little easier today.

The Knights passed their first test after losing Scott Aarssen, their best defenceman, to a shoulder injury 10 days ago. The final exam is still to come, but the Knights get a good mark on their first three-game stretch without Aarssen.

It didn't start that way. Game 1 without Aarssen was a 3-0 loss to the Kitchener Rangers. The good news was that you couldn't pin the loss on the defence. The Knights were horrible as a team.

But two subsequent wins, including Sunday's against St. Michael's Majors in their difficult-to-play-in rink, have eased the anxiety about what's to come with Aarssen on the sidelines. While another tough week is ahead for them, travelling to Sarnia to play the Sting tomorrow and coming home to play Saginaw Friday and Peterborough Sunday, the wins also have given general manager Mark Hunter a chance to assess how this team operates in adversity.

If his team had gotten roughed up, it may have been more of a priority to go out in a seller's market to look for a defenceman.

Good thing. If he had to go shopping, his Ontario Hockey League buddies would have seized the opportunity to ask for their pound of flesh in return for whatever Hunter needed.

"We're going to stand back and wait to analyse our team," said Hunter. "We're missing a couple of key players and we'll be stronger with them back.

"It's not just wins and losses. We'll see how we get along over the next couple of weeks."

Aarssen could be out as long as six weeks. Forward Jordan Foreman also could be out that long with a sprained ankle.

There are weaknesses on this team, but one of the most obvious is depth.

They don't have the kind of depth that Knights teams of previous years had. That's true of their top-end guys as well. The Knights' top players this year, players such as Sam Gagner, Pat Kane, Dave Meckler, don't have great OHL experience.

There's nothing particularly good that comes of one of your better players getting hurt. But it does force the Knights to use some of the young players on the blue-line -- Corey Syvret, Tony DeHart, Kevin Bodker -- who don't get a lot of ice time.

You're going to find out in a hurry who can play and who has the potential to play. Assistant coach Dave Gagner, who handles the defence, says players like DeHart and Bodker's time "increases incrementally. They will get three or four more minutes a game each."

While that doesn't seem like a lot, it all adds up.

"It's another step up for them," Gagner said. "You start with minimal time and it increases. It would be nice by the second half of the year if they are playing a regular role."

Syvret, the Knights' first-round pick two years ago, has seen more ice time in the last several weeks.

"It's helped his game. He's played with a very good level of consistency," said Gagner. "Kevin Bodker played well in terms of killing some penalties and we haven't used our 16-year-olds in specialty team situations. That's sort of the silver lining, if there is one, to losing a player like Scott Aarssen. Other players are going to get opportunities that they wouldn't normally get with a player like Scott in the lineup. And I thought they played really well."

There are still a few signs of thunderstorm behind that silver lining.

Knights goaltender Steve Mason had to be sharp in both wins. In Toronto Sunday, he faced 31 shots, several of the difficult variety. The Knights on occasion still use forward Rob Drummond on defence during the penalty-killing situations. Those are indicators that things behind the blue-line are still sorting themselves out.

If the Knights can ride out this bump in the road until Aarssen and Foreman come back, they will have bought some time for their youngsters to gain a little more experience.

And more importantly, for Hunter to bargain from a position that's a little stronger than now.


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