Young Knights surprisingly strong

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

The London Knights and their fans should be ecstatic about where the team finds itself in the Ontario Hockey League standings this Christmas break.

Four months ago at training camp, no one would have predicted the Knights would be in the middle of yet another battle for a title.

The team lost its three top scorers from last year, graduated its top goaltender and traded away Matt Pellech, who was supposed to be their defensive cornerstone.

They brought in players who were great prospects with supposed big talent. But hang around hockey rinks long enough and you'll know the road to last place is paved with great prospects who never prosper.

Players such as Pat Kane and Sam Gagner have good pedigrees. But even the most blindly faithful fan would never have predicted Kane and Gagner would be taking up the top two spots in the OHL scoring race.

Even the most positive of pundits would never have expected goaltender Steve Mason could stand on his head.

With a team that rarely loses, even the skimpiest of losing streaks takes on far too much significance. There is a tendency to forget that while this team is going to be competitive all year, it has its shortcomings.

First things first. Kane, Gagner, Mason and Sergei Kostitsyn have taken over the roles filled last year by Dylan Hunter, Rob Schremp, David Bolland and Adam Dennis. Except for Kostitsyn, the current group is younger and less physically developed. How they carry the load in February and March will determine the Knights' success.

While that group has garnered most of the headlines, this team would be in far worse shape without two additions made by Knights general manager Mark Hunter, additions that emphasize how important research, hockey judgment and contacts are in this business.

Forward Dave Meckler was a Yale pre-med student when he became disenchanted with the college game. Hunter brought him in and the 19-year-old has added toughness, a strong work ethic and an great ability to shoot the puck.

Todd Perry is an overage defenceman Hunter picked up from the Barrie Colts. Perry has struggled with injuries over the years. But since he's come to London, he's been the Knights most solid blue-liner, logging plenty of icetime in key situations.

Perry has also made it unhealthy for opposing players to cut across the middle of the ice. He's laid out several with great open-ice hits.

But this team does have issues. And before you start believing that Hunter can wield his trade magic and make everything right, a decision has to be made about how much the Knights are willing to pay for what they want and whether paying that price will give them enough to win.

The Christmas trade moratorium kicks in today. Trading begins again on Dec. 27 and goes until the Jan. 10 deadlne. Teams will use the next 10 days to assess their situations and decide if they are going to be buyers or sellers.

If the Knights believe they have enough to make a run at another title, they'll be buyers.

Buyer beware because several teams in the Western Conference -- Saginaw, Kitchener, Owen Sound, Plymouth -- and at least one in the Eastern Conference -- Barrie -- believe they can win. Without question, when the trading begins, it will be a seller's market. If you are in the market to buy, you'll be paying premium prices.

The Knights defence is average at best. It's been the most disappointing part of this team. They need to find one more solid defender.

They can also use a solid two-way forward with some pop in his body and his shot.

Every other team will be looking for the same thing.

That won't be enough for the Knights, though.

With things having gone so well at the start of the season, there's a tendency to believe this team is one or two players away from a title.

But that's only if everything falls into place, if there are no more injuries, if the young players survive the strenuous schedule, if the Knights get the players they want at the deadline, if the 16- and 17-year-olds get better, if Kane and company continue to score at the same pace.

That makes whatever Hunter decides an iffy decision.


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