Defence aims for more ice time

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

Scott Aarssen can feel it.

Life is going to look a lot different for London Knights defencemen this season.

There's talk of individual instruction, added responsibility and the ultimate kicker -- whispers of power-play time -- for the club's blue-liners.

With the dawn of the five-forward power play, Knights defencemen usually spent man-advantage situations resting rather than scoring.

The back end's primary function was to take some of the heat off goalie Steve Mason and move the puck up to let the offensive magic happen.

"That's the goal -- to get on the power play," said Aarssen, who returned to the Knights after a stint with the Dallas Stars rookies. "There could be some opportunities for us and if we use defencemen, it allows us to have two power-play units and have fresh legs out there all the time. That'll be good for the team."

The 19-year-old Aarssen made sure his legs will be fresh this season. He worked out all summer with several of his teammates under the eye of Knights strength and conditioning coach Dave Moore.

"I know there's a chance to play extra minutes and in hockey, your legs and your core are the keys," Aarssen said. "Of course, you want to maintain your upper body too, but to get to the next level in this game, your legs have to be strong all season."

With Todd Perry and Ryan Martinelli graduated, London's top four defenders are expected to be third-year veteran Aarssen, Kevin Montgomery, who's just returned from Colorado camp, converted forward Matt Clarke, who skated with the St. Louis Blues rookies, and Nathan Martine, acquired in a trade with Niagara for Jordan Foreman.

London will likely start the season with eight blue-liners, which leaves a veteran like Corbin Crawford, youngsters Kevin Bodker, Tony DeHart, Matt Ashman and Europeans Vladimir Roth and Heikki Hyvonen battling for the remaining four spots.

Those who remain are going to be spending a lot more face-to-face time with Knights coach Dave Gagner during practices. The goal will be to give the blue-liners the chance to improve their individual skills and the opportunity to expand their roles.

"(Fellow assistant) Pat Curcio is comfortable running a practice so this year, I'll have more of a chance to work with the defencemen this year," Gagner said. "I felt like we didn't have enough time for that last year and the focus of the drills was just on how to play in the defensive zone. This way, we'll be able to split the ice in half and work with them and give them individual attention."

Gagner is optimistic about the team's defensive corps and Aarssen sees a potentially healthy mix of old and young, veteran and rookie, European and North American on the crew. One thing that won't change is the seating arrangement in the team's dressing room at the John Labatt Centre -- the defenders will, as always, band together.

"As defencemen, we all sit on the same side wall of the room with the forwards all around us," Aarssen said. "As a group, it's not up to one guy having to go around and introduce everyone. Ever since I've been with the Knights, we've always been an accepting group of everyone and it just always seems to happens naturally.

"On defence, I think we're going to be a little bit older with me, Matt, Monty (Montgomery) and Nathan Martine all '88s (birth year). That's four 19-year-olds and with a couple of the younger guys, it looks positive right now."

Montgomery already felt that starting his first full season as a Knight gave him an advantage over being parachuted in during the middle of a season like last year.

"Just being in training camp helps," he said. "There's always an adjustment period and you're getting used to everything that's brand new -- the league, the schedule. This year, I'll be able to hit the ground running."

Forward Justin Taylor also returned to London this week from Washington Capitals camp. Forward Cody Smith, who hurt his knee during a line brawl in Sarnia on Sept. 2, won't be ready in time for the start of the season and Jordan Shine, who will miss the first 16 games of the season while serving the rest of a 20-game suspension for slashing, is recovering from a hand injury.


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