New faces, same goal

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

One quick glance and London Knights forward Tony Romano noticed a big, inflatable castle being put through a test run for tonight's OHL season opener against the Sarnia Sting at the John Labatt Centre.

"Do we skate out through that?" he asked Knights assistant GM Jim McKellar.

After GM Mark Hunter's frenzied summer stockpiling of talent and preseason No. 1 rankings by the Canadian Hockey League and The Hockey News, it's easy to forget how brand new many of the key players are this year.

The Knights have won the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as OHL regular-season champs four straight years, but this will be the season with the least amount of linkage to the glory days. For now, they will have to keep churning out wins with new faces like ex-Cornell University forward Romano, Akim Aliu, former North American Hockey League scoring champ Pat Maroon and defenceman Nathan Martine.

"We have a good team right now," said Aliu, who has a feel for different dressing rooms after playing with a disappointing squad in Windsor and a surprising one in Sudbury, "and the potential to be a great team."

More than anything, they will be a new team. Captain Rob Drummond is gone. So is high-flying Sergei Kostitsyn, inspirational David Meckler, entertaining Jordan Foreman and big blue-liners Todd Perry and Ryan Martinelli.

But London's biggest question hangs in the air like the whiff of manure on an Oil Springs farm: Is scoring champ Pat Kane and/or Sam Gagner coming back to London? Until further notice, Kane is with the Chicago Blackhawks and Gagner is an Edmonton Oiler.

TURN TYPE IN SEPARATE FILE

"Every team in the league would like to have at least one of those guys drop into their lineup," said Martine, the former Mississauga IceDogs defenceman.

"We hope they come back but you look at our team right now and it's pretty good with the guys we already have here. I think most of us in here are just anxious to get started. I've been talking about this game all week. With the number of guys we had away at NHL camps, the pre-season felt like it lasted a really long time."

With reigning OHL top goalie Steve Mason still in Columbus camp, Stephane Cesar is slated to start tonight with six-foot-seven Stephen Heming as backup. Top draft pick Michael Zador is nursing a second sore ankle after being run over in the final pre-season game against Saginaw in Woodstock.

If the lines from yesterday's practice hold true, then London's top two scoring lines will feature Romano with Phil McRae and Aliu and returnees Adam Perry and Justin Taylor skating with Pat Maroon.

"It's not difficult to figure out who our top six forwards are," new London assistant coach Pat Curcio said. "We don't know what kind of scoring we're going to get yet. It's not that we don't have proven guys. Akim Aliu's a true power forward. He only had around 40 points last year and we expect he'll improve on that total. We expect Phil McRae to start developing into one of the elite players in the league."

The defence will be anchored by Martine, Scott Aarssen, Kevin Montgomery and Matt Clarke. The Knights also acquired over-ager Trevor Koverko, a veteran of Oshawa and Owen Sound, for an eighth round pick in 2008.

London's grit will take an early hit with Cody Smith expected to undergo surgery on his knee (which will cost him at least a month) and Jordan Shine serving the remaining 16 games of a 20-game suspension for slashing dating back to the Western Conference final against Plymouth.

You've heard of changing on the fly? The Knights will have to develop chemistry on the go.

"It's been like a turnstile around here," Curcio said. "Guys coming in and out of town. This is our first game and we'll see what we have and go from there."

There will be the pre-requisite hunger to succeed that each championship team needs. Aliu, who went to the league final with the Wolves last spring, wants to get back. He also wants to show Chicago he has what it takes to play at the next level.

"Pat (Kane) and I saw a lot of each other at camp," the 18-year-old said. "It was veteran and rookie rooming together so he was with Kevyn Adams and I was with Sergei Samsonov, who's a great guy and we talked Russian the whole time (Aliu is fluent in the language).

"Sam (Gagner) and I have been buddies since minor hockey and we talk and I'm so happy for him right now. If he comes back, it's great for us."

The Knights didn't discuss captaincy yet but said the usual suspects -- Adam Perry and Scott Aarssen, for example -- would likely wear letters until the roster is officially set. Leadership and acceptance has always been a major ingredient in London's winning ways -- a characteristic quickly noticed by newcomers.

"You walk into this dressing room and with the guys who have been around a little bit longer, you're treated like you've been friends for at least a couple of years," Romano said.

So, they're all friends.

Will the wins continue?

---

FIVE KEYS TO SUCCESS

1 Pat Kane and Sam Gagner: If one or both of these guys come back from Chicago and Edmonton, respectively, it should be a great hockey season in London.

2 Road warriors: London had the best road record in OHL history at 29-5 last year -- the major reason the Knights finished ahead of Plymouth for the regular-season title.

3 Steve Mason: He was the league's best goaltender last year. All he has to do is manufacture that same brilliant crease work this season.

4 Shootout savvy: No one takes advantage of the ultimate tie-breaker better than the Knights, who finished 10-3 in the post- overtime breakaway contests.

5 Power play: There's talk there will be defencemen used with the man advantage this season. Only if the power play works at the 30-per-cent rate it enjoyed in the past.

"Every team in the league would like to have at least one of those guys drop into their lineup," said Martine, the former Mississauga IceDogs defenceman.

"We hope they come back, but you look at our team right now and it's pretty good with the guys we already have here. I think most of us in here are just anxious to get started. I've been talking about this game all week. With the number of guys we had away at NHL camps, the preseason felt like it lasted a really long time."

With goalie Steve Mason still in the Columbus Blue Jackets camp, Stephane Cesar is slated to start tonight with six-foot-seven Stephen Heming as backup. Top draft pick Michael Zador is nursing a second sore ankle after being run over in the final pre-season game against Saginaw in Woodstock last Sunday.

If the lines from yesterday's practice hold true, then London's top two scoring lines will feature Romano with Phil McRae and Aliu and returnees Adam Perry and Justin Taylor skating with Pat Maroon.

"It's been like a turnstile around here."

LONDON KNIGHTS' NEW ASSISTANT COACH PAT CURCIO

"It's not difficult to figure out who our top six forwards are," said new assistant coach Pat Curcio. "We don't know what kind of scoring we're going to get yet. It's not that we don't have proven guys. Akim Aliu's a true power forward. He only had around 40 points last year and we expect he'll improve on that total. We expect Phil McRae to start developing into one of the elite players in the league."

The defence will be anchored by Martine, Scott Aarssen, Kevin Montgomery and Matt Clarke. The Knights also acquired over-ager Trevor Koverko, a veteran of Oshawa and Owen Sound, for an eighth-round pick in 2008.

London's grit will take an early hit with Cody Smith expected to undergo surgery on his knee (which will cost him at least a month) and Jordan Shine serving the remaining 16 games of a

20-game suspension for slashing in the Western Conference final against Plymouth.

You've heard of changing on the fly? The Knights will have to develop chemistry on the go. "It's been like a turnstile around here," Curcio said. "Guys coming in and out of town. This is our first game and we'll see what we have and go from there."

There will be the prerequisite hunger to succeed that each championship team needs. Aliu, who went to the league final with the Wolves last spring, wants to get back. He also wants to show Chicago he has what it takes to play at the next level.

"Pat (Kane) and I saw a lot of each other at camp," the

18-year-old said. "It was veteran and rookie rooming together so he was with Kevyn Adams and I was with Sergei Samsonov, who's a great guy and we talked Russian the whole time (Aliu is fluent).

"Sam (Gagner) and I have been buddies since minor hockey and we talk and I'm so happy for him right now. If he comes back, it's great for us."

The Knights haven't discusses the captaincy yet, but the usual suspects -- Adam Perry and Scott Aarssen, for example -- would likely wear letters until the roster is set. Leadership and acceptance has always been a major ingredient in London's winning ways, a characteristic quickly noticed by newcomers.

"You walk into this dressing room and with the guys who have been around a little bit longer, you're treated like you've been friends for at least a couple of years," Romano said.

So, they're all friends.

Will the wins continue?

---

GAME GUIDE

London Knights vs. Sarnia Sting

When: OHL season opener tonight, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre.

Pregame: Gates open at 6:30 p.m. The Knights will unveil banners to commemorate their four straight years as Hamilton Spectator Trophy winners as OHL regular-season champs. Interactive activities, plus a Dance Extreme demonstration, will be showcased in the concourse.


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