Knights' fate tied to Gagner

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:59 AM ET

The fate of this season's version of the London Knights will be decided sometime around Christmas.

That's when Knights general manager Mark Hunter will make a call to Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe. He'll ask if the Oilers intend to keep forward Sam Gagner for the entire season or if they'll be sending him back.

If Lowe says the Santa sack will be empty, then Hunter will have a major decision to make.

Does he begin a Boxing Day sale of his most marketable commodities? Or does he keep them and get what he can out of the season?

The last time he was faced with this decision may well have been the first year the Hunters owned the club. They were battling for a playoff spot but had Chris Kelly and Dan Jancevski on the roster and several teams were willing to pony up players and draft choices to get them.

It was a tough choice to make but Hunter did the right thing and traded them. He got Dennis Wideman and draft choices. No one needs to be told how well that worked out.

This time around, he has even more marketable assets. The best one is goaltender Steve Mason. It's rare that the addition of one player can put a team over the top. But Mason is that player. Adding Mason to a team such as the Kitchener Rangers or Oshawa Generals will make them favourites to win the OHL.

Besides Mason, Hunter has several defencemen he might consider moving and a couple of forwards, the most obvious being Adam Perry.

Don't think Hunter wouldn't extort a fine price for these stars, especially if the Rangers come calling. It hurts the Knights to know the Rangers are already in the Memorial Cup, having won the bid to hold the tournament. Helping them win it would go down about as smoothly as a skunky Kokanee.

The Knights have always done business with the Generals and if Kitchener wins the Western Conference, all the Generals have to do is win the East to guarantee a berth in the Memorial Cup.

But the list of shoppers won't stop there.

There are several teams that believe they have a shot at a Memorial Cup berth in this year of mediocrity in the OHL.

None of this happens, of course, if Gagner returns. Is there a chance he will return? No one is sure what direction the Oilers are going to go. Every scenario has another scenario attached to it.

If Gagner returns, the Knights have a chance to make it to the Memorial Cup. They'll have the goaltending and Hunter will go out on the trade deadline and pick up a defenceman to help his club. Getting Gagner back adds a top scorer without costing you anything.

Not only does Gagner score, but he also helps his teammates score. The power play immediately takes on a new dimension. Those are aspects of the game the Knights have struggled with this year.

If Gagner doesn't return, then Hunter has to make a tough decision and go down a road he doesn't want to travel.

Hunter doesn't like to pack anything in and trading Mason is a message that the Knights have packed it in for the season. Without Mason, they have no prayer. Hunter doesn't like it because it sends the wrong message to the fans who jam the joint every game.

He also doesn't like it because, like many observers, he sees a league with few dominant teams. The best are the Rangers and the Windsor Spitfires in this conference.

With Mason and some adjusting near the trade deadline, Hunter believes this Knights team has a chance to go a couple of rounds in the playoffs. That guarantees the Knights between four and eight big gates. With a little luck, maybe more.

And the fans would be happy because they won't feel sold out. The easy path is not always the best one to take.

Hunter knows that.

If Gagner stays in Edmonton, Mason, Perry and others are gone. While the Hunters like the idea of making the extra cash, they don't need it. Their post-Christmas sale will earn them young players and draft choices and Hunter can spin the move by saying it will make the Knights even more competitive for next year.

It's the right thing to do.


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