London a place juniors want to come

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

The London Knights have a lot of recruiting tools.

Fancy arena. Recent history of winning. Coaches and owners with NHL pedigree.

But the biggest magnet remains the NHL draft. Before committing to a club, talented teenagers want to believe the place they're going to play junior will serve as a pipeline to their hockey dreams.

This time, the Knights can point to one -- incoming defenceman John Carlson, who went 27th overall to Washington on Friday at Ottawa, and take credit for another -- forward Phil McRae, who went six picks later in the second round to his hometown St. Louis Blues.

"Two (in the first two rounds) is good, but you want more," London GM Mark Hunter said. "I was hoping (Czech defenceman Vladimir) Roth would go. You start getting greedy and you want all your guys to get picked."

The more selected from the Knights, the more young skaters believe London is the place to play.

The first overall pick in the NHL draft is the ultimate bargaining chip. It's a big reason the Knights were bold enough to draft players from United States colleges -- names other teams don't expect to play in the OHL.

"When Pat Kane (2007) and Rick Nash (2002) are mentioned, they're associated with the London Knights and that means a great deal," London assistant GM Jim McKellar said. "The players may be known in the city or province-wide, but when they're drafted first overall to the NHL, their names become known world-wide.

"We have those two No. 1 picks, guys we're very proud of, and no other team in the world over the last eight years can make that claim."

This time, the rival Sarnia Sting earned the top cache through Steve Stamkos, who went first overall to Tampa Bay.

"Just to have our brand on the cover of The Hockey News and all over television because of Steve, it means everything," Sting marketing and public relations co-ordinator Mark Glavin said. "It does wonders for recruiting when kids know he played here. I don't think he ever turned down an interview through the process and I got to know pretty much everybody who works at TSN on a first-name basis because of it.

"Merchandising, we've been selling Stamkos jerseys at a time when we usually wouldn't be moving very many."

Of course, the association with the NHL draft works both ways. Every time Drew Doughty's name was mentioned before Los Angeles picked him, TV stations ran a clip of the Guelph defenceman and London native deking through every Knight on the ice to score a dramatic game-winner last season.

London is talking about playing a puck-possession and skating game this year, not unlike what the fun-to-watch OHL champion Kitchener Rangers and Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings.

"We're trying to put together a team that can win this year and next year," Mark Hunter said. "We have a good group of 1990 (born) forwards and we're going to be bigger on our back end and able to move the puck up the ice."

In a year when more European players appear willing to come overseas, the Knights would like to move up from No. 37 in Thursday's import draft, but that's looking less likely. Sudbury is expected to hold on to the No. 1 pick, which makes obtaining Russian Nikita Filatov an almost impossible chore for London.

The Knights recently held a tour for three of its four top American draft picks in 2008 (third-rounder Jared Knight, a University of Michigan commit, didn't take part ).

But the lines of communication remain open. There's a USA hockey camp for top 16-year-old players in Rochester, N.Y., this week and head coach Dale Hunter will be there.

"There's no rule that says you can't talk to the kids," Mark Hunter said.

Stamkos and the two Knights weren't the only players from local teams and with area roots to have their names called by an NHL club.

Sarnia's Jamie Arniel, who started the season as a teammate of Doughty and ended it with Stamkos, went 97th overall to the Boston Bruins. Montreal took six-foot-eight goalie Jason Missiaen, a Chatham native who played for the Peterborough Petes, in the fourth round (116th overall).

New Jersey grabbed Wallingham's Kory Nagy of the Oshawa Generals with the 142nd pick. Sarnia forward Matt Martin went to the Islanders six picks later and his Sting teammate Justin DiBenedetto also joined the New York club at No. 175.

West Lorne's Justin Azevedo, the 20-year-old Kitchener Rangers star who was the Canadian Hockey League's leading scorer and most outstanding player this season, went in the sixth round (153rd overall) to Los Angeles.


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