Expectations sky-high for Knights

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Welcome home, Nazem Kadri.

Now lead the way.

Congratulations on your three-year contract with Chicago, Akim Aliu.

Now hit, fight and score.

You had quite a summer, Phil McRae. Now produce like an NHL second-rounder and a U.S. world junior prospect.

There are sky-rocketing expectations heading into the London Knights 2008-09 training camp that begins today with most players reporting for fitness tests.

GM Mark Hunter spent part of his offseason on the tractor at his farm and the other half hacking away at the big question marks that made his team a first-round OHL playoff loser last spring.

"Uncertainty isn't good for a hockey team," Hunter said. "Last year, we had uncertainty right from the start. Everyone thought it would be all right when Sam Gagner came back (from Edmonton). Sam is a Mike Richards kind of player -- someone who can lead the way.

"But it got strung along and Sam never came back. We were lacking leadership in some important areas, but I think we've addressed that.

"We have a lot less question marks heading into this season. We want to get back to the success we had in the playoffs before."

Hunter feels he has that Gagner-type player in Kadri. The 17-year-old Londoner was the offseason jewel in a blockbuster midseason trade with Kitchener that didn't work out so well for the Rangers when goalie Steve Mason hurt his knee in the playoffs.

"Nazem was the second-line centre on a team that played in the Memorial Cup (final)," Hunter said. "He's been through it all before. We expect him to be a leader."

This is a new era for the Knights.

Trainer Don Brankley is gone. Former assistant coach Dave Gagner has joined the NHL's Vancouver Canucks and might not be replaced.

"That decision is up to the head coach (Dale Hunter)," Mark Hunter said. "He could add someone if he wants or he could go with just two on the bench (he and assistant Pat Curcio)."

Dave Rook returns as goalie coach and will work with long-time student Jason Guy, an over-ager with one more chance to prove he can be the No. 1 guy for a contender.

The Knights think they have a winner in import pickup and Dallas prospect Sergei Korostin, but they haven't secured his services yet.

"His release is something I'm working on right now," Hunter said.

The Knights are likely losing their best offensive player and defenceman -- Pat Maroon and Kevin Montgomery -- to the American Hockey League this year. Last year, London was last in the OHL to win a game and Hunter said there's little to learn from that 0-7 start.

"This time, the first three games could be up in the air," Hunter said. "NHL camps are starting later and we might not have Akim back by then. (New defenceman) John Carlson and Justin Taylor may still be gone."

Hunter traded over-ager Tony Romano to Peterborough for a conditional eighth-round pick in 2009. Romano, a New Jersey prospect, had 22 points in 66 games last year. He also swapped a sixth-round pick (2009) for a big forward from the Sudbury Wolves -- Londoner Colin Martin, who scored big goals for the St. Marys Lincolns last year.

Hunter has scoring and skill on board, including forward Chris MacKinnon picked up in a deal with Owen Sound for Andrew Wilkins. Other than captain Scott Aarssen, and perhaps Matt Clarke if he stays on the blue-line, the defence will be younger but should be bigger and mobile.

Toughness is still an issue. Jordan Shine is gone and will play for Newmarket in the Ontario Provincial Junior A League. Cody Smith, injured most of last season, has been invited to camp.

The glove-dropping duties may fall for a while to Aliu, one of the more intimidating and forwards in the OHL.

KNIGHTS TRAINING CAMP

Today: Registration and fitness testing

Tomorrow: Scrimmages at John Labatt Centre (open to public; enter through Gate 4) 8-9:30 a.m.; 9:45-11 a.m; 1:30-3 p.m.; 3:15-4:45 p.m.

Thursday (all activities at JLC, open to public: Scrimmages -- 8-9:30 a.m.; 9:45-11:15 a.m.; Practice -- 1-2 p.m; Black and white game -- 2:15-4:15 p.m.

Pre-season game: vs. Sarnia Sting, Friday, 7:30 p.m. at JLC.


Photos