NHL shapes Hunter strategy

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

They stock their team with sons of NHL players.

They promise kids they'll learn what it takes to play in the NHL.

Dale and Mark Hunter run the London Knights with a constant eye on the NHL, realizing that major junior hockey and the big league are inextricably linked.

London opens the 2008-09 OHL season tonight in Saginaw against the Spirit. Yesterday, head coach Dale Hunter was tuned to a game on TV from an NHL rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich.

"I'm watching Columbus and Dallas play on Channel 418," Hunter said. "I'm watching how (Sergei) Korostin (the Knights' import draft pick and Stars prospect) does. He looks pretty good out there."

Say this about the Hunters -- they know where they are and who's ahead of them. This Knights edition can score, but Korostin's presence could close the gap on OHL favourite Windsor, a team that can score even more.

The Spitfires represent London's biggest early obstacle to a Memorial Cup berth in Rimouski next spring.

"Windsor deserves their (No. 1 ranking in the Canadian Hockey League) because they had a good season last year and they have very good forwards coming back," Hunter said.

But he threw out a jab: what if the Islanders don't send high-scoring Josh Bailey, the ninth overall pick this summer, back to Windsor? It could happen.

The Knights understand. They were the only OHL team to lose just-drafted players to the NHL last year -- stars Sam Gagner and Pat Kane. Thanks to a banner crop of OHL draftees, nearly half the league will deal with the same concern this fall.

"This year's different because the NHL pushed training camps back a week," Hunter said. "If the rookies make it to the main camp, you might not have guys back for a couple more weeks after that.

"Teams are going to look at younger players playing big roles for a while and the teams whose young players step up are going to win those early games."

Two of the past three seasons, London started 0-6 while its stars were in the NHL mix. Each year, the Knights recovered.

But if Gagner or Kane had been sent back, GM Mark Hunter wouldn't have made the blockbuster trade of the 2007-08 season -- sending Team Canada goalie Steve Mason on the day of the world junior semifinal to help Cup host and bitter rival Kitchener's run.

In hindsight, the move backfired on the Rangers when Mason hurt his knee in the playoffs. Out of that deal, the Knights boast centre Nazem Kadri, who should lead the team in scoring this year, hard-working Phil Varone and valuable defenceman Steve Tarasuk.

"We think we can put together two solid scoring lines with players like Nazem and (Chris) MacKinnon," Dale Hunter said. "It depends on who we play (if they employ an exciting hard forecheck or revert to the tried-and-true trap system) and the dump-ins we get.

"If we get good dumps in the corner, we can go after it. If we put the puck where the goalie can play it, we can't."

London loses 35-goal, 90-point man Pat Maroon to the Philadelphia Flyers organization. But if the Knights can harness Chicago prospect Akim Aliu, they can replace those stats with more grit.

These Knights are generally smaller up front, save for newcomer Jason Wilson and Aliu, who is still with Chicago.

"We have to monitor the physical stuff because a team like Windsor will want to play the fighting game," Hunter said. "We'll keep our eye on that."

The Knights got younger but bigger on the back end. The wild card is Kevin Montgomery, eligible to come back from Colorado's camp.

"Guys like Scott Valentine and Barron Smith, they're young guys but big, and you should be able to absorb some of those checks," Hunter said.

The goaltending duo stands at over-ager Jason Guy and Michael Zador, a first-rounder in 2007.

"They're going to get their chance," Hunter said. "It's up to them."

Add all that to players with fathers of pro pedigree -- St. Louis second-rounder Phil McRae, currently out with mononucleosis; first-rounder Christian Thomas; Smith (son of Steve Smith); and the two Hunter boys -- Garett, son of Mark, and Dale's son Tucker, who scored consistently during the preseason to start his third campaign.

"You need someone to go to the net hard and that's what he's done," Dale Hunter said. "It's like what Tomas Holmstrom does with the (Stanley Cup-winning) Red Wings. You play with (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk and if you go the net, there will be rebounds."

That NHL approach is alive and well in the OHL, London specifically.

KNIGHTWATCH

Tonight: Knights' season opener at Saginaw, 7:11 p.m. at the Dow Event Center.

Friday: Knights' home opener vs. Erie, 7:30 p.m. at John Labatt Centre.

Saturday: Knights at Sarnia, 7:30 p.m. at Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre.


Videos

Photos