The London Knights have landed major junior hockey's biggest star.
After a roller-coaster week of squashed speculation and runaway rumours, Oshawa Generals sniper John Tavares is finally on his way to London to lead a major Knights' push to reach the Memorial Cup this season.
One day after the OHL-leading Windsor Spitfires made a huge splash by acquiring a trio of veteran Kitchener Rangers, Knights GM Mark Hunter triggered a tidal wave by scooping up world junior tournament MVP Tavares, defenceman and New York Rangers first-rounder Michael Del Zotto and 19-year-old goalie Daryl Borden, who has been playing with Brantford in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.
In return, the Knights sent Oshawa first-round rookie forward Christian Thomas (son of former Toronto Maple Leaf Steve Thomas), hard-hitting defenceman Scott Valentine, goalie Michael Zador, four second-round draft picks over the next four years and two future third-rounders. All this was just ahead of the league's trade deadline at noon today.
"I have mixed emotions right now -- it's a little bit of both (happy and sad)," said Tavares, 18. "Obviously, I know I'm going to a very good organization and will have a chance to win, but I know I'm leaving a pretty good one too."
Tavares, an Oakville native, was granted "exceptional status" by the OHL in 2005 and drafted first overall by Oshawa while he was still 14. He scored 45 goals as a rookie, added 72 in his second season to break Wayne Gretzky's OHL record for a 16-year-old and is the favourite to be the first pick in the NHL draft this summer in Montreal.
Tavares, Oshawa's all-time leading goal-scorer, played his final game with the club on Wednesday in Belleville, an 8-2 loss.
He has 26 goals and 54 points in 32 games this season. But he called it "highly unlikely" that he'll make his Knights debut tonight when the Generals visit the John Labatt Centre.
He is, however, expected to arrive at the rink today.
"There's a lot of things up in the air right now," Tavares said. "It's been real busy. We just had the world juniors and I also have the (top) prospects game (in Oshawa on Wednesday) coming up."
Mark Hunter said it wasn't part of the deal that Tavares sit out against his old team. Del Zotto is expected to play.
The Knights are at home on Sunday against Mississauga.
"With everything John's been through with the world juniors and all the hype, he hasn't really had a proper rest so we want to offer him that," Mark Hunter said.
Tavares said he learned of the deal yesterday and he waived a no-trade clause to join the Knights. He said he didn't hear a report on Monday -- about four hours before the puck dropped in the world junior gold medal game in Ottawa -- that had him prematurely on his way to London.
"I was pretty surprised about Michael (Del Zotto) being part of it, but it's nice to have another guy to go through it with and he's a player I know well," Tavares said.
He also spoke to his old Toronto Marlies midget teammate Akim Aliu this week. Aliu was traded by London to Sudbury last Saturday.
"We played together when we were younger, of course, but it was more about how are you doing and that kind of thing (rather than about London or the Knights)," Tavares said.
Tavares has worn No. 91 his entire OHL career, but the number currently belongs to another sure-fire NHL first-rounder, Nazem Kadri.
"It's not all about me," Tavares said. "I'm going there to be part of a team, so he can keep it and I'll take whatever number they give me."
It's possible he could end up with 61, the number former Knight and 2002 NHL first-overall pick Rick Nash wore with the Knights and now with the Columbus.
Tavares' new teammates are looking forward to going to battle with him.
"He obviously brings a lot of skill and he's scored some big goals, some game-winners, this year and hopefully, he brings that with him to London," Knights veteran forward Justin Taylor said. "He brings a lot of attention and the spotlight as the guy who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. I'm happy for a guy like Nazem Kadri, because a lot more people will see what kind of player he is, too.
"It's too bad we had to lose three young guys like Christian Thomas, Scott Valentine and Michael Zador, but they'll get the chance to play a little bit more in Oshawa and we feel we have a team that can challenge for the Memorial Cup this year."
London's biggest competition will still be front-running Windsor. GM Warren Rychel made his own offer to Oshawa for Tavares in the latest chapter of a rekindled Knights-Spits rivalry.
"Oh, yeah, it's (the rivalry's) back," Rychel said. "I was still playing (pro) when the Hunters bought the Knights and we saw what they did with their team. We've tried to model what we've done based on that. We leaned on them in the beginning and we like to think we have started building the way they have. We have a lot of respect for the London Knights but at the same time, we have to play them.
"And now, it's time to get some wins against them."
Windsor is 3-0 against London so far this season. The Knights, who still have room to make another move before the deadline, hope this deal will change the tide.
Tavares' natural scoring ability should make an already productive Knights' power play deadly. He is already familiar with London. Before linking up with agent Pat Brisson, who also handles Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, he was represented by local firm Siskinds Sports Management and skated during their annual summer camps at Western Fair Sports Centre.
"It's a great rink to play in and I'm looking forward to it," he said.
"I know there's a lot of good players there."
In his first OHL visit to the JLC as a 15-year-old on Oct. 21, 2005, Tavares' Generals were bombed 8-2 by the Knights.
But he scored a late goal from in close, scoring high over 20-year-old Adam Dennis. The goalie couldn't believe it went in from that angle. London coach Dale Hunter thought it was a pro-calibre effort.
It was a memorable first impression to the JLC.
Now, for the next five months, he'll call it home.
NEW KNIGHTS OHL CAREER STATISTICS
Born: Sept. 20, 1990
Home town: Oakville
Height: Six-foot; weight: 198 pounds
NHL status: Eligible for 2009 draft
Regular season Playoffs
Season Team GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM
2005-06 Oshawa 65 45 32 77 72 - - - - -
2006-07 Oshawa 67 72 62 134 60 9 7 12 19 6
2007-08 Oshawa 59 40 78 118 69 15 3 13 16 20
2008-09 Oshawa 32 26 28 54 32
Michael Del Zotto
Born: June 24, 1990
Home town: Stouffville
Height: Six-foot; weight: 188 pounds
NHL status: New York Rangers, first round, 20th overall, 2008 draft
Regular season Playoffs
Season Team GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM
2006-07 Oshawa 64 10 47 57 78 9 3 9 12 14
2007-08 Oshawa 64 16 47 63 82 15 2 6 8 38
2008-09 Oshawa 34 7 26 33 48 - - - - -
Born: May 19, 1989
Home town: Brantford
Height: Six-foot-three; weight: 191 pounds
Season Team GP Min GA EN SO GAA W L T Svs Pct
2005-06 Kingston 15 765 51 0 0 4.00 5 9 1 395 .886
2006-07 Kingston 31 1762 115 2 0 3.92 16 9 3 860 .882
2007-08 Kingston 2 120 15 1 0 7.51 0 2 0 59 .797
2007-08 Oshawa 35 2059 124 2 2 3.61 16 11 6 1006 .890
2008-09 Oshawa 13 739 55 1 0 4.46 3 6 1 379 .873