Spitfires last hurdle for Tavares

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

John Tavares has one more challenge left in junior hockey.

It isn't tonight's Canadian Hockey League top prospects game in his familiar stomping grounds of Oshawa.

Or Victor Hedman, the big Swedish bogeyman who once threatened Tavares' long-held perch as the likely No. 1 pick in the NHL draft this summer at Montreal.

It's the Windsor Spitfires.

The most complete team in the OHL stands as the final riddle the best offensive talent not yet in the pros has to solve. The big question remains: Can he put a contending team into the Memorial Cup?

It's the primary reason why Tavares is now a London Knight, the final piece of GM Mark Hunter's solution to a Windsor problem for which there had been previously no answer.

"It's exciting," said the 18-year-old sniper, back in Oshawa one more day while still adjusting to his new Knight life. "We have a great opportunity in front of us and, obviously, we know what's at stake."

So does Windsor.

Had GM Warren Rychel landed Tavares at last week's trade deadline, there would've been only one team left in an already top-heavy OHL championship conversation. But when he couldn't, he made deals to Tavares-proof his team by adding some proven winners and defensive depth.

"We did what we had to do," Windsor's 18-year-old defenceman and fellow Canadian world junior gold medalist Ryan Ellis said, "and London did what they had to do by getting John. Now everyone's looking forward to us meeting and it's going to be great.

"There's going to be a lot of interest."

The first head-to-head is Feb. 6 in London. After the trades, everyone expects the two clubs to meet in the OHL's Western Conference final, which could be played in front of a combined attendance of 56,000 if the series goes seven and London gets the extra home game.

Rogers Sportsnet is already looking to see how it can add a London or Windsor tilt or two to its TV schedule.

For Tavares, his performance against the Spits will be the legacy of his short London tenure. Everything he needed to prove as an individual player -- from phenom to goal-scorer to leader -- he took care of in Oshawa and in Ottawa at the world juniors.

AROUND THE O

Tavares' two-goal, three-point debut with London was impressive but far from the best opening performance by a player switching jerseys last week. Sault Ste. Marie native Brett Thompson, son of former Greyhounds goalie Billy Thompson, celebrated his homecoming from Sudbury to the Soo with a first-game hat trick against Kitchener. Still, Belleville's Luke Pither holds the crown as the undisputed deadline king with three goals and five points against Oshawa after the Bulls plucked him out of Guelph . . . The hockey world is small: Tavares lands in London in the OHL's biggest trade. Over in the Quebec league, his Canadian world junior linemate Chris DiDomenico is also dealt from Saint John to front-running Drummondville. The guy shipping him out? Sea Dogs GM and coach Jacques Beaulieu, a former Knights assistant . . . Doug Gilmour's Kingston Frontenacs are in last place but not from a lack of young talent. With D Taylor Doherty and F Ethan Werek, the Frontenacs have just as many players competing in tonight's top prospects game as London and one more than Windsor . . . Tavares take on playing for Bobby Orr's team instead of Don Cherry's squad in Oshawa tonight: "He probably won't be on me as much about finishing my checks," he said. "Don likes more of the rough stuff." . . . Tavares is the first NHL top prospect to be traded during his junior career in a long time. A dozen years ago, Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips left the Western Hockey League's Prince Albert Raiders for the Lethbridge Hurricanes -- but this was after he had already been chosen by the Sens . . . Two years ago, the Belleville Bulls had Mike Murphy, now the OHL's best goalie, and Eddy Pasquale, the busy Saginaw puckstopper ranked No. 1 by NHL Central Scouting, backing up Calgary prospect Kevin Lalande. "Mike and I both got the chance to learn a lot from watching how Kevin handled everything," Pasquale said.


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