Hunter high on Knights

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

There should be no surprise in this.

London Knights general manager Mark Hunter likes his team.

These are the real Knights we're talking about, the Ontario Hockey League Knights, not the London Pro Knights who are embroiled in the Euro Can Cup competition.

About 70 junior hockey players began their quest to make the team on the first day of training camp yesterday at Western Fair Sports Centre.

The day was dedicated to registration and testing. The battle on the ice begins today and goes through tomorrow, beginning at 8 a.m. and running until 3:45 p.m.

They'll be trying to make a team that since its move to the John Labatt Centre, has competed for championships. They were defeated in five games last season by the Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires in the Western Conference final. All five games went to overtime.

But yesterday was paper day, the day all the testing scores are written down -- the most impressive being returnee Jason Wilson's 42 repetitions in the 150-pound bench press -- and the day you evaluate your team on paper and see how it looks.

When it gets on the ice, it might show something different entirely.

But on paper . . .

"I like our team," Hunter said. "We have good goaltending depth, which we haven't had in a couple of years. We have a couple of veterans back on defence and we should be able to score."

But what kind of general manager would Hunter be if he didn't worry.

"You don't know about injuries and the other thing you worry about is the NHL," he said. "You don't know who they are going to take."

The Hunters are all about their players making the NHL. But two years ago they lost Pat Kane (as expected) and Sam Gagner (unexpectedly) as underage players to their NHL teams. The loss of Gagner was a devastating blow.

This year the worry is about Nazem Kadri, the high-scoring forward who was drafted No. 7 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. It would be somewhat surprising if Kadri cracked the Leaf lineup, but that's what everyone thought about Gagner and we are talking the Maple Leafs here. Who knows what might happen.

With Kadri back, he would join potential point producers like Phil Varone, Daniel Erlich, Jared Knight, Phil McRae and Justin Taylor to form the Knights offensive core.

The other nerve-jangler is defenceman Michael Del Zotto. He was a first-round pick of the New York Rangers and if he performs in Rangers' camp the way he did in last year's playoffs against the Spitfires, he'll open some eyes.

Hunter is resigned to losing defenceman John Carlson. Even though the big blue-liner has another year left, he'll either play with the Washington Capitals or in its farm system.

With Del Zotto and Steve Tarasuk back, the blue-line won't have a problem handling the puck.

But the fear of a shortage on the blue-line propelled the Knights to take defencemen Scott Harrington and Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs' Jake Worrad with their first two draft picks in the spring.

Harrington is remarkably poised for a young man. He went to the Knights late in the first round even though he was rated by many as a top five pick. Even though he's young, he expects a lot from himself.

"I was headed to the NCAA but when London took me, that changed the equation because it's such a good organization and a good team. It made the decision a lot harder than it was before," Harrington said.

"I feel like I have something to prove to the players because I am one of the youngest players on the team and going in the first round is extra incentive for myself. I don't take that for granted. I want to go out and prove that I deserved being picked there."

Harrington and Worrad are young and need time to develop. On paper they are blue chippers.

Like everything else on paper, if it translates on the ice, then the Knights will be battling for a title yet again.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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