Waiting game for NHL hopefuls

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

The London Knights are four days from the start of the season and they are still waiting to make their roster final, still aren't sure whether they'll get all their players back from the National Hockey League camps and are looking around to see whether they can upgrade their lineup.

In other words, it's business as usual.

The Knights open the season against the Memorial Cup champion and No. 1-ranked Windsor Spitfires on Friday. Considering the tradition the rivalry these two teams have rekindled since the rebirth of the Spitfires, this would have been a good early season test.

Instead it's going to be a game worth two points, but that show little about where both teams are heading.

That both will be good is a given. Many have already handed the Spitfires a second title.

Not so fast.

There's a uniqueness about junior hockey. It is difficult to repeat, no matter how good a team.

"It used to be that you had a good idea about who would be back," said Knights' coach Dale Hunter. "Now, you just don't know. You prepare your team the way you always do and just wait and see."

The Knights have gotten a group of players back from NHL camps including Justin Taylor, Leigh Salters, and Phil Varone.

They wait nervously for word on Nazem Kadri in the Leafs' camp and Michael Del Zotto in the Rangers camp. Also still away are goalie Michael Hutchinson, Jason Wilson and Zac Rinaldo.

Hutchinson is a sure no-show for Friday. Kadri is going to play in Thursday's exhibition game in London against the Philadelphia Flyers.

No one knows whether any of them will be back in time for Friday.

Wilson has been one of the biggest surprises so far in pro game. He's had a terrific camp with Boston, getting involved physically and doing some scoring.

Hunter is now in his eighth year as coach of the Knights. He rarely gets excited or bent out of shape this early in the season, knowing the team he has now has some changing and developing to do. It also means he isn't big on making predictions of any sort.

"I'll tell you though, that I like our young kids," Hunter said. "Our two young (defenceman) Scott Harrington and Jake Worrad and the two forwards Dane Fox and Seth Griffith have played well. And I like Houser (goaltender Michael Houser.) To have those young kids means we can build for the future."

Hunter hasn't always had the luxury of having those young pieces of the puzzle for the future. Since the Hunters have taken over the Knights, their team is always in the mix for a championship. That often means they must deal young players or draft choices to pick up a piece of the final puzzle.

"You have to do it," Hunter said "No risk, no gain. The problem is, the better the team you have, the more you wind up being in this situation.

This situation is running the risk of losing your young players.

Heading into the opener on Friday, the makeup of this team is not much of a mystery.

They should be good in goal and be able to score plenty of goals. They may be deeper at forward than the Spitfires.

Of course, that's if Kadri comes back. If by some longshot he doesn't come back, that brings the Knights back to everyone else.

The work in progress is at the blue line. If Del Zotto doesn't return, it's more than a work in progress. It's a major construction zone with the only real experience being Steven Tarasuk.

The wild card is the Knights' Russian defenceman Anton Klementyev, an New York Islanders fifth round pick.

He's a bit of an unknown but reports from the Islanders camp has him playing extremely well and most of his strength is at the defensive end. The Knights need all of that considering the offensive tendencies of both Del Zotto and Tarasuk.

"We're just waiting to see. We don't know anything yet," Hunter said.

As we said, business as usual.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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