Knights must fill holes to chase Spitfires

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

This will be the least surprising statement of this OHL season. It will be the Windsor Spitfires and everyone else in the charge for the league title.

If the Spitfires return all their eligible players they may well be better than the team that won the Memorial Cup last year.

No matter how good a lineup returns, no team has won back-to-back Memorial Cups since Kamloops in 1994-95 and no team has won back-to-back OHL titles since Sault Ste. Marie in 1991-92.

It speaks to the pressure and intensity defending champions face when they step on the ice.

The London Knights have lived with those expectations the last seven years. Until the Spitfires revival, the Knights were perennial favourites in the Western Conference. Every game, the Knights got the best the opposition had.

Every year, the Knights either won the conference or were in the hunt for the title.

They'll have to go some to win it this year.

But don't worry about what you'll see tonight when the Spitfires face the Knights in London's home opener. There's a way to go before the complete picture for either team emerges.

Last season was all about two teams, especially in the playoffs. The Spitfires and Knights engaged in a classic conference final won by the Spits in five games, all of them going to overtime. It really was that close.

The Western Conference will be better this year. Guelph, Owen Sound and Plymouth have all improved.

The expectations are it will be harder for both teams.

There's something about this Knights team that shows promise. Losing John Tavares and John Carlson created huge holes in the lineup. If Nazem Kadri and Michael Del Zotto return, they'll have two of the best players in the league. Phil Varone, Justin Taylor, Phil McRae, Daniel Erlich and Jared Knight will score. Leigh Salters, Dominic DeSando and Zac Rinaldo will provide grit.

Just about everyone likes the Knights goaltending, with the Mike and Mike show, Hutchinson and Houser.

Is it all enough?

It's not enough to win it all but it's enough right now to make them very competitive.

And it's early yet.

There's one other factor that will come into play, whether it's sooner or later you never know, but it will come into play.

Call it the Hunter factor.

General manager Mark Hunter works the off-ice business to perfection.

Hunter is one of the best in the business at filling holes, completing lineups and recognizing whether making deals will make any difference in the long-term success of a hockey team.

He'll look at what he might have next year and what he has this year and recognize this year's team will likely have the best chance to competing.

Mark Hunter doesn't get enough credit for putting teams together. Not everything he does works out but he's right far more often than he's wrong.

Just about everyone in the league knows the Knights need a defenceman. Yet Hunter somehow goes out and manages to land Michael D'Orazio, a pretty good defensive defenceman at a reasonable price - a draft choice and Jason Wilson. It's a good deal for both teams.

Most fans only see the end product of a deal but Wilson is a guy that almost didn't make to the OHL.

Hunter drafted him in the eighth round in 2006. Wilson was a big kid who could skate but didn't play the kind of game suited to a player his size.

Wilson couldn't crack the Knights lineup his first year and went back to play provincial junior A hockey. Hunter had a chat with the young man about what he needed to do to play in the OHL.

When Wilson returned to his second Knights' camp in 2008, he was a different player. He spent his year of provincial junior A hockey getting bigger, stronger and learning to play the way he needed to play.

"This year he's come into camp and is really banging, playing tough," Hunter said at that camp. "He's been a surprise and I can tell you, if he keeps playing like this, he'll have a chance to make the team."

Two years later, Hunter parlayed the player in a much-needed defenceman.

This year's team is good enough right now to finish second in the Western Conference.

With another scorer and another defenceman, who knows what might happen?

We'll find out after the Hunter factor kicks in.


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