Last season all over again for Knights

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Been there, done that. Do they do it again?

That's the dilemma facing the London Knights again this year.

This Ontario Hockey League season looks remarkably like the last OHL season.

The Knights are among the top OHL teams chasing the Windsor Spitfires, the elite OHL team.

The Knights are in a group that includes the Kitchener Rangers, Barrie Colts and maybe Mississauga St. Mike's Majors that look like the best of the rest.

For the Knights' purposes, their interest is the Rangers and Spitfires. Last year, the battle for the Western Conference title was always going to come down to a confrontation between the Knights and the Spitfires. This year, that's not so clearly cut.

The similarities between this year and last are striking. The Spitfires are the class of the OHL as they were last year. Some believe this year's version of the Spitfires is even better than last year. The Knights are better in net than they were last year. They are solid defensively, but that defence doesn't produce the same number of points that John Carlson and Michael Del Zotto did last year.

In the end, the Knights will have to decide in January whether they will go out and make a major deal like they did last year, bringing in Del Zotto and John Tavares to challenge the Spitfires. It got them the scoring they needed and the impact partner Carlson needed on the backline.

The Knights were eliminated by the Spitfires in five games in the Western Conference final with all five games going to overtime. It was their goaltending that failed them. There is no certainty they would have won had they received key saves, but the Spitfires certainly would have been under a lot more pressure if the Knights had managed to win a couple more of those overtime games.

So here the Knights are yet again. Do they pay a premium price in an attempt to get by the Rangers, Plymouth Whalers and Saginaw Spirits just for a shot at the Spitfires? Or do they decide that it may be time to hold the fort, pick up some future picks or young players and get a start on next year?

One can understand the dilemma general manager Mark Hunter is facing. He isn't used to bailing out. He looks at his lineup and sees that with Michael Hutchinson and Michael Houser, his goaltending is as good as it's been in years and will be good for several years to come. His defence is one of the best in the league. His forwards don't score as many goals as they should, but if he can pick up another sniper, who knows what's going to happen.

But if he waits another year, he knows that Nazem Kadri will most likely be gone to the National Hockey League.

"Is Windsor beatable? Yes, they are. Everybody is beatable," Hunter said. "We'll need the hockey gods to shine down on us, but any team is beatable. This is a tough league. You can look to Windsor, but there are other tough teams in the league."

For public consumption, Hunter says he isn't sure what he's going to do.

But knowing how he operates, there's no question Hunter is clear in his mind about what he will do, depending on how his team performs during the next month or so.

Even though the Knights have been winning, nothing has been easy for them even with a full lineup.

With Kadri and McRae likely gone for about a month with world junior hockey commitments, Hunter and the coaching staff will get a good look at what the rest of his team can do without their top two goal scorers.

"It's a chance for some of the younger players to pick it up and show what they can do," he said.

What's unspoken is that he also wants to check out the older players who are left.

If the team continues to play well with Kadri and McRae gone and those other players pick up the scoring slack, Hunter will have a good indication that adding some pieces might be the way to go.

If the Knights play poorly with Kadri and McRae gone, it won't matter what they add when the pair comes back -- it won't be enough.

Morris Dalla Costa is Free Press sports columnist. morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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