Wait and see for Hunter

Nazem Kadri drives Steve Tarasuk out of the John Labatt Centre's parking lot Tuesday after the two...

Nazem Kadri drives Steve Tarasuk out of the John Labatt Centre's parking lot Tuesday after the two London Knights cleaned out their lockers. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

RYAN PYETTE, TQMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

The Tampa Bay Lightning need a new coach to guide 51-goal gunner Steve Stamkos.

The Columbus Blue Jackets want a coach who can lead goalie Steve Mason and Co. back into the playoffs.

Every spring, NHL coaching positions come up for grabs and every following fall, Dale Hunter is back in London with his OHL Knights.

Hunter has always kept open the possibility of returning to the big leagues if everything fit. Right now, it's never been better.

Hunter turns 50 in July.

He doesn't have a son on the Knights anymore.

Trusted friend Jacques Beaulieu returned this year after building one of the Canadian Hockey League's best -- the Quebec league's Saint John Sea Dogs.

And the Knights just lost a crushing Game 7 to a Kitchener team expected to be better next season than it was this year.

"I think if Dale really wanted to go, he could've left after he won the Memorial Cup (in 2005)," said outgoing Knights captain Justin Taylor. "It's a short drive from home (Oil Springs). I don't know (what he'll do), but I think he always gets a kick out of seeing the young talent develop. There can be some pressure on OHL coaches at times, but in the NHL, it gets pretty ridiculous."

Taylor pointed to the players brought in this year as proof the Knights won't fall too hard next season.

"Dane Fox, Seth Griffith, Scott Harrington and Aaron Dartch, who practised with us, it was nice to see the talent coming up," Taylor said, "and with Daniel Erlich and Michael MacDonald coming back, you have no doubt the team's going to be strong again.

"I'm glad I got this chance. I got so much exposure playing here and I've even become a mini-celebrity in my family. Everyone wants to talk hockey with me."

After Monday's game, Kitchener head coach Steve Spott doled out a lot of hugs, including a bone-cruncher on old friend Nazem Kadri, the future Toronto Maple Leaf.

That isn't Hunter's way.

Taylor, as team leader, was the last to have his exit interview with the coaching staff Tuesday (GM Mark Hunter is in Belarus to scout the world under-18 championship).

"Dale's not (a hugger)," Taylor said, "but it was very special. I've been on this team for four years. He told me he'd do everything he possibly can to help me going forward."

The captain dismissed talk the 49-win Knights were drastic overachievers and the playoff ouster knocked them down to earth this season.

"When you don't win the OHL final, it's not a success," he said.

"I thought we earned (our record) and obviously, we wanted to play Windsor again (in the Western Conference final), but Kitchener had a good team," Taylor said.

"We didn't want to play (a high-scoring 75-goal series). It definitely wasn't on the table."

For the second playoff in a row, London's goaltending struggled. Michael Hutchinson and Michael Houser's save percentages weren't even close to .900.

"I think we all know it could've been better," Beaulieu said, "but Kitchener is good offensively and when you fall behind a couple of goals, you have to open up to try to come back. You always want to see the best four teams in the conference finals, but . . . we weren't able to get it done."

As of Tuesday, no Knights were set to join a pro team for a playoff push. For Kadri, both the Leafs and their American Hockey League Marlies were done early.

"I didn't pack up my stuff," Taylor said. "I have nowhere to go (yet)."

At least he played in part of his final junior game, before a slew foot ejection. Leigh Salters didn't get that chance. He missed Monday's game due to a head injury suffered in Game 6 on a thunderous collision with Kitchener star Jeff Skinner.

"It was tough watching Game 7. I was just hoping we'd have a few more to play," Salters said.

He declared himself ready to go but club physician Dieter Bruckschwaiger said no dice.

"I felt pretty good but I didn't get the clearance," Salters said. "There's not much you can do. I think the London Knights are the best junior hockey club in the world.

"I was struggling in Guelph, not playing much at times, and to come here and the way I was treated by the Hunters in my year-and-a-half and the guys in the room . . . it was special."

E-mail ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca or follow Ryanpyette on Twitter.


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