Thornton heads cast of locals

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the London area should be pumping out high-quality pros in no time.

After all, southwestern Ontario youth have the rare chance to look up to and identify with the NHL's top player and point producer -- St. Thomas native Joe Thornton.

In one of the real head-scratching trades in hockey history, Boston unloaded its star player and captain last year to San Jose, where Thornton ended up passing New York's Jaromir Jagr for the scoring title and league MVP.

Thornton (29 goals, 96 assists) was the first player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion in the same season he was traded.

One guy who won't be dealt any time soon is Columbus forward Rick Nash. The former London Knight isn't likely to be an Art Ross candidate with the Blue Jackets, but he's always a threat to grab the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer -- a feat he's already accomplished in his brief pro career.

Because of the added importance of divisional play in today's NHL, Nash and teammate Dan Fritsche will get a good look at Central Division rival and old pal Dennis Wideman in St. Louis, Chicago rookie David Bolland and Londoner Jason Williams, one of the key cogs for a Detroit Red Wings resurgence.

Enjoying a regular shift on a scoring line and plenty of power-play time, Williams had a breakout year (21 goals, 58 points) and will be counted on for more offensive production with the retirement of captain Steve Yzerman and the departure of Brendan Shanahan to the New York Rangers.

The Detroit-Colorado rivalry has been muted lately, but a rekindling would include Williams and Avalanche forward Cody McCormick of Mt. Brydges. The 23-year-old had eight points in 45 games with the Avs last year.

The biggest news in Florida was the signing of bad-boy Todd Bertuzzi, but the Panthers won't restore much roar without fine blue-line play from Londoner Mike Van Ryn. The 27-year-old isn't being picked by many in a team web poll to lead in blocked shots, but he'll be on the ice against the opposition's top guys and in critical third-period situations.

Florida's defence must be stout without goalie Roberto Luongo, now in Vancouver. If that happens, the Panthers could again finish ahead of the Washington Capitals, who have ex-Knight Rico Fata in their mix but lost Belmont native Brian Willsie to free agency.

The 28-year-old Willsie, who had a career season (19 goals, 41 points) as teammate and roommate of Caps star Alexander Ovechkin, parlayed his play into a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

He joins ex-Knight Tom Kostopoulos and Londoner Scott Thornton, the 35-year-old cousin of Big Joe and longtime Shark who swam to another stop in California after his contract option was declined by San Jose.

At least Scott Thornton doesn't have to keep hearing he's the oldest player on the youthful Sharks. Now he's the most advanced King by a couple months over ex-Flame Craig Conroy.

While Willsie and Thornton adjust to life in La-La land, Corey Perry will be in Orange County, trying to help the Anaheim (drop the Mighty and Disney affiliation) Ducks deal with expectations of Stanley Cup glory.

His old junior mates Rob Schremp and Danny Syvret, who are in tough to crack Londoner Craig MacTavish's deep Edmonton Oilers lineup throughout this season, got the chance to follow their team to the final last season. But it's Perry's squad that's expected to go all the way.

Perry had 13 goals and 25 points in 56 games with the big club, but the Ducks' career year from a guy around here belonged to Strathroy's Andy McDonald, the quick-skating forward who counted 34 goals and 85 points playing alongside the experienced Finnish Flash -- Teemu Selanne.

There's plenty of flash and dash to fellow Strathroy native and defenceman Brian Campbell's Buffalo Sabres. After a few seasons of youthful bumps and bruises, the new flow of the NHL held much benefit for Campbell and Co., who came within a game of a Stanley Cup final appearance.

The Sabres have new-look jerseys, but they'll be in tough for another long playoff run and even in tight for a postseason berth, especially with Philadelphia boasting young gun Jeff Carter of London and an improving Atlanta Thrashers team that includes former UWO star Steve Rucchin.

Ottawa, with former Knight Chris Kelly, will have a say in the East's final order. So should Montreal, and recent pickup Dan Jancevski, a former Knight blue-liner who was once traded with Kelly to Sudbury for Wideman.

No one expects much from the New York Islanders, who let former Knight defenceman John Erskine head to the Washington Capitals.

This area's link to the NHL continues to grow.


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