At the recent OHL trade deadline, the London Knights stole the show with a trio of blockbuster trades. They cemented their position as one of the main contenders for this year’s J. Ross Robertson Cup, for the third year running.
Battling with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the defending Memorial Cup Champions looked like a heavyweight even before the additions of Mitchell Stephens (TBL ’15), Dante Salituro (CBJ FA), and Mitchell Vande Sompel (NYI ’15). Now, the 2016-17 London Knights are once again one of the major favourites to go far this spring.
2016-17 London Knights Ready to Defend OHL Championship
Last Friday, the new-look Knights lineup was bolstered by five new and returning players. Max Jones (ANA ’16), returning from injury, and goalie Tyler Parsons (CGY ’16), back from his lights-out showing at the World Juniors, joined the three deadline additions. After a slow start, the Knights adjusted to new lines and beat the struggling Saginaw Spirit 5-1.
Salituro, three games into his OHL season after an up-and-down year in the AHL, already has two goals for London. As a speedy, undersized winger he helps fill the offensive gap left by the departure of Aaron Berisha. Last year, Berisha was a key second liner and the Knights have missed him in the offensive zone this year.
“I’ve been sitting out a lot of the season,” commented Salituro after that first game. “It’s going to take a couple games to reach my full potential.”
Salituro comes in to join an already-potent forward core. The Knights score the second-most goals per game, averaging 4.2 every night. First line centre Cliff Pu (BUF ’16) is already fourth in league scoring with 60 points, and the addition of a weapon like Salituro will add an extra spark.
Although he hasn’t played much this year, Salituro is a proven OHL scorer, with over 35 goals the past two seasons with the Ottawa 67’s. Overshadowed a little by former teammate Travis Konecny (PHI ’15), Salituro has four prior years of valuable junior experience under his belt.
London’s lineup has improved in both ends of the ice, though, with arguably the OHL’s best two-way centre in Stephens. Great in the faceoff circle and in his own zone, Stephens will add some fire to the team’s top six.
“I talk on the bench, or talk in the room, so we keep everyone level-headed or dialed in,” said Stephens. “We’ve got a lot of great forwards on this team, it’s four deep lines. . . . We don’t really have a defined first line on this team.”
Slotting into the Knights’ top unit was tough for Stephens, who played his first two OHL games after the World Juniors for a new team, in a home-and-home series against his former team, Saginaw.
Despite the opposition, though, Stephens wasted no time in getting into it. He had no qualms butting heads with his old teammates, playing a strong physical game on five penalty kills over the two games against the Spirit. it’
London also added some defensive help at the deadline with Vande Sompel, who will hope to make Tyler Parsons’ life a little easier. The Knights already had a core of elite offensive blueliners, with Victor Mete (MTL ’16) and Olli Juolevi (VAN ’16) the resident power play wizards, but Vande Sompel, himself a former Memorial Cup champion, will bring a wealth of experience to the team’s strength in their own zone.
A London native, Vande Sompel jumped at the opportunity to finish his junior career in his hometown. Leaving the Oshawa Generals was difficult, but few players would be upset about getting another chance at a title.
“I was getting a little bit homesick,” he said. “We’re a deep team, we’re solid and we’re skilled.”
Stephens echoed Vande Sompel’s excitement at coming to London. “London’s a world-class junior organization, if not one of the best hockey organizations in the world,” he said. “They treat you like a pro here, it’s one thing that I really like.”
With so many top-end players in the lineup for London down the stretch, it’s difficult to squeeze everyone in. Even players potentially set to be picked in the first round of this year’s NHL Draft, Alex Formenton and Robert Thomas, are limited to the third or fourth line.
Unlike last season, when the Knights’ special teams were pretty much set in stone with the trio of Mitch Marner (TOR ’15), Christian Dvorak (ARI ’14), and Matthew Tkachuk (CGY ’16) leading the way everywhere, assistant coach Dylan Hunter says they’ll be riding the hot hand down the stretch this year.
“We’ll see who gels with who, it’ll be on a game-to-game basis,” he said. “There won’t be a cemented penalty kill or power play. We have so many guys who can play on it that whoever’s doing well momentum-wise is going to be getting a chance.”
The Knights are now, arguably, the best defensive team in the OHL, with a forward core that can go head-to-head with that of the Erie Otters. Add to that a goalie in Tyler Parsons who may be in the best form of his life, not missing a beat after leading Team USA to a gold medal at the World Juniors, and it’ll be hard to stop this team.
The OHL’s Western Conference has four powerhouse teams this year who all fancy their chances of winning the Memorial Cup in Windsor. With such a well-rounded team, though, it’s hard not to bet on the 2016-17 London Knights.
Only three teams have repeated as national champions in the competition’s current format, the last being the 2010 Windsor Spitfires. London definitely believe they can be the fourth.