With the OHL Playoffs over, the London Knights boarded their plane to Red Deer for the Memorial Cup on Wednesday, looking to win for the first time since 2005. It is a well deserved trip for the Knights, having run through the regular season with ease. In fact, London not only scored more goals than any other team in the league, but also had the lowest total of goals scored against them, a feat that hadn’t been seen since the Dougie Hamilton-led Niagara IceDogs accomplished it in 2011-12 season (Interesting note: it was the Knights that beat Niagara in that OHL Final that year, leading to three straight Memorial Cup appearances).
However, unlike those IceDogs, the Knights managed to run right through the OHL Playoffs. After beating Owen Sound in six games, the Knights swept Kitchener, Erie, and then Niagara to represent the OHL in Red Deer. With the Memorial Cup around the corner, Around The OHL takes a look at the Knights, and how they stack up against the competition.
Without a doubt, the London’s forward corps was the strength of the team. There isn’t much left to say about the Knights top line that hasn’t already been said. Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak were already two of the most dominant OHLers last season, and adding potential Top 5 NHL draft pick Matt Tkachuk to that line was just unfair. All three players averaged around two points per game. Heck, Tkachuk would have broken the Knights all-time record for goals in the playoffs, if only the Knights had played a few more games (Tkachuk had 20 goals in 18 games, Tim Taylor had 21 in 21 games in 1989).
As much as Head Coach Dale Hunter leans on his top line, it helps that he has been getting production from the rest of his line up as well. The Knights secondary scoring in the playoffs has mostly come from the likes of Aaron Berisha, Cliff Pu, Max Jones and JJ Piccinich. Berisha ended his final OHL season with 45 goals plays on the Knights top power play unit (Marner moves back to the point). Pu has been steadily climbing draft rankings all year, and will likely lead the Knights forwards next year. Piccinich has played in a big game before, as he was a member of Boston University last year when they fell short in the NCAA Championship game, while Jones is a top prospect for the upcoming draft, who will have fresh legs after sitting most of the playoffs with a suspension.
The forwards are rounded out by Chandler Yakimowicz, Owen MacDonald, Robert Thomas, Daniel Bernhardt and Chad Heffernan. Yakimowicz, Bernhardt and Heffernen give the Knights some size, while MacDonald and Thomas provide a mix of skill and grit to the bottom six.
There aren’t many players on the back end for the Knights that will make you “ooh” and “aah”, but London has put together a balanced and solid, defensively responsible group capable of making plays. The Knights top pairing has been the same for most of the year, with Victor Mete and Chris Martenet having great chemistry with each other in their second year together. Mete is one of the best skaters in major junior hockey and is adept at getting the puck out of the Knights end in a hurry, whether through a slick pass or skating it himself. Martenet is a big, stay at home defender. Considering his 6’7 frame, he isn’t overly physical, but skates well for his size, and uses his length well to take away passing lanes.
The second pairing is built almost the same way as the first, with London mixing Olli Juolevi’s skill with Jacob Graves’ size. Juolevi is an uber-talented Finn, whose game has taken a huge leap after winning gold at the WJC with Finland. Graves has Memorial Cup experience from his time with the Oshawa Generals last year, and plays a physical, defensive game. The pairing is almost interchangeable with London’s top pairing, and both units get a lot of work.
Overager Aiden Jamieson and Brandon Crawley have been used as the bottom pairing, with both players playing responsible two-way games. Crawley was injured during the Finals however, so if he isn’t ready to go, look for either Nicolas Mattinen or 16-year-old Evan Bouchard to slide into his spot.
Tyler Parsons has experienced a meteoric rise over the past two years. After being signed as a free agent, Parsons stole the starting job last season, and now finds himself in net with a chance to win a Memorial Cup. One of the top goaltenders for the upcoming draft, Parsons put up sterling numbers during the regular season, and made many highlight reel saves for the Knights in the playoffs. He isn’t a huge goalie, but his athleticism is off the charts, and he possesses some of the quickest reflexes in the OHL. His positioning can be iffy at times, but that could be said of most goalies in junior hockey.
Some may knock Parsons game because of his age, but he’s actually been a great playoff goalie for two years straight now, with his playoff numbers improving over his regular season numbers each time. Personally, I felt he was one of the Knights who made the biggest improvements to his overall game since the start of the season.
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
The Huskies were near the top of the CHL rankings for most of the year, and deservedly so. In QMJHL MVP and Playoff MVP Francis Perron, the Huskies can boast one of the top offensive talents in the Memorial Cup. The Huskies found most of their success through their strong two way play, with Perron and Leafs pick Martin Dzierkals being the main skill players, but were able to pump up the offence with the trade for Sharks 1st Rounder Timo Meier and the signing of A.J Greer, who played with London’s Piccinich at Boston University last season.
The defence features Jeremy Lauzon, a Bruins draftee who will be returning from injury when the Memorial Cup begins, and Nikolas Brouillard, who has been a top offensive defenceman in the Q over the past couple years. In net, the Huskies will rely on Chase Marchand, a goalie whose junior hockey travels included a stint with the Mississauga Steelheads in the 2013-14 season. Marchand has really found his game in the Q, posting an incredible 1.35 GAA and 0.946 Sv% in the playoffs.
Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
A close comparable to the Knights, the Wheat Kings are loaded with offensive talent. Like London, the Wheat Kings can put up points in a hurry, with an attack led by Jayce Hawryluk and Nolan Patrick. Hawryluk is a dynamic, speedy talent much like Marner is for London. Patrick is a phenom, having just recorded a 102 point season in his second year in the WHL. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about him among all the Auston Matthews hype, that’s because he isn’t even draft eligible until next season. The Wheaties also boast Devils 1st Rounder, and Canadian WJC player John Quenneville, who along with Reid Duke gives Brandon a formidable two-way presence.
Arguably the top NHL-drafted prospect after Marner, Ivan Provorov pushes the play from the back end. Provorov, a Flyers 1st rounder, teams with overager Macoy Erkamps and 2016 draft eligible Kale Clague to give Brandon plenty of power play firepower from the point.
A point of concern for the Wheat Kings could be in net, where Jordan Papirny only posted a 0.897 Sv% during the playoffs. Papirny, who has spent his entire WHL career with Brandon, did post better numbers in the regular season, but with the quality of teams in the Memorial Cup, the Wheat Kings will need every save they can get.
Red Deer Rebels (WHL/Host)
While coming in with less buzz than the three league champions, the Rebels are a well coached team with solid collection of experienced players both at forward and on defence. It starts at forward, with leading scorer Ivan Nikolishin returning from injury to join a forward group that features Bruins 1st rounder Jake DeBrusk, as well as NHL draftees Adam Helewka, Michael Spacek and Adam Musil. DeBrusk and Helewka stand out for Red Deer, as both were brought in at the trade deadline, and have been scoring at a clip over a point per game.
On defence, the Rebels can rely on Haydn Fleury and Nelson Nogier to eat up penty of minutes. Fleury was on Team Canada at the WJC, while Nogier, a Jets prospect, went to the Memorial Cup in 2013 with the Saskatoon Blades.
Goaltending could be a problem. Both Rylan Toth and Trevor Martin started nine games, and had matching 0.905 Sv%’s to show for it. Red Deer does have the advantage of extra rest though, so while it will be tough for Red Deer to outscore teams, they could spoil someone’s party if they can play a gritty physical game against teams that have played more hockey than them.