The Knights understand the sudden anxiety.
The immediate optics of giving up five third-period goals at home to a Guelph squad — which doubled down afterward by adding star centre Nick Suzuki — are not great.
It can be jarring to quietly pursue prudent roster assembly, only to see fellow contenders sweep in to grab the OHL’s most recognizable names. Those big splashes by the Storm, Saginaw and Niagara provoke the obvious question: Did the Knights do enough to stay on top at the close of the trade deadline Thursday at noon?
“You have to believe in the group you have and we do,” London GM Mark Hunter said. “It’s time for us to show that and hopefully we can. I like our team. We still need to get (injured Alex) Formenton back here playing because I think we miss his push, competitiveness and character.
“We had a bad game and we have to be better. We will be better. We have some good character guys and they understand we can be better than we showed (Tuesday).”
This measuring-stick week continues Friday against the Spirit at 7:30 p.m. at Budweiser Gardens. Saginaw hasn’t lost in regulation in 12 games.
Still, the Hunters have made it clear for a while they aren’t keen on shaking up their core, no matter who became available for trade. They point to how this team usually battles back whenever it falls behind as a key sign they already possess the proper playoff mentality.
There hasn’t been any finger-pointing and there is a lightness to the dressing room with veterans and rookies getting along away from the rink.
The Knights feel they already have a head start on forging chemistry that you won’t yet find in organizations trying to sprinkle some magic dust on their rosters right before the home stretch.
“We’ve been there and it’s tough,” Hunter said of building a champion on the fly. “George (Burnett, the GM/coach in Guelph) has a lot of experience. Sometimes, you do that and it’s tough on the end results with the draft picks you’ve lost and young players who had been there are now gone. I’m not saying it can’t work. Steve Staios (the GM in Hamilton) made a few trades last year and it worked out for him. I don’t want to say it’s good or bad. Only time will tell.
“If you make all those trades, you’ve got to get to the finals and hopefully win the OHL title. That should be everybody’s goal and I’m sure that’s George’s goal, too.”
It’s not like the Knights haven’t been active.
They put together one of the best blue-lines in the league, adding Will Lochead early and Joey Keane more recently. They shored up the middle of the ice by signing free agent centre Paul Cotter from Western Michigan University in November and making their biggest move for overager Kevin Hancock, whom Burnett called “probably the best two-way player in the league”.
Hunter spent his final player card on Hancock in that deal with Owen Sound last Friday. But he never really felt like he was handcuffed as the clock ticked down to the deadline.
The card situation happened for a couple of reasons.
First, the Knights brought in more 16 year olds than a normal year and are obviously excited about their impact and promise. On draft day last spring, they envisioned a line of Luke Evangelista, Antonio Stranges and Sahil Panwar tearing up the league offensively one day.
When the kids were put together a week ago in St. Catharines, they immediately scored a goal.
The second factor was the uncertainty surrounding captain Evan Bouchard, Blackhawks first-rounder Adam Boqvist and Formenton in the fall. You can even throw Brady Tkachuk in there, too.
A year ago, the Knights opted to wait to see how things developed in the pro ranks with Victor Mete, Jesper Bratt and Brandon Crawley. They started 1-8-1 and ended up having to scramble back to respectability.
They weren’t interested in going through that again.
So they traded for overager Matt Timms as insurance for Bouchard’s offence and kept Belarusian d-man Vladislav Kolyachonok in case Boqvist stuck with Chicago.
They used up cards along the way, but the return of the three highly-regarded players — Bouchard, Boqvist and Formenton — made it a happy problem. It’s hard to fret over card slots when you have NHL talent rolling in to help.
Two weeks after those guys came back, the Niagara IceDogs made their blockbuster deal with Kingston. These latest Guelph and Saginaw moves are also strong responses to what the Knights already had in their lineup.
London knew there would be challengers from four or five directions. They still think they have enough to win this year and down the road, too.
But they need to reassure their fan base Tuesday’s third period was an aberration, that the back end will live up to its billing and that, by May, they will find a way to rule the day.
They have this weekend to wash that worry away.
DEAL ROUNDUP: The Knights made two trades on the morning before the deadline. They sent 19-year-old defenceman Jacob Golden to Erie for a fourth-round pick in 2020 and a conditional third-rounder in 2024. The Wild prospect is eligible to return as an overager in the fall. His departure means veteran Riley Coome and rookie Gerard Keane will split London’s sixth spot on the blue-line. The Knights also flipped 17-year-old forward prospect Emmet Pierce to Flint for a conditional sixth-rounder in 2021. The former fourth-rounder played for the Strathroy Rockets the past year and a half.
BUSY TIME: There were 43 deals across the league over the past two weeks. Even though the ability to trade can be a healthy part of junior hockey, that’s way too many. The best moves are always ones that open up more ice time for younger players. This is, after all, a development league.
Friday: vs. Saginaw, 7:30 p.m. at Budweiser Gardens
Saturday: vs. Ottawa, 3:30 p.m. at the Bud
Sunday: at Kitchener, 2 p.m.
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