By: Kyle Watson
As the curtain closes on what was another exhilarating season for the London Knights Hockey Club, players and fans alike may be disappointed their team was unable to move beyond the second round. However, the Western Conference playoffs this season were undoubtedly one of the most difficult in recent history. The Guelph Storm, who knocked the Knights out, have since moved on to the OHL Championship and are facing off against the Ottawa 67s. To get there they had to tackle a red-hot Saginaw Spirit team which saw the Storm stave off elimination once again and win another game 7. Although ending in disappointment, this campaign saw the green and gold pick up another Midwest Division title and there is still much to look forward to from this crop of players.
Season in Review
As per usual in OHL hockey, the season began with questions about which players would return from their respective NHL camps. This year fans at Budweiser Gardens were blessed as Liam Foudy, Evan Bouchard, Alex Formenton returned to the club and newly signed Adam Boqvist joined the ranks. It did not take long for the boys to get going. The Knights went on a 15-game winning streak beginning with a 4-1 win in Kingston in late October and lasted all the way through the month of November.
As the usual suspects continued their dominance in the league, a couple players on the roster enjoyed breakout campaigns. Sophomore forward Connor McMichael, who came over from Hamilton in the deal that saw Robert Thomas go the other way, started the year scorching hot and never lost his scoring touch. He finished the year with a team-leading 36 goals and has earned the attention of many scouts ahead of the upcoming NHL draft.
OHL rookies Matvey Guskov and Antonio Stranges were both effective in their first season in the league. Guskov, one of the Knights’ import players, had 12 goals and 30 points in 59 games in his NHL draft eligible campaign. Stranges, expected to be a high selection in next season’s NHL draft, was exceptional offensively utilizing his signature technique to deceive opposition’s goaltenders.
However, it was Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick Adam Boqvist who had perhaps the most impressive year. The defenseman, who had previously spent his entire career in Sweden, seemed to get better each game. After he adapted to the North American game, the rookie was nearly unstoppable, tearing teams apart with his elite skating and vision. Although he found points hard to come by early on, he ended the year with 20 goals and 60 points. The apex of his debut season was his four-goal performance against Windsor in the first round of the playoffs.
Heading into January as one of the hottest teams in the nation, the Knights decided to add reinforcements at the trade deadline. Overager Kevin Hancock was acquired from the Owen Sound Attack and finished the year with a career-high 107 points. The Knights also added defenseman Joey Keane, older brother of Gerard Keane and New York Rangers 3rd rounder, from the Barrie Colts; further bolstering the already deep Knights defense corps.
After finishing first in the Western Conference with 99 points, the Knights ran into a Guelph Storm team who were much better than the 4th place they finished in. After losing the first three games, the Storm woke up and eventually edged the Knights in seven. An otherworldly performance from London native Nick Suzuki and resilience in net from Anthony Popovich arguably steered the series in favour of Guelph. After battling back again versus Saginaw in the following round, the Storm are now the first team in OHL history to come back from a 2-0 series deficit twice in one playoff campaign.
Knights make AHL debuts
Fresh off receiving the Max Kaminksy award for OHL Defenseman of the Year, Evan Bouchard joined the Bakersfield Condors as they began their first-round matchup with the Colorado Eagles in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. He continued his exceptional play from this season, scoring a goal and adding two assists in his first taste of AHL hockey.
Liam Foudy also made his AHL debut joining the Columbus Blue Jackets AHL affialte, the Cleveland Monsters roster. Foudy scored his first two goals in the decisive game 4 as the Monsters handily pushed past the Syracuse Crunch three games to one. The other player on the scoresheet in the series clinching game? Former London Knight, Alex Broadhurst.
The club wasted little time preparing for next year, signing Florida native Avery Winslow to a contract a week after their elimination. The 16-year-old defenseman spent last season with the Wenatchee Wild of the British Columbia Hockey League, which has produced current NHLers Kyle Turris, Tyler Bozak, and Tyson Jost.
Shortly after, the Knights’ 2019 OHL Priority Selection first-round pick, Stuart Rolofs, put pen to paper. The 6’2, 187lbs sniper is viewed by some as a potential steal at 20th overall. He produced 33 goals in 39 games this season with the Kanata Lasers in the Hockey Eastern Ontario Midget AAA league.
Lastly, the Knights signed 2018 NHL 4th round pick John Gruden and defenseman Bryce Montgomery to contracts for next season. Gruden was selected in the fifth round of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection but elected to join the United States National Development Program. He spent last season at Miami University, where he had 3 goals and 15 points in 38 games. The winger recently signed his entry-level contract with the Ottawa Senators. Bryce Montgomery joins the team after impressing at the Knights’ annual mini-development camp over Easter weekend. The 17-year-old defenseman brings a combination of size, skating and skill to the team.
What lies ahead
With the additions made and the players likely to return, next season looks to be another strong one for the green and gold. Gruden is a versatile winger who will provide first line production, and Rolofs’ elite size and shot should allow him to make an immediate impact in his rookie year. On the backend, Winslow brings his smooth skating and offensive awareness, while Montgomery is a skilled defensive player that adds a big physical presence to the Knights’ blueline.
The Knights will sadly begin next season without overagers Joseph Raaymakers, Kevin Hancock, and Will Lochead as they will all look to take their skills to the next level after solid OHL careers. While their presence will be missed, there are players that look poised to fill the gaps they will leave. Sophomore goaltender Jordan Kooy started every game in the playoffs and looked more comfortable with every game, and young forwards Sahil Panwar and Luke Evangelista looked strong in their few appearances this season.
With everything considered, the Knights should once again be a competitive team next season. The players that do return will surely be keen to make up for this season’s early exit and the holes left by the departures of veteran players. Another year of maturity can do wonders for junior hockey players, and the likes of McMichael, Guskov, and Stranges will look to improve on their impressive production from this past year. Rookies such as Sahil Panwar, Luke Evangelista, and Gerard Keane all impressed in short displays and should see more ice time.
The last time London lost in the second round of the playoffs, in 2015 to Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters, they won the Memorial Cup the following season. Stay tuned, Knights fans.