The Knights have been close to unbeatable since Zadorov's return (Terry Wilson - OHL Images)A week after Erie landed Brendan Gaunce, Guelph followed suit by exchanging a tidy ransom for Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert. Prices are high for junior hockey players and while there's often a trade deadline arms race between contenders in the major junior system, it may be a little different this year, particularly in the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League.
Last year, players were moved much closer to the deadline, including Joshua Leivo to Kitchener, Vincent Trocheck to Plymouth and Cody Ceci to Owen Sound. If the cost is going to be higher for the extra 10-15 games of acquiring a player before December rather than the early January deadline, what's the use? Almost every team that's a buyer at the trade deadline will make the playoffs and really, you're stocking up to give yourself a better chance in the postseason.
This year though, the field is different. The contending OHL teams are all based in the West: London, Erie and Guelph, and though the Knights have already secured their Memorial Cup berth, any other Western team that wants to play at the MasterCard Memorial Cup this season is going to probably have to go through London.
What more, if you parse down our own Dynamic Dozen rankings this week, you'll find that the teams after the 'Big 3' are concentrated in the West as well: Windsor is 14th and Sault Ste. Marie is 16th. The Oshawa Generals, at 21st, are the highest ranked OHL Eastern team in our national rankings.
So the balance of power is concentrated to one conference, and that means making moves early is a bit more important this season, to create some separation in the standings prior to the World Juniors and fight not just to prepare for the playoffs, but home ice advantage too. The advantage is difficult to quantify (not as easy as saying "13 of 15 series last year were determined by home ice!" since in almost every case, the team with home ice is the team with the higher point total in the regular season) but there may be some psychological attribute as well.
With Gaunce and Rychel moved, who will be the next domino to fall, and what number will he wear with the Knights?
1. London Knights, OHL (.607 RPI, +2.1 SRS, +1) — It was mentioned in this week's Hot & Cold, but the Knights have a .906 point percentage since Halloween, and leap ahead of Erie this week after going perfect in a week that included games against Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, and Owen Sound.
Now, how much can you attribute the team being red hot to being a well-rounded team overall, and how much of it is thanks to the return of Nikita Zadorov from the Buffalo Sabres? The Knights are 7-1-0 and have given up just 15 goals in the eight games since his return.
2. Erie Otters, OHL (.598 RPI, +2.3 SRS, -1) — The Otters, like the Knights, are going to lose some key players for the World Juniors, a disease that often afflicts the top teams come December. They'll lose a player from each of their top two lines, their starting goaltender, and possibly their No. 1 defenceman. OHL leading scorer Connor Brown has been picking up points on a line with Dane Fox recently, so it won't be the first time he'll be tested playing without Andre Burakovsky.
Meanwhile, in Oscar Dansk's absence between the pipes, the team will have to count on sophomore Devin Williams. With a .907 save percentage, Williams is 10th in the OHL (Dansk is 4th). Williams is first-time eligible as a draft prospect this upcoming June in a fairly wide open goalie class, so he'll have a chance to impress some scouts that are sticking around in North America.
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