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London Knights’ greatness practically taken for granted: OHL Burning Questions

London Knights' Max Domi, Bo Horvat & Olli Maatta (OHL Images)

The Ontario Hockey League regular season is getting underway this week. They play one of these every winter? Man, it never ends. With the days getting shorter and the season here, BTN is taking an early look at each team in reverse order of last season's standings.

London Knights

In 2012-13 — 50-13-2-3, .772 point pct., 273 GF/181 GA. First, Western Conference. Lost to Portland in Memorial Cup semifinal. Beat Barrie 4-3 in OHL final.

Final Dynamic Dozen ranking — first OHL, second CHL.

On the junior/pro bubble — Six Knights are still at NHL training camps, with two being eligible to go to the AHL.

Drafted — (Deep breath) C Bo Horvat (Vancouver Canucks, first round), RW Max Domi (Phoenix Coyotes, first), D Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo Sabres, first), D Olli Määttä (Pittsburgh Penguins, first), RW Michael McCarron (Montreal Canadiens, first, from U.S. under-18 team), LW Remi Elie (Dallas Stars, second), G Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia Flyers, second, from Corpus Christi IceRayz), C Chris Tierney (San Jose Sharks, second), LW Josh Anderson (Columblus Blue Jackets, fourth), C Kyle Platzer (Edmonton Oilers, fourth), C Ryan Rupert (Toronto Maple Leafs, sixth), Broadhurst (Chicago Blackhawks, seventh) D Miles Liberati (Vancouver, seventh).

2014 NHL draft watch — F Christian Dvorak has the highest ceiling among London's handful of draft-eligible players, which also includes fellow F Mitch Marner. Both LW Jacob Jammes and D Owen Stewart are late-birthday 18-year-olds.

1. How do Dale and Mark Hunter keep complacency at bay for a team that is guaranteed to play in May?

There are no guarantees, even for junior hockey superteams. If there was, the Portland Winterhawks would be riding a string of three consecutive WHL titles and the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs would have repeated as MasterCard Memorial Cup champions in 2012 instead of merely reaching the semifinal. That's probably a pretty weak caveat ahead of a season where London, pending the return of 18-year-old stars Domi and Horvat, could run out a lineup with six NHL top-40 picks and be somewhere between "unbeatable" and "really, really awesome."

The only defect in this Death Star appears to be that the blueline depth drops off beyond Määttä and Zadorov. So, of course, Mark Hunter swooped in when overage offensive defenceman Alex Basso asked out of Sarnia, trading three high picks in 2014 and '15 to shore up the back line. It can also be reliably presumed London will coach up its developing defencemen such as Liberati and 19-year-old Dakota Mermis, who were each in NHL camps.

So, after accruing 125 wins across the past two seasons, how does this group stay motivated collectively? One could invoke the 'go through the front door' cliché about needing to win the OHL championship rather than be designated as the host team, but after winning the past two, the J. Ross Robertson Cup isn't the bauble London wants. Its season, let's be honest, is all about peaking for four nights in May and winning the Memorial Cup.

Conversely, though, being the first OHL team to three-peat since the 1978-80 Peterborough Petes could seem like a pretty big dangling carrot. But do those who were around the 1991-93 Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds think that three-year run deserves an asterisk since the 'Hounds were a host team when they won the 1993 year-end tournament?

(Wait, there was a time when the CHL held a Memorial Cup in the Soo rather than just going to the biggest arena to max out revenue and further tilt a two-tiered system? Do not mention this the next time you're in Barrie.)

2. Where is the over/under set on regular-season losses?

A good oddsmaker would set that line at 6.5 — right between the 2013 Halifax Mooseheads (58-6-3-1) and 2005 Knights (59-7-2-0). National Hockey League and world junior absenteeism will come into play for the Knights, but it looks like they got a semi-break with the scheduling that might cushion any blow. London, which had a 2-2-0-0 September last year, only has to play three games this month. It is also scheduled for a six-day break in early January when Messrs. Domi, Horvat, Määttä, Rupert, Stolarz and Zadorov could all be in Malmo, Sweden for the world junior championship. (McCarron, with his history with the U.S. development team, is also in that WJC pool.)

The rub is London lost Määttä and Harrington to the WJC last season, and didn't lose a game in regulation. Their absence covered the tail end of a 27-0-1-0 point streak.

Point being, on paper there's little reason London should lose too often. It would be shocking if they're in double-digits in the loss column, but we'll move the line to make it interesting.

3. How does Anthony Stolarz settle in for his only full season of major junior?

It's as if Stolarz took notes from being at the Memorial Cup with Halifax star and Montreal Canadiens second-rounder Zach Fucale, who was so economical in his movements that it was reminiscent of the Paulie didn't have to move for anybody" line from GoodFellas. Stolarz, the 6-foot-6 Flyers pick with Inspector Gadget limbs, wore down late in the Knights' playoff run, which contributed to the a team-wide struggle to keep third-period leads and ultimately factored into getting the doors blown off by Halifax at the Memorial Cup.

Stolarz's focus has been on becoming a more efficient goaltender who will, "Let the play come to me and try to not be so scrambling. Staying back, I’m not using that much push going back and forth and it’s helping me stay fresh."

Knights goalie coach Bill Dark has a sterling track record of helping turn out pro 'tenders and has recent experience tutoring a 6-6 goalie, having helped the now 22-year-old Igor Bobkov get on the road to getting established as a pro. Stolarz had a 2.29 average and .920 save percentage in his 20-game half-season with London. The challenge is to improve on that over at least twice the number the starts.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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