Buzzing The Net

Plymouth Whalers’ Mike Vellucci calls London Knights the ‘Yankees’ of OHL

Vellucci and the Whalers have 11 NHL draft picks (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

If the London Knights are junior hockey's answer to a certain pinstripe-wearing baseball empire, then what is a team with 11 NHL draft picks?

Never mind that. The OHL Western Conference final between the defending champion Knights and the loaded Plymouth Whalers hardly needs a storyline, but try unliking what Plymouth coach-GM Mike Vellucci did there.

"They're the New York Yankees of the OHL," Vellucci said of the Knights during Tuesday's conference call ahead of the hotly anticipated series. "They're the top team, they're going to be very competitive, they have a tough building to go into with 9,100 people every night. There's skill on both teams. It's going to be entertaining for the fans to watch. We expect nothing but a great series.

"It's fun to play against them," Vellucci added. "They're the Yankees. They get 9,100 people. [London coach] Dale [Hunter] has coached in the NHL before [with the Washington Capitals]. They get more national TV, more media. It's great to be the spotlight. We're kind of always here in Plymouth off the radar. We have our one reporter who asks questions. For our kids it's cool to be in that atmosphere and be in that position."

It is easy to deduce from that Vellucci and the Whalers are leaning on the us-against-the-world motif, although one never claims to know where a group finds its motivation in the dressing room. Plymouth is a model franchise which has a 22-season streak of playoff appearances and has produced a steady stream of pros. Getting the public's attention while playing in suburban Detroit in a market crowded by teams in all four major professional leagues and two huge NCAA brands in the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans is not easy.

Conversely, the Knights are the biggest game in town in London. They are the frontrunner to host the 2014 Memorial Cup, which would be a further windfall for a franchise that leads the league in attendance. Being called the Yankees is just slings-and-arrows fare.

Perhaps the Whalers could be compared to the season's Toronto Blue Jays, adding stars to a strong core. Eight of the Whalers' NHL draftees developed in Plymouth under Vellucci, including three first-rounders, centre Stefan Noesen, wing Rickard Rakell, who played his first NHL games earlier this season with the Anaheim Ducks, and linebacker-on-skates Tom Wilson, a Washington Capitals pick who nearly banged and crashed his way on to Canada's national junior team in December.

'Made quite the name for themselves'

The OHL's leading playoff scorer, centre Vince Trocheck, was reeled in through a blockbuster trade that made the Whalers' season. Defenceman Connor Carrick, who leads D-men in playoff scoring, was drafted by the Washington Capitals out of the U.S. national development program, where indefatible wing Ryan Hartman also developed before joining Plymouth for his draft season. Columbus Blue Jackets-drafted defenceman Gianluca Curcuruto, who's questionable for the start of the series, spent his underage seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

"They've definitely got some players who have made quite the name for themselves in the OHL and are obviously high draft picks in the NHL," said Knights captain Scott Harrington, a Pittsburgh Penguins blueline prospect. "It's going to be a challenge, that's for sure. It's going to take more of a team effort than a couple of guys trying to shut them down. We'll have to get on them and give them as little time and space as possible."

London went only one game above the minimum during its series vs. eighth-seeded Saginaw and fourth-seeded Kitchener, which surely could have used a No. 1 centre such as Trocheck. The Whalers swept seventh-seeded Sarnia and needed six games to get by the third-seeded Owen Sound Attack, winning twice at what Vellucci called a "very loud and electric" bandbox arena in Owen Sound.

There should be little question about who has the time-honoured but vaguely defined playoff mentality.

"They're playing playoff hockey," Knights coach Dale Hunter said. "Part of that game is playing hard and blocking shots. Mike expects it just like I expect it from my players. That's what will win games and get them to the next level."

As far as the injury guessing game goes, 18-year-old Knights left wing Matt Rupert's status is in doubt.

"He's day-to-day," Hunter said. "Day-to-day runs into week-to-week, I guess."

Curcuruto, who led the Whalers' defence corps in regular-season points and plus/minus, last played in Game 2 of the Owen Sound series. Hartman also sustained a badly cut wrist in the following game, then 6-foot-4, 202-pound wing Connor Sills went down in Game 4.

"They're still all question marks," Vellucci said. "We'll know on Friday night."

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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