Kia CHL Top-10 Spotlight: Knights equipped for standout season

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The London Knights will look to return to the winner’s circle in 2020-21.

Standing atop the OHL’s Western Conference with 92 points in 62 games and having clinched their 20th consecutive playoff berth when play shuttered last season, the Knights were poised for another strong showing in the playoffs and a shot at the club’s third Memorial Cup title since 2005.

That pursuit will now continue in the new campaign that London enters ranked fifth in the preseason edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings.

Headlined by Washington Capitals first-round pick Connor McMichael, the budding centre showcased his burgeoning offensive skill set last season to the tune of 47 goals and 55 assists through 52 appearances, one of six players from coast to coast to reach triple-digit point production.

Throughout the season, McMichael exemplified incredible consistency as he was held off the scoresheet only seven times while on six occasions he finished with four or more points. Additionally, his season counted 31 multi-point performances and six nights where hats hit the ice, helping him earn recognition as an OHL Second Team All-Star.

While the 19-year-old’s top aim is to earn a spot with the Capitals once NHL action resumes – he undoubtedly has a greater idea of what is expected after being a part of the squad’s Return to Play roster for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs – a more likely course of action is McMichael returning to London for one more year of seasoning, a year in which it is also expected he will be among a handful of returning players tasked with helping Canada defend gold on home ice at the upcoming 2021 World Juniors.

“I just want to keep playing my game,” McMichael told Samantha Pell of the Washington Post. “I know what I’m capable of, so I just want to prove to the coaches that I deserve a spot on this (Capitals) team next year. Even if I’m sent back to London, I’ll be focused on the next year making the team. So I’m really excited to get going.”

McMichael will be expected to carry the offensive torch for the coming season particularly following the departure co-captain Liam Foudy who is projected to turn pro with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization, and the same for 20-year-old left-wing Jonathan Gruden, who was recently acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In their absence, the Knights will see elevated scoring roles from the likes of newly minted NHL prospects Luke Evangelista and Antonio Stranges, whose names were called by the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, respectively, in the 2020 NHL Draft. With their selections, the Knights’ streak of NHL Draft success reached 52 years in which at least one London player was chosen on draft day.

For Evangelista, that accomplishment comes after an anemic rookie campaign in which he finished with a pair of points through 27 contests. Yet, unmatched determination helped Evangelista become one of the Knights’ most improved players last season, marking a 59-point ascension to finish fifth in team scoring and just shy of point-per-game production with 23 goals and 38 assists in 62 outings.

“I give Luke a lot of credit for staying strong and battling through his first year,” Knights general manager Mark Hunter told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press. “It was a year he thought he could do more and it didn’t happen for him. He didn’t get down and it shows a lot of character. I’m proud of what he accomplished last season.”

Rounding out the forward group is German-born forward J.J. Peterka, the club’s top pick in the 2020 CHL Import Draft. The 18-year-old, who has since been selected 34th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2020 NHL Draft, is currently on loan to the Austrian League while the possibility remains he could join the Knights once the OHL season begins.

On the back end, London will have a refreshed look particularly following the graduations of San Jose Sharks first-round pick Ryan Merkley, Los Angeles Kings prospect Markus Phillips, as well as co-captain Alec Regula of the Chicago Blackhawks. Their departures will allow for more opportunity for the team’s next wave of talent in blue-liners Logan Mailloux, Bryce Montgomery, and Ben Roger, all of whom were listed as Players to Watch by Central Scouting ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft. The trio will be joined on the back end by returning blue-liner Hunter Skinner, a New York Rangers prospect who will provide invaluable guidance mixed with a scoring touch.

One the biggest question marks entering last season in London came in the crease before Brett Brochu answered the bell by assuming the starter’s duties in a season that ultimately ended with 32 wins through 42 contests to take ownership of the OHL’s all-time mark for the most victories by a 16- or 17-year-old first-year goaltender.

In all, the standout rookie finished one short of Kitchener’s Jacob Ingham for first place in the wins column, while his .919 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average topped the charts among netminder who made at least 40 appearances.

That type of goaltending pedigree makes London a contender to win on any night and, coupled with a strong supporting cast, an early favourite to claim CHL supremacy in 2021.

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