The Ontario League’s London Knights have won the championship two years in a row and as the hosts this season, they are guaranteed a spot in a third straight Memorial Cup.
But this year, they’re going to have to do it without one of their best players, Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta. The 19-year-old beat the odds to make the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have decided to keep him for the year, rather than return him to junior. Though it blows a hole in the London defense, GM Mark Hunter isn’t freaking out.
“We take a different spin on it,” he said. “They have seven ‘D’ on one-way contracts, so it’s a credit to Olli that he earned a spot up there.”
London could be dealt another setback if the Buffalo Sabres decide to keep big blueliner Nikita Zadorov, another Knights product. The Russian teen has only played two games so far due to a finger injury and will have nine before his entry-level contract is activated. Hunter didn’t have a sense either way as to what Buffalo will do, but he’s already been working on contingency plans.
Not only are Maatta and Zadorov excellent players, but they’re both imports, of which a junior team can only have two. London selected German defenseman Tim Bender in this year’s CHL Import Draft and he might be an option.
“I have talked to Tim,” Hunter said. “It’s a work in progress.”
A skilled blueliner who can move the puck and contribute to the power play, Bender went undrafted last year by the NHL and is playing against men in Germany’s top league.
The Knights are still a powerful team thanks to their forwards, but don’t be surprised to see them make a big move or two before the deadline this year. After all, with the Memorial Cup in sight, they want to be good hosts.