New London Knights ready for their home-ice debuts

Mike Stubbs / 980 CFPL

Here is a look at the newest Knights through the eyes of London general manager Rob Simpson:

#17 Nathan Dunkley

First-round pick (17th overall) in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection.

“He’s already putting up a point per game in his 17-year-old season. When we looked at him playing in Kingston he was already playing on a tough line and take on big matchups. He has great skill, he can really shoot, he has very good hockey sense and he seems to have a knack around the net for tipping pucks and manufacturing goals. He’s a complete player that brings our compete level and our drive up as well. He drives whatever line he is on.”

#47 Sergey Popov

Second-round pick (38th overall) in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection

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“His skill is phenomenal. The last few days in practice, he has shown off some of the things he can do with the puck. He is good on his edges, his speed, how he can shoot the puck. He has things going back to what we saw in the minor midget draft that we saw that are starting to come out more. He is on the cusp of being able to take his skill and turn it into point production and the things that helps his team to win. He can create two-on-ones all over the ice. We are interested to see how he does in our system, which is a puck possession system.”

#11 Connor McMichael

“He has shown the ability to play now and play against tough matchups. In Hamilton, he was playing as a third-line centre role at 16 and on the power play in the slot. He did some penalty kill time and (played) in overtime… (he is a player) that with his hockey sense and his stick and he has a good understanding of both sides of the puck, he is able to play and be trusted in all situations and also bring offence, once he gets into London and gets comfortable.”

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On Thursday morning in the London area, the temperature jumped above zero. For a few minutes, it was OK to crack open a window and let some fresh air flow through your home. Of course the more you let in, the more the temperature dropped on your thermostat. It’s not spring yet.

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But if you cracked a window, the feel and the smell in the air gave a hint that it will get here at some point.

Cracking the door open in the London Knights’ dressing room right now gives you a bit of the same feeling.

Now, it is still a place full of hockey gear and people working out, so there are other smells too, but there is an air of something new.

“It’s actually an exciting time,” admits London assistant coach, Rick Steadman. “There’s new blood in the room. Everybody is trying to get to know each other. You just look to go out and have some fun and make those connections like you have with everybody else.”

The Knights added three players and 13 draft picks in four separate trades before Wednesday’s OHL trade deadline.

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Thanks to a trip through frigid northern Ontario last weekend, one of those players have already played games for London. Nathan Dunkley was acquired in the Cliff Pu deal and already has his first goal as a Knight. He got that in North Bay and says the adjustment from wearing the black and gold of the Kingston Frontenacs to the green and gold of London has not been difficult.

“The guys have really made it easy,” says Dunkley. “They have been very welcoming and the coaching staff has been great. I already feel right at home.”

Three days after the arrival of Dunkley, his Kingston teammate, Sergei Popov, joined him when he walked through the doors and into the lobby of the Knights’ hotel in North Bay. He had enough time to say hi, get some basic instruction on London’s breakout and defensive zone coverage and then it was time to play. Popov didn’t miss a beat. He recorded a game-high five shots on goal against the Battalion, maybe because a move four hours west pales in comparison to the move he made at 14 years of age.

Popov left his family in Russia to come to North America to play.

“It is better hockey here,” he says, “so I just wanted to improve myself and get drafted to the OHL.”

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In 2016, that became “mission accomplished” as he was taken 38th overall in the OHL Priority Selection. Looking back, the move to Toronto and the Jr. Canadiens still seems a little wild to him.

“I came over by myself. I lived with a billet family and they were Russian, so they helped me a lot. It was a bit crazy.”

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The last player addition that the Knights made was Connor McMichael who was the 11th overall pick in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection. He arrived from Hamilton in the Robert Thomas trade and was immediately impressed by his first look at Budweiser Gardens.

“I looked around at all the seats and I heard it’s a sold-out crowd every game, so I’m pretty excited.”

The Ajax native admitted that he was a little nervous coming into his first season in the OHL, because he knew he would be going against bigger and faster players, but he settled into a third-line centre role with the Bulldogs as a 16-year-old and stands to see quite a bit of ice time in London.

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Those three additions and the rest of the Knights go up against the Kitchener Rangers in their first game since the deadline. Kitchener has spent the bulk of the 2017-18 season in first place in the Midwest division and added veterans, Givani Smith, Logan Brown and Austin McEneny for what they hope is a challenge to front-runners in the west like Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie.

You will be able to hear the broadcast of the Knights and the Rangers on 980 CFPL, on Country 104, and the Radioplayer Canada app.