If you need one word to describe the London Knights roster heading into the 2022-23 season, it is “deep.”
The Knights have some difficult decisions to make as they shape their final roster. As London prepares to finish their pre-season schedule with back-to-back games against the Erie Otters in London, Ont., on Friday at 7 p.m. and in Clinton, Ont., on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. with proceeds going to support the Huron Residential Hospice, they find themselves with more OHL-calibre players than they can squeeze into their opening night lineup on Sept. 30 against the Owen Sound Attack.
The biggest question surrounding the Knights heading into the season involved 2021-22 OHL Goaltender of the Year Brett Brochu. Would he land a contract and begin his professional career or would he be back for one more season in the Ontario Hockey League? The answer arrived earlier than expected when Brochu was returned to London, Ont., after attending rookie camp with the Vancouver Canucks. Brochu will be the number one guy for the Knights but he will have two excellent goalies behind him.
Owen Willmore was an emergency call-up for London last season after Brochu suffered an injury in the second half of the season and his play rocketed him up the depth chart. Willmore is from St. Thomas, Ont., and brings size and competitiveness to the crease.
Zach Bowen used the motivation of not being drafted by an OHL team as a 16-year-old to put together a stellar season last year in the Ottawa area and the Knights selected him in the fourth round in 2022. Bowen shone in a shootout win against the Sarnia Sting in his first pre-season appearance with a big save in the final seconds before he stopped all three Sting shooters in the shootout.
London has a great blend of veteran leadership and exciting young talent among its forward group.
Twenty-year-old Sean McGurn is the most experienced player, with 104 OHL games under his belt. He is just back from Maple Leafs camp and is joined by San Jose Sharks prospects Max McCue and Liam Gilmartin and newly acquired Ryan Del Monte as the only forwards on the roster over the age of 18.
Landon Sim, Brody Crane, Ben Bujold and Ruslan Gazizov were technically rookies last year because of the lost season in 2020-21 due to COVID-19 and they return, ready to take on larger roles. Sim was the St. Louis Blue leading scorer at the Traverse City Rookie tournament and Crane is back from rookie camp with the New Jersey Devils. Gazizov has made some electric plays for the Knights in training camp and in the pre-season and Bujold continues to show his versatility. He is growing into one of the OHL’s penalty killers.
Abakar Kazbekov also returns after missing all but nine games last year with a shoulder issue. He has a pinpoint accurate shot and a great offensive IQ. Nicholas Yearwood will also be looking for a full-time role.
Still, there is plenty of space for the younger talent to shine this season. That list will start with 17-year-old Denver Barkey. The Knights first-round pick in 2021 won gold with Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and was named player of the game in the championship final.
Easton Cowan made wizard-like moves with the Komoka Kings of the GOJHL last year and will now bring that talent to the Knights full-time.
Mathieu Paris, Kaeden Johnston and Mike Levin also played last year outside the OHL and have shown they have the talent to earn spots.
And then London has three forwards from the 2022 OHL Priority Selection. Luca Testa was their first-round pick and helped St. Catharines to win a Sutherland Cup championship. Sam O’Reilly is physical with offensive ability and William Nicholl is an incredibly smart player who always seems to make the right play.
Knights associate GM Rob Simpson described the sheer number of players as a “Tough thing to deal with … but a good problem to have.”
The remaining pre-season games will be key for anyone who might be on the bubble.
The stars are shining throughout London’s defence corps. There are four NHL draft picks and all kinds of overall talent.
Gerard Keane and Bryce Montgomery are both entering their overage seasons but there is still a chance Montgomery could find himself in the professional ranks. He is a draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes and earned an invitation to their main training camp. Keane is back from Arizona and Coyotes rookie camp.
New York Islanders draft pick Isaiah George was named the Knights Rookie of the Year in 2021-22 and co-Scholastic Player of the Year last season with Jackson Edward, who was selected by the Boston Bruins in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
They will be joined by another NHL pick in Logan Mailloux who was Montreal’s first choice in 2021. Mailloux is coming off a shoulder injury that ended his season last March.
Ethan MacKinnon just kept getting better and better as last year went along and Connor Federkow might just be the hardest hitter in the league.
Oliver Bonk helped Canada win gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in the summer and will be on NHL draft radars all year.
Carsen Lloyd played six games for London last season and is pushing to be a full-time player in 2022-23 and Sam Dickinson was acquired from Niagara on Aug. 31 after being selected fourth overall in the 2022 OHL Priority Selection and is considered one of the best defencemen at his age in the country.