The 2016 Memorial Cup champion London Knights team was one of the most dominant we have seen in the Canadian Hockey League in recent memory. With guys like Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak leading the way for an already stacked lineup of talented players, it would have been a massive disappointment to see the team finish with anything less than a Memorial Cup.
They fulfilled their dream of reaching the pinnacle of junior hockey success when Matthew Tkachuk scored the overtime winning goal in the Memorial Cup Final, igniting a crowd full of London fans in Red Deer, Alberta.
The storied 2015-16 Knights campaign was only made possible, though, by several key acquisitions during the 2015 offseason.
Tkachuk, for example, nixed his commitment to the University of Notre Dame and signed on with the London Knights before the season began. Max Jones, a former member of the USDP like Tkachuk, also joined the Knights. Olli Juolevi, drafted late in the first round of the 2015 CHL Import Draft, won all sorts of individual accolades during his rookie year in London.
Those three and several others essentially eliminated the sting of losing former captain and top scorer Max Domi to the NHL. Sure, he was a major part of the Knights when he played for them, but the contributions made by the newcomers were so significant that the team actually became better in 2015-16.
London is unique because it is arguably the top destination in the entire 60-team CHL. Some refer to the Knights as the New York Yankees of junior hockey — they have an illustrious history and rarely do players refuse to play there. in fact, players often request trades to London when they are unwilling to play for the team that drafted them (see: Domi and Victor Mete, for example).
Even without confirmation from the club itself, it is quite obvious that the Knights organization uses their reputation to their advantage.
They often select superbly talented players who are either committed to or leaning toward playing elsewhere (the NCAA, the USHL, etc.) in the later rounds of the annual OHL Priority Selection Draft. It’s a bit unfair to other teams that don’t have quite the pull for young talent.
And once again, it has worked for them, as Jack Roslovic — who was selected by the now-defunct Plymouth Whalers in the 2013 OHL draft — just signed his first NHL contract. London traded for his rights earlier this year, probably because they know that he would play for London rather than Flint.
But there’s one stipulation this time around; where the highly-touted prospect plays next season will be mostly up to the Winnipeg Jets. There’s a slim chance he cracks the NHL roster and remains with the Jets all season, so it will most likely be between the AHL Manitoba Moose or the OHL, with the Knights.
“If he ever did come to junior, he would be a very good player in the league,” London General Manager Rob Simpson said. “But there is a good chance he could make Winnipeg or the American league. He’s a first-round pick (25th overall in 2015). We’ll see what happens.”
Another big addition (this one is a definite) is Janne Kuokkanen, a late CHL Import Draft pick (2016) like his fellow countryman Juolevi.
“He’s very dynamic,” Simpson said of the Carolina Hurricanes prospect. “He can make plays and he works hard. He’s very trick(y) and can shoot. He’s a good-sized kid, too (6’1″, 180 pounds).”
With Dvorak losing his junior eligibility and Mitch Marner likely making the Toronto Maple Leafs roster this coming season, the dominant top line will have to be rebuilt. Roslovic plays both wing and center, so he could slot in at center next to Tkachuk, assuming he’s not playing for the Calgary Flames.
Another forward, maybe one of Jones or Kuokkanen, can join them, and the Knights’ dominant streak can last another year.
Other players who could see expanded roles are center Cliff Pu and Kole Sherwood, among many others. With so many players graduating from juniors, a ton of roster spots are now vacant. Above all, though, the Knights overcame doubts last season and won a Memorial Cup, and now they have everything they need to make another run.