By Mark McKelvie @Mark14McKelvie
Connor McDavid joined the Erie Otters with expectations relatively low following the club’s 10-win season, but heading into year two with McDavid and a more experienced Otters roster expectations are growing.
McDavid wasn’t the only new face to land in Erie with the goal of bringing the Otters their first championship since 2002. Kris Knoblauch, who won a WHL title behind the bench with the Kootenay Ice in 2011, took over as Head Coach at the end of November and says last season was a new experience for his club and a feeling out process for himself.
“I got to know the players and what they are able to provide and what they need which I think was the biggest step,” Knoblauch said. “We played with different styles and I certainly reinforced my belief in how we should be playing hockey. This season in training camp we will be starting to implement the systems I believe the Otters should be playing.”
McDavid had an incredible season for the Otters en route to capturing OHL Rookie of the Year honours after racking up 66 points in his first season as an underage player. He finished second in team scoring and made an immediate impact in Erie.
“For a 15-year-old to come in and play junior hockey at this level is pretty remarkable, but what is really amazing is the impact he had playing the game,” said Knoblauch. “I think he did an exceptional job handling the pressures and being in the spotlight but he is a pretty remarkable person to be able to handle that pressure.”
The focus will be on McDavid even more over the next two seasons with his NHL Draft year set for 2015, and after his invite to Canada’s National Junior Summer Development Camp where he will now shoot to become the first 16-year-old to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship since Sidney Crosby.
In the meantime, helping McDavid shoulder the load is Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown who had 69 points over the course of last season. Third in scoring last season but gone to graduation is overage forward J.P. Labardo who was the only 20-year-old on the roster which means the Otters will be able to keep together the majority of their lineup allowing for instant gravitation between the players and coaching staff.
Knoblauch says he is happy to be able to keep the group together including all his leaders but pointed to one member of his blue line who he feels leads the team.
“Adam Pelech is our leader back there and I think he is one of the top defencemen in the country. I know he has been recognized for being one of the top defencemen in the country by being invited to the Canadian National Team Program, but I still feel he is underrated because he is quite a well-rounded player.”
Pelech was unable to attend Canada’s summer camp due to wrist surgery but the New York Islanders prospect is expected to be ready heading into his fourth OHL season.
Unlike last season with Labardo the sole overage player, the Otters currently have four overage players battling for a roster spot at camp including Spencer Abraham and Jimmy McDowell on the blue line and Dane Fox and recently acquired Michael Curtis up front.
Those veteran players will be counted on for their leadership in helping mould the younger Otters that include first round pick and second overall selection Dylan Strome set to debut in Erie. The impressive forward is looking to carve his own legacy following in the footsteps of his brother Ryan who just completed his OHL career in Niagara.
“I think he is a very intelligent hockey player and quite skilled with the puck,” said Knoblauch who got to see first-hand how talented Strome is at Otters rookie camp in the spring. “We believe he will make our team better but there will be an adjustment period for him.”
The Otters have also brought in some new additions at both ends of the ice.
Andre Burakovsky was the fourth overall pick to the Otters in the 2013 CHL Import Draft. The Austrian winger was most recently a first round pick of the Washington Capitals at 23rd overall. They also signed defencemen Travis Dermott, a ninth round pick of the Otters in the 2012 Priority Selection. Dermott played last season for the Newmarket Hurricanes in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
As for returning players, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oscar Dansk is set for his sophomore year in between the pipes, while other key returnees include power forward Stephen Harper and a pair of centres in Jake Evans and Montreal Canadiens prospect Connor Crisp, along with defenceman Troy Donnay who recently signed an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers.
The Otters enter this season with a top scorer, solid defence and capable goaltending all mixed in with an experienced lineup giving them their best chance to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
“We certainly have things to work on and get better with but we like our additions and what we have,” said Knoblauch. “With the addition of my two assistants (Chris Hartsburg, Vince Laise) and me being here from the beginning of the season we can start making the team stronger.”
Otters’ fans should be excited for what should be an intriguing season, and a potential post-season, if the Otters live up to Knoblauch’s expectations.
“Anything but playoffs we would be very disappointed with.”
Click here to watch the Otters' 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
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