Marty Williamson doesn’t expect the Niagara IceDogs to make a splash prior to the Ontario Hockey League’s Jan. 10 trade deadline, even though his team is within four points of top spot in the Eastern Conference.
But don’t fret, IceDogs fans, reinforcements are on the way in the form of Tom Kuhnhackl. Remember him?
He was the left-winger who Williamson, Niagara’s general manager and head coach, acquired from Windsor in a trade on Nov. 2 and two days later watched him level Ryan Murphy behind the Kitchener net — with a hit heard around the hockey world — leading to a 20-game suspension.
Kuhnhackl, 19, is eligible to return to the lineup Jan. 6 against the visiting Owen Sound Attack.
He’s been skating for a few weeks after suffering meniscus damage and slightly spraining the posterior cruciate ligament — the second major ligament in the knee that connects the thigh bone to the shin bone — from hitting Murphy, while his opponent missed 10 games with his second diagnosed concussion.
“He talked to Ryan and obviously feels bad about what happened to him. He also feels he’s let us down,” Williamson said in a phone interview with CBCSports.ca. “We made a big trade and moved a lot of assets to get him.
“He’s not known for [being a dirty] player. I think he was trying to make an impact with his new team. He’s not a player that’s been suspended [previously] or has any track record.
Williamson was aggressive in his pursuit of Kuhnhackl, sending the rights to forward Phillip De Giuseppe and goalie Jaroslav Pavelka to Windsor along with second-round picks in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and the IceDogs’ first-rounder in the 2013 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. The Spitfires also sent their second-round selection in the 2013 draft to Niagara.
Williamson “loved” what he saw of Kuhnhackl in last year’s OHL playoffs when the German forward scored 11 goals and 23 points in 18 games while playing with intensity and demonstrating a good work ethic.
“He’s an elite player, a complete player. He plays solid defence,” said the coach.
And boy, does Kuhnhackl have a shot.
Prior to returning home to Landshut, Germany for Christmas, he was shooting pucks at the Gatorade Garden City Complex in St. Catharines and broke a pane of glass.
“I knew he had a good shot. I didn’t realize how good it was,” said Williamson of Kuhnhackl, whom the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted in the fourth round (110th overall) in 2010. “The Pittsburgh people had told me that he’s got a pro shot, that he could have the second or third best shot on the Penguins [now].”
That shot helped Kuhnhackl score 39 goals in 63 regular-season games as an OHL rookie a year ago. He’ll add to a potent Niagara attack that scored 141 goals in its first 36 games, tying the IceDogs with Barrie for the East lead.
Williamson said he’ll probably try the speedy Kuhnhackl on a line with centre Ryan Strome and right-winger Freddie Hamilton, both of whom are competing for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.
“When you’ve got people who can really move on the sides of [Strome] when he dishes the puck,” Williamson said, “it sure makes the defencemen back off a little bit. If they have to back off, that means when Ryan’s got the puck he can get over the blue-line and start to cut to the middle because they have to respect the players on each side of him. It does make the line awfully dangerous, and makes our power play a lot more dangerous.
“We’ve been kind of missing that one shot from the point on the off side. [Kuhnhackl] fits in perfectly there being a left shot. It’s one of the reasons I was aggressive in going after him.
“My trainers cannot say enough good things to me about how dedicated and meticulous he is going through his rehab to get himself back and in good shape. He’s anxious to get back playing.”
And just in time for the IceDogs to make a splash — on the ice — in the second half.