In the town of Sarnia, Ontario (pop. 7,000) can be found a trio of young hockey prospects that the New York Islanders need to make big decisions on. Mark Katic, Matt Martin and Justin DiBenedetto of the Sarnia Sting are all recent Islanders draft picks eligible for the pros next season. Whether one, two or all three make it to Bridgeport as early as next season will be determined over the next few months.
BIGGEST UPSIDE: Mark Katic, D, 5-10, 190, turns 20 in May.
An Islanders third round pick in 2007, Katic is a puck-moving defenseman with the kind of tools that should make him a good fit with the franchise’s go-go philosophy.
His critics say he has yet to reach his potential, that he should be more dominant at the OHL level. His advocates believe he’s a good student who will develop in the Islanders farm system into an NHLer.
This season: 7-24-31 in 43 games, fourth in Sarnia scoring.
The quintessential late bloomer, Martin was selected by the Islanders in the fifth round last June and the team is very happy with the step-up in his play since.
He has become a threat in juniors as a scorer and a fighter, and his leadership (Martin is the Sarnia captain, while Katic and DiBenedetto wear As) has been cited as a big reason why the overachieving Sting are contending for home-ice advantage in the OHL playoffs. He doesn’t have many critics, while most observers tell you he has an excellent shot to be a heart-and-soul third liner in the NHL.
This season: 24-23-47 in 43 games, third in Sarnia scoring.
BIGGEST MYSTERY: Justin DiBenedetto, C, 5-11, 20 years old.
Presenting the top 3 leading scorers in the Ontario Hockey League this season:
1. John Tavares, London: 35-33-68 (projected top-2 pick in 2009)
2. Taylor Hall, Windsor: 28-38-66 (projected top pick in 2010)
3. Justin DiBenedetto, Sarnia: 33-32-65 (NYI 6th round pick in 2008)
What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, actually. The Canadian junior ranks are filled with the ghosts of top scorers who never got a whiff in the NHL. In 1980, Bill Torrey and Jim Devellano drafted a center in the third round named Dave Simpson. In 1981-82, Simpson scored 67 goals and 155 points in 68 games and was named CHL Player of the Year. He played four years in the minors and never played again.
What makes DiBenedetto an intriguing prospect is that the knocks are not on his size (he’s 5-11 and strong and wide enough) or skating (not the prettiest, but he gets there). No, the kid they call “DiBo” sometimes drives observers a little batty with his inconsistency. Those skeptics are starting to go away. Last year, they credited his production to playing with Steven Stamkos. They have no one to blame it on this season but DiBenedetto.
As for the inconsistency, isn’t that what coaching is for? Isn’t that why you have a development program? Isn’t that why Bryan Trottier is there to teach and Eric Cairns is there to make sure the kids are doing their homework? Is there any question that the rebuilding Islanders are going to sign the talented center and develop him?
Sign Deadlines: Katic needs to be signed by the Islanders by June 1, 2009. Martin and DiBenedetto must be signed by June 1, 2010. All are eligible to be signed this year and begin their Islanders development in Bridgeport for the 2009-2010 season.
Prediction: Maybe none of the kids are world-beaters, but all could be significant contributors on a winner if properly developed. The Islanders will eventually sign Katic and Martin and DiBenedetto.
ETC: Little news from Islanders practice today. Mark Streit is back from All-Star weekend and will sign autographs at the team store in the Broadway Mall tonight beginning at 7:00 pm. Yann Danis was in goal. We’ll have a better idea at tomorrow’s practice who should be good for Thursday’s lineup in Atlanta.