The New York Islanders have a healthy list of eight junior prospects — one in the WHL, two in the OHL, two in the QMJHL and three in the USHL. Not one of these players is a rookie — they all have experience performing at this level and should begin trickling into the upper ranks of the Islanders minor-league system throughout the next few seasons.
Robin Figren, LW, 19
Edmonton Oil Kings (10-14-1-3)
Drafted: 2006 3rd round pick (70th overall)
Swedish-born forward Robin Figren is in his second season of junior hockey. Last year, he played with the Edmonton Oil Kings in 62 games, notching 10 goals, 17 assists for 27 points and 54 penalty minutes. He has since joined up with then Edmonton Oil Kings for their inaugural season. Over the course of the team’s first 23 games, Figren has scored 12 times to go along with 10 assists for 22 points and 28 penalty minutes.
During the off-season, Figren had sports hernia surgery, a procedure that severely limited his on-ice participation at the Islanders training camp, the second year he’s been invited. He attempted to participate in practice, however, soon discovered that playing put too much strain on the groin and, as a result, spent the rest of camp skating by himself.
All signs point to Figren having fully rebounded from the injury. He’s putting up numbers that, pending any future injuries, should far surpass his total from last season. Figren is certainly the go-to guy on the team, leading the Oil Kings in points while also seeing plenty of playing time. It’s unfortunate that, with the numbers he’s putting up, he appears to be a big fish in a small pond, as the team has struggled to get above .500 this season. Looking at it from an individual standpoint, however, this looks to be a good development year for Figren.
Mark Katic, D, 18
Sarnia Sting (15-11-0-0)
Drafted: 2007 3rd round pick (62nd overall)
The Islanders’ first selection in the 2007 draft, Mark Katic, is entering already his third season of junior play with the Sarnia Sting. Last season, he played in 68 games, recording five goals, 35 assists for 40 points to go along with 31 penalty minutes. He’s on a somewhat slower scoring pace this year, as he’s registered no goals, only eight assists for eight points and 18 penalty minutes in 16 games played following an injury to his shoulder during the Islanders’ training camp that kept him out of the Sting lineup until Oct. 18.
Katic is expected to step up big this year. Having been the Islanders’ first selection in the 2007 draft and going into his third year of junior level play, many expect him to really excel and begin moving up the ranks and into professional play. Truth be told, it’s a lot to ask of Katic, who is only 18 years old and undersized too, standing at only 5’9 and weighing in at just a bit over 180 pounds, both of which factored into him getting roughed up at his first Islanders training camp.
The good news is that Katic’s a tough kid and does possess quick feet and a real talent for moving the puck up ice. It will certainly increase his value offensively. Katic has also gotten much smarter as a player and is not getting caught out of position as much as he did when he first entered juniors. In that year, the 2005-06 season, he was a minus-24. Last season he was a plus-eight and so far this year he’s a plus-seven. He needs to take more shots from the point when on the power play and even rush the puck in once in a while when even strength and start adding more depth to his offensive game to go along with his abilities in making great passes.
Tomas Marcinko, C, 19
Barrie Colts (15-10-1-1)
Drafted: 2006 4th round pick (115th overall)
Nineteen-year-old Slovakian centerman Tomas Marcinko is entering in his second season with the Colts. Last year, he suited up for 56 games and registered 19 goals, 21 assists for 40 points and 56 penalty minutes. With 15 games behind him this season, Marcinko has scored 11 times to go along with six assists for 17 points and 14 penalty minutes.
Marcinko has set a nice pace for himself for this season. He’s on mark to surpass his numbers from last year and has showed a tremendous amount of growth in both his speed as well as his physical play. He’s much stronger on the puck and has shown much more aggression in driving to the net.
Last season, Marcinko proved to be a reliable checking center, often concerning himself moreso with his defensive responsibilities than offensive. But this season, Marcinko has added new entries to his player resume and has shown the possibility of developing into something more than a checking center, a title that has followed him much of his career. All that being said, Marcinko’s season has recently been hampered by a tibial microfracture suffered during an Oct. 27 game, causing him to miss a good number of games with the Colts.
Max Gratchev, LW, 19
Rimouski Oceanic (12-17-1-0)
Drafted: 2007 4th round pick (106th overall)
The Islanders’ third pick in the 2007 draft, Max Gratchev, is playing in his fifth year in the QMJHL and his third with the Rimouski Oceanic. In 70 games last year, Gratchev created a huge buzz, scoring 35 goals, 42 assists for 77 points and 88 penalty minutes. This year, however, is a much different story. Through 12 games of the season, he has scored three goals, five assists for eight points and 14 penalty minutes while suffering a broken left foot that has kept him out for a good portion of the season.
This is an unfortunate and ill-timed injury for the young star. With five years of junior hockey under his belt to go along with time spent with the Islanders at training camp this year, many expect his time to be sooner rather than later.
Originally slated to go as a late-first or early second-round pick, the Islanders lucked out with getting a player of Gratchev’s caliber in the fourth round. He has great stickhandling skills and a powerful shot, but his speed is still in the developing stages. He shows a lot of hussle on the ice and is becoming a much smarter, patient player, but this may very well be something that comes with playing at the same level for five seasons. He needs to be challenged at a higher level and should get his chances in the next few seasons.
Simon Lacroix, D, 18
Shawinigan Cataractes (13-12-0-2)
Drafted: 2007 7th round pick (196th overall)
Simon Lacroix is entering his second season with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. Last year, he played in 60 games, scoring 11 goals, assisting 27 times for a total of 38 points to go along with 66 penalty minutes. This season, through 25 games, he has scored three goals, added 11 assists for a total of 14 points to go along with 27 penalty minutes.
Lacroix set the bar rather high for himself last season, with a scoring pace of just over a point every other game, resulting in him earning a spot on the Rookie All-Star Team. But Lacroix is having a bit more difficulty finding his stride this season. The pressure is definitely on him, especially since he’s the only player on the team to have been drafted by an NHL club. The team is very, very young and Lacroix is being called upon to lead the team both in the locker room and on the ice.
He has fared well so far, but not like he did last year. He’s taking plenty of shots and is seeing plenty of time on the special teams units. He definitely has the height to become an impact defenseman, he just needs to fill out the rest of his frame. His defensive positioning is good, as best evidenced by a plus/minus of only minus-one on a barely-above .500 team and he’s proven to be better at getting back in the play. But while Lacroix showed a great deal of promise last season, he’s showing this year that he still has some growing to do as a player.
Jason Gregoire, LW, 18
Lincoln Stars (7-9-2)
Drafted: 2007 3rd round pick (76th overall)
Jason Gregoire is lacing up his skates with the Lincoln Stars for the second year. Last season, he played in 32 games, scoring 16 goals, 20 assists for 36 points and 10 penalty minutes. Eighteen games into his sophomore year, he has notched eight goals, 15 assists for 23 points and 19 penalty minutes.
The 18-year-old left winger is leading his team in points. He’s taken many more shots on goal than the next next teammate and is being called upon to be the offensive threat the Islanders drafted him second overall in the 2007 draft to be. He’s seeing plenty of time on the ice, both at regular strength and in special team situations and has really taken to being a leader on the team.
Gregoire seems to be right on pace with where he should be in his career. He has the speed and a quick set of hands to have earned him the reputation as one of the top collegiate prospects for the 2008 class and a roster spot with the powerhouse University of North Dakota. He is slowly building up his strength and weight, both of which factor into his being a more physical and an offensively dominating figure on the ice this season. He still has a ways to go, however, particularly in continuing to develop upon the physical side of his game, but this is something that will most certainly be addressed in the next few seasons with the Fighting Sioux.
Blake Kessel, D, 18
Waterloo Black Hawks (10-4-2
Drafted: 2007 6th round pick (166th overall)
The brother of Boston Bruins standout forward, Phil Kessel, Waterloo Black Hawks defenseman Blake Kessel is playing in his second year of junior hockey. Last season, he played in 59 games, scoring 11 goals, 27 assists for 38 points and 38 penalty minutes. So far this year, in 15 games played, he has seven goals, four assists for 11 points and six penalty minutes.
Most of Kessel’s points have come while quaterbacking the Black Hawks’ power-play unit — nine of his 11 points as a matter of fact. This isn’t, necessarily, a bad thing. He’s shown that he’s good at the point and can handle a unit of playmakers with accurate shots and timely passes. However, he has not shown to be all that reliable of a defenseman and has often been caught out of position, to which he is then very slow getting back into the play. This has resulted in his being a minus-eight so far this season.
He needs to get quicker and be able to move with the smaller, shifty forwards. He leads the team in points, playing time and shots on goal. However, for all that he’s doing right on the offensive side of things, he needs to vastly improve his defensive abilities before moving on to the next stage in his career.
Troy Mattila, LW, 19
Tri-City Storm (6-10-1)
Drafted: 2006 7th round pick (190th overall)
Last season, Troy Mattila wore a Chicago Steel jersey and over 36 games, he registered four goals, six assists for 10 points and 12 penalty minutes. This season, he’s playing for the Tri-City Storm and so far, through 17 games played, he’s scored five times, added four assists for nine points and 10 penalty minutes.
Mattila is having a much better season than last and it’s due, in part, to his being called upon to play a bigger role on the team. Last season, Mattila was largely overshadowed by other, more experienced players. This season, with a year of junior hockey under his belt, Mattila is seeing considerably more playing time on the Storm’s top lines and special team units.
One of the things Mattila needs to work on is his physical game. He stands at 6’3 but weighs under 200 pounds. He’s getting knocked around on the ice and doesn’t throw his own weight around. He has proven at all the many different levels of hockey he’s played that he has the offensive ability to impact every game he suits up for but the higher levels he plays in, the more he’s going to have to be able to physically defend himself and the puck. Presently, he is committed to Dartmouth College for the 2008-09 season, so any impact he’ll have on the Islanders’ minor-league system is still a few seasons away.