When you think of the prospects to watch in Saturday’s draft, the name Justin Donati does not immediately come to mind. Yet the 19-year-old Toronto St. Michael’s Majors center may just surprise all the prognosticators and be a mid to late-round pick. The 5’10, 170 lb Oakville, Ontario native went undrafted in 2005, but after he put on an incredible performance during the 2005-06 regular season, NHL teams have to be at least thinking that Donati deserves a second look.
Tied for sixth overall in the OHL, Donati recorded 109 points (46 goals, 63 assists) in 62 games, while maintaining a +16 plus/minus. And this is on a mediocre team that barely made it into the playoffs. Oh by the way, the fellow he was tied with? It was top prospect Bryan Little. Only Rob Schremp, David Bolland, Wojtek Wolski, Dylan Hunter and Evan McGrath tallied more. So who is this guy, and why isn’t he on everyone’s radar?
Donati is actually a twin, and he has played with his brother Tyler for virtually all of his hockey career, including this past season. According to Justin, they have played together since they were 5 years old, but all that is about to change. Two weeks ago, Tyler was traded to the Belleville Bulls, and there is no indication that Justin will follow. This will be the first time that the twins will play hockey apart, but it is only the first time in what each brother hopes will be long separate hockey careers.
Both were drafted by the Oshawa Generals in 2002, and then traded together to the Majors. It really was Tyler who was highly-touted at that point, and he was drafted by the Generals in the sixth round of the Priority Draft. Justin was an afterthought, and was Oshawa’s 15th round (and last) selection that year. It was Tyler who had an excellent rookie OHL season in 2003-04, and Tyler that was electrifying the fans. Justin played well, but certainly did not look exceptional on the ice. Part way through the twins’ second season with the Generals, Tyler, who at the time was the team’s leading scorer, and Justin, who was recovering from an injury, took exception with Oshawa’s coaching and demanded a trade. Unlike other trade demands that are usually made, the Donati twins decided to go home and left the team awaiting the inevitable trade.
That trade came in early January 2005, but the brothers have not been able to completely recover from the stigma that was placed upon them for the way they left the Generals. The January 2005 trade dealt both brothers to Toronto in return for Cal Clutterbuck (and a draft pick). Every report indicates that the twins had no similar problems with the Majors, and, up until Tyler’s trade earlier this month, it seemed that the twins and the Majors management had been a good match.
While Tyler’s game seems to have leveled off some this past season (72 points in 68 regular season games, with a plus/minus of –5, and 50 PIM), Justin has hit his stride. Although he is not particularly strong on the puck, and does not win many battles along the boards, when the puck arrives around an opponent’s net, there is Justin, in position to make the play. The puck finds him, and he sure knows how to finish. If you think that perhaps it’s just his chemistry with his linemates, he seems to be able to do that even when not playing with Cory Vitarelli and Tyler Haskins. Justin scored 3 points (2 goals and 1 assists) at the OHL All-Star game in February with other linemates.
If Justin returns to the Majors in the fall, it is very possible that he will play as a prospect whose rights are owned by an NHL team. Hockey’s Future interviewed Justin earlier this season about his improved play and his aspirations.
HF: Where has this sudden increase in offensive production come from?
JD: Last year, I did score about a point a game, so it was not bad, but this year, with the new rules and more power play time, it has really helped my totals. I have also really been helped out by having linemates, Tyler Haskins and Cory Vitarelli, who I have developed a chemistry with.
HF: What about your defensive game? Last year your plus/minus was –10, now you are well onto the plus side.
JD: I have worked really hard on my defensive game, and it is really starting to pay off. I also have really good defensive players behind me, so that helps a lot.
HF: How much has playing with the team captain Tyler Haskins helped your game?
JD: It’s helped me enormously. He is basically a defensive forward and digs pucks out of the corners and always seems to know where I am; he just finds me on the pass. I work off him and he works off me. It couldn’t be better for us or for the team.
HF: What kind of goals did you set for yourself this year?
JD: All I can do is work hard. If I do get drafted, that will be great. But if that does not happen, I have to keep working. I guess my goals for this season have always been just focus on playing my game every night and the rest will take care of itself.
HF: If you don’t get drafted, then what is next?
JD: Hopefully, I won’t have to worry about that, but if I don’t get selected, I will be very happy to come back and play for the Majors.
HF: To get to the NHL, what do you think you have to improve upon?
JD: Probably the most important is my strength and conditioning. That’s definitely the part of my game that needs the most work.
HF: What are you doing to overcome those concerns?
JD: Over the summer I train very hard. During the year I train two to three times per week, but during the summer, I work out as much as I physically can.
Although it is Justin who is more likely to be drafted, as Tyler did not have the year he hoped for, Tyler too is longing to be drafted. When HF caught up with him, Tyler said his “goal is to get drafted or, if not, get a walk-on for an NHL tryout this year.” After his junior season was over, Tyler signed an amateur tryout contract with the UHL Motor City Mechanics, and registered one assist in four games. Although it is possible for Tyler to be drafted on Saturday, the odds are against that happening. In fact, it is most likely that this twin will be playing an overage year in Belleville next season.
As for Justin, in the new NHL, where the smaller skilled players play more of a role, his dreams of being drafted are not over yet.
Both brothers await Saturday as long-shots, twins dreaming of the same ultimate prize.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.