It’s a long way to the National Hockey League from Porcupine, ON, but one young defenseman is hoping to prove that he can be a thorn in the side of NHL opposition for years to come.
Sarnia Sting defenseman Mark Katic has been ranked fifth amongst skaters for the upcoming 2007 Entry Draft by ISS. And while Katic said he wasn’t aware of the rankings, he was understandably pleased by the news.
“It’s a deep draft from what I’ve been told,” Katic explained. “To be ranked that high so early in the season, it’s certainly an honor, but there’s a whole season still left to be played and anything can happen.”
Things haven’t always been so rosy for Katic, or the Sting. The squad has missed the playoffs for the past two seasons – and hasn’t won a playoff round in almost a decade. But the cornerstone for change was laid the moment that John Tavares received a last-minute inclusion into the OHL entry draft.
Because of that, Katic fell to the Sting with the second pick – and the club couldn’t have been more pleased. “He’s just an unbelievable kid and he just wants to get better every day,” explained assistant coach Greg Walters. “He was easily our best defenseman last year and that’s a tough thing to put on a 16-year-old kid.”
And that showed in Katic’s stats. While he enjoyed a solid offensive season with five goals and 29 assists, a minus-24 ranking betrayed his – and the club’s – difficulties. The club finished in the OHL basement with a record of 17-46-2-3. This season, the resurgent Sting has taken the OHL by storm, and the 5’10 rearguard is providing much of the fuel for the team’s playoff aspirations. He’s posted 12 points in 15 games. But more importantly, he’s a plus player.
True to form, Katic credits the organization for his improvement. “Overall the biggest thing that’s affected my game has been the improvement of the team in general,” Katic said. “When we can bring in key people over the summer – and now we’ve added Trevor Kell — my plus/minus has been showing for it.
“If I look at the score sheet and I’ve got an assist, but I’m minus-2 then it means I’ve hurt the team more than I’ve helped it. But if I had no points, but was plus-3 I realize that I’ve contributed somehow to the team’s win.”
Katic’s success this season shows that it doesn’t always matter how talented the artist is. To truly showcase his abilities, his efforts have to be framed in just the right way. And this year, the Sting took a measured leap into respectability, obtaining defenseman Ryan Wilson (the team’s scoring leader), as well as landing the first-overall pick in the OHL draft and selecting the dynamic Steven Stamkos. With a more balanced supporting cast, Katic’s been able to shine.
Sting head coach Dave MacQueen wasn’t with the club last season, so Katic’s enjoyed a carte blanche status. MacQueen’s been impressed with what he’s seen, but he’s also seen room for improvement. “He’s a skilled player and he has the ability to skate and get you out of trouble,” he said. “He’s got the skills, the talent, and the ability.
“He’s dynamic when he has the puck, but he needs to work on what to do when he doesn’t have it because that’s what it’s going to take to get to the next level.”
Sage wisdom, especially when you consider that not all scouts are as positive about the impact Katic will have at the next level. While they like his skill set, some have indicated that they’ll need to see something more – especially considering his size.
“I could make a compelling argument that the people who are benefiting from the new rules changes are the big forwards with skill – like the [Jaromir] Jagrs,” explained one scout. “When you’ve got them coming down the wing at full speed, how are the smaller guys supposed to check them?
“Defense is never going to be [Katic]’s meal ticket. He has to bring something else to the table because size is obviously a major concern.”
The reviews aren’t all bad, though. There is plenty of raw material with which a team can work. “He has a lot of hockey sense,” an NHL scout opined. “His skills are well above average.”
However, Katic said a lot of the changes in the way the game’s officiated have worked in his favor – at least offensively.
“When you look at the old drafts you’d see a lot of 6’5 defensemen taken who weren’t really able to move, but could get away with all the clutching and grabbing. Now the game’s built for speed and I think that suits my game pretty well,” Katic explained. “I noticed that the smaller skilled forwards and defensemen are getting the chance, not just here but also in the NHL, like John-Michael Liles.
“It’s changed my game a bit because now I can go wide on the guys and they won’t be able to get away with hooking me or clutching and grabbing me as much. It’s better for skating out of our own end and not worrying about getting hooked and turning the puck over because of it.”
Another thing that’s in Katic’s favor is his willingness to learn – a trait that’s well appreciated by his coaching staff. “Mark’s continuing to work on his game, and we’re trying to help him learn when to skate with the puck, when to move, when to stay back, and when to jump in,” Walters said. “He knows the game well and he’s really taking his defensive responsibility seriously.”
Candidly, Katic admits that he thinks about the upcoming draft from time to time, but he does his best to put it behind him and only worries about the one factor that he can control – his play. “Obviously the draft is always in the back of my mind, but if your team’s successful then there’s probably a better chance for you to be picked higher,” he said. “I look at it game by game and if I worry about today’s game, then I only have one focus.”
Walters added that the coaching staff does its best to reinforce that idea. “We keep telling him that he’s not going to get drafted in October or November – the draft isn’t until June,” he explained. “So he’s just got to not worry about one game here or there. The good thing is that the draft’s never been a problem in affecting Mark. He puts a lot of pressure on himself – in a good way.”
As Katic has said, the season is long and much can change before he finally hears his name called in Columbus. And where he goes depends not so much on his performance in the junior ranks, but rather the potential he can show to grow and improve.
“It’s easy to see what he’s doing now,” one NHL scout explained. “It’s harder to project what he’ll do at the next level.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.