Islanders Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Jason Menard

It’s a good thing the Islanders have the first-overall selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft, because their prospects are lean and mean — and not in a good way. The list of quality players isn’t long, and their potential is middling at best.

No matter who the club selects first overall in the upcoming draft, that player will place at the top of this chart. In the meantime, the club’s prospects are akin to a baseball team comprised of a handful of beefy DHs and diminutive middle infielders — you’ve got a bunch of guys who may safely beat out a bunt, but won’t get the fans out of the seats; and you’ve got a few guys who will swing for the fences.

Top 20 at a glance

!. Kirill Petrov, RW
2. Jesse Joensuu, Lw
3. Trevor Smith, C
4. Robin Figren, LW
5. Jason Gregoire, LW
6. Rhett Rakhshani, RW
7. Justin DiBenedetto, LW
8. Corey Trivino, C
9. Travis Hamonic, D
10. Mark Katic, D
11. Aaron Ness, D
12. Maxim Gratchev, LW
13. Jyri Niemi, D
14. David Toews, C
15. Jeremy Colliton, RW
16. Dustin Kohn, D
17. Andrew MacDonald, D
18. Simon Lacroix, D
19. Blake Kessel, D
20. Matt Martin, F

1. Kirill Petrov, RW, 19

Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2008

Petrov was a flyer in last year’s draft — a highly-ranked Russian who lasted to the third round due to questions about signability. More questions arose this year, as Petrov missed the majority of his KHL season with injuries. He missed the first half of the season, returning in time to join the Russian club on the WJC roster. Unfortunately, his injury limited his contribution as he was held off the score sheet. With Kazan Ak Bars, Petrov played in six games, registering only one goal.

Born in Kazan, the 6’4, 205-pound Petrov will likely return to the hometown club next season to rebound from the injury. And, of course, to enter year two of the reported four-year contract he’s signed with Kazan. It seems the question in the next few years won’t be could Petrov play in the NHL, but will he play?

2. Jesse Joensuu, LW, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 60th overall, 2006

Joensuu’s first full year in North America was certainly an impressive one. He left the Finnish league well behind him as his play eventually allowed him to progress to the NHL for a seven-game stint with the Islanders.

The Pori-born Finn enjoyed a 20-goal campaign, concluding the AHL regular season with 39 points in 71 games. In seven NHL games, he scored one goal and added two assists. Joensuu also played well in five post-season games with the Sound Tigers, scoring two goals and adding one assist in Bridgeport’s five-game loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The Finn has shown glimpses of the power-forward potential that the Islanders have been looking for. At 6’4, 208 pounds, he has the size in spades, but he’s shown increasing confidence in his ability to finish around the net. With 58 PIMs, Joensuu has also shown a willingness to throw some of that impressive size around.

3. Trevor Smith, C, 24
Acquired: Free agent signee, 2007

Not the flashiest player in the league, Smith has been developed into a solid and consistent offensive player in the Islanders organization. In 76 games with Bridgeport this season, the 6’1 center tallied 30 goals and added 32 assists, which for the talent-thin Islanders was a pleasant addition.

Smith enjoyed a seven-day call-up with the big club, netting his first NHL goal, but contributing little else to the cause. Returned to Bridgeport, in the AHL playoffs he had four points in five games, before the Sound Tigers bowed out of the first round.

Smith has progressed through hard work and has cited Doug Gilmour as his favorite player. With a style similar to the super-pest, he should slip into a similar role — agitator supreme, with a nose for the net — in the not-too-distant future.

4. Robin Figren, LW, 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 70th overall, 2006

Figren may be best known at the moment for his stunning goal in the 2008 World Junior Hockey Championship, where he picked up the puck, lacrosse-style, on the blade of his stick, and tucked it over the Danish goaltender’s shoulder. 

In May 2008, the 21-year-old winger signed with the Islanders in time to get into three regular-season games with Bridgeport, following a season playing with Djurgardens of the SEL. In 49 games in the Swedish league, he scored three goals and added six assists. In his three-game stint with Bridgeport, he registered one assist in three games. Fortunately, acclimatizing to the North American game and style is not an issue for Figren, having gained extensive experience in the WHL with Calgary and Edmonton. He wasn’t a big scorer in junior though. In 97 CHL games, the 5’10 forward compiled totals of 28 goals and 30 assists. The three-year contract that Figren signed stipulated that he would play the first year of his contract in Sweden.

A broken wrist sidelined the young Swede in his last year in the WHL and this year was spent recovering both physically and mentally from that injury. With the wrist fully tested, Figren will look to play a key role on the Islanders’ top farm club next season.

5. Jason Gregoire, LW, 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 76th overall, 2007

At 5’11, 175 pounds, Gregoire has some growing to do, but when it comes to scoring, the Winnipeg native is already showing a precocious nature for finding the net.

After lighting up the USHL for the previous three seasons, including 2008 where he was named the league’s top player, Gregoire made the jump to the collegiate ranks, joining the University of North Dakota. There, Gregoire became a strong contributor right away. In 42 games, Gregoire scored 12 goals and added 17 assists, helping the club into the Frozen Four tournament and a heartbreaking overtime loss in the first round.

Gregoire needs to add some bulk, but the Winnipeg, MB native should have at least one more season, if not two, in the collegiate ranks to hone his skill and fill out his frame.

6. Rhett Rakhshani, RW, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 100th overall, 2006

Rakhshani’s immediate future has already been decided — and with it, his long-term prospects may end up looking a lot better. In late April, Rakhshani decided against pursing a pro career, committing to return to the University of Denver for his senior campaign.

At 5’10, 180 lbs, the Orange, CA native has been steady throughout his collegiate career. This season, Rakhshani averaged almost a point per game, scoring 37 in 38 games, which included 15 goals. Those totals marked a return to form for the forward who fell to 28 points last season.

Rakhshani’s return to the Pioneers will see some extra responsibility — the winger’s been named captain for next year.

7. Justin DiBenedetto, LW, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 175th overall, 2008

DiBenedetto had something to prove in his overage season — that he wasn’t just a product of riding shotgun to Steven Stamkos. He did more than prove it — he exceeded all expectations en route to earning honors as the OHL‘s top overager.

With Stamkos, DiBenedetto racked up 93 points in 58 games. Without Stamkos? Same total of points, four more games, but an increase of six goals for a total of 45 this season. DiBenedetto earned a call-up following the Sting’s ouster from the playoffs, joining the AHL Sound Tigers for three post-season games. He performed well, scoring his first professional goal and earning four minutes in penalties.

The 6′ winger from Etobicoke recently signed a contract with the Islanders and will be among the youth brigade with Bridgeport next season. This late-rounder could emerge as a diamond in the rough, as he’s shown outstanding leadership, a willingness to get dirty, and surprisingly soft hands combined with a nose for the net.

8. Corey Trivino, C, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 36th overall, 2008

Another Etobicoke, ON native is in the system — and this one made the jump to the U.S. college ranks this season. The closest thing to a "Freshman 15" he experienced was in relation to his point and penalty-minute totals.

Trivino transitioned nicely from the OPJHL, where he was an offensive force for the Stouffville Spirit. In his rookie campaign with Boston University, Trivino scored six goals and added seven assists in 32 games, which included 14 minutes in penalties. His Terriers squad claimed the NCAA title.

As a freshman, Trivino was able to carve out a small space for himself on the squad. As he enters his sophomore season, he’ll be looked upon to carry more of the offensive load — a task he should be more than capable of handling.

9. Travis Hamonic, D, 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2008

The St. Malo, MB-born blueliner was always one to put up big numbers — however, this year he managed to add some impressive offensive prowess to his consistently impressive penalty totals.

At 6′, 195 pounds, Hamonic has always been willing to put his body right in the thick of things — with 101 and 126 PIMs in the past two seasons. However, this year the blueliner managed to double his offensive repertoire, hitting double digits in goals and assists en route to a 40-point campaign. This season his goal scoring jumped from five to 13; his assist totals climbed from 17 to 27.

Hamonic benefited from receiving ample playing time on a poor Moose Jaw Warriors club. He should be able to improve even more on those totals coming back for a fourth campaign in the WHL. Although he didn’t make the final squad, Hamonic was invited to Team Canada’s junior development camp over the summer. Chances are he’ll play a key role in next year’s WJC roster.

10. Mark Katic, D, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2007

Katic ended his junior career in a much better manner than previous seasons. This was the year that it seemed the blueliner, who always seemed less than the sum of his parts, broke through and appears to have finally gotten it.

The defenseman from tiny Porcupine has always been good, but not great, never up to his potential. For years, Katic has had all the tools, but just hasn’t built what was expected with them. Even playing with Steven Stamkos wasn’t enough to elicit the expected greatness. However, playing without Stamkos, he finally broke through.

The Sarnia Sting was surprising competitive this season and the 5’11 blueliner was a big part of that. In 63 games, Katic scored 13 goals and added 41 assists. His production tailed off in the playoffs as he became a focus of the opposition (one goal in four games), but Katic showed his excellent offensive instincts and his ability to play both ends of the rink. He also showed resiliency, bouncing back from a shoulder injury that limited his season to 45 games in 2008-08.

Katic, who turns 20 on May 9, has already signed a contract with the Isles and should be a key member of the Bridgeport blueline next season.

11. Aaron Ness, D, 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2008

It was a trying year at the University of Minnesota as the Golden Gophers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. However, with a solid rookie contribution from Ness — who was joined by nine other freshmen on the club — the future looks brighter.

Ness, who turns 19 on May 18, contributed two goals and 15 assists from the back end in 37 games this season. The 5’10 and 170 pounder showed his durability as the only freshman to appear in every game. He played a key role in their transitional offense and was consistently on one of the team’s top defensive pairings with David Fischer (MTL).

The Bemidji native will return for a sophomore campaign with Minnesota and looks to wrap up a key role in the very near future.

12. Maxim Gratchev, LW, 20
Acquired: 4th round, 106th overall, 2007

Gratchev will join Katic on the Sound Tigers as part of the club’s youthful infusion and he’ll do so knowing that he’s removed a major monkey off of his back. He competed in 64 games as an overager this season with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, performing at almost a point-per-game rate, scoring 61 points split between 30 goals and 31 assists. He also displayed some uncharacteristic fiestiness racking up 108 PIMs.

As yet unsigned, Gratchev will likely join the Sound Tigers full-time next season. He enjoyed a one-game call-up this season during the playoffs and hopes to play a key offensive role for an offensively deficient Bridgeport squad. Staying healthy is a key and the organization is hoping that the young Russian has finally conquered the injury bug.

13. Jyri Niemi, D, 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2008

Niemi made himself known this year in the WHL — and he announced his arrival with a thunderous boom. During last year’s top prospect game, Niemi clocked in with a 97 mph slapshot. This year, he used that to its utmost in compiling season totals of seven goals and 25 assists in 60 games.

Those numbers, in fact, represent a drop from his previous year’s totals, when he had 14 goals and 34 points in only 49 games. But he showed this year that he can come through in the clutch. Facing a 3-2 deficit against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Niemi came through with four assists in game six to help force a game seven — which the club eventually lost. In recognition of his efforts, Niemi shared the team’s top playoff performer award.

At 6’3, 205 pounds, the young Finn — who turns 19 on June 15 — has excellent NHL size. As evidenced, he has a solid NHL shot. He just needs to work on his skating and positioning to transition to the next level.

14. David Toews, C, 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2008

Toews doesn’t have the upside of his older brother, but he shares the same competitive fire that has propelled Jonathan to success in Chicago, and the Islanders hope that he can bring some of those qualities to their roster in the future.

The younger Toews is a solid two-way player who has already displayed some offensive upside. In 23 games with the University of North Dakota, Toews accounted for 11 points, including five goals. The totals aren’t outstanding, but they mark a solid contribution for a rookie in the NCAA on a team as consistently talented as UND.

15. Jeremy Colliton, RW, 24
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2003

Colliton earned his third cup of coffee with the Islanders this season — a six-game sojourn. Although he only registered one point, he fared quite well. Colliton also played a key role on Bridgeport’s 106-point season. Unfortunately, any success Colliton enjoyed was marred by a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for a while.

The 24-year-old forward enjoyed his most successful season with the Sound Tigers since his first year, four campaigns ago. This year, while his goal-scoring totals dropped to just eight, he added 28 assists. The next wave of Islanders prospects are coming, which means that Colliton’s running out of time. The second-round pick has yet to live up to his billing and is in danger of becoming a career AHLer.

16. Dustin Kohn, D, 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2005

At 6’1, 195 pounds, Kohn has good size; but he chose to take on a great challenge this season, his second with the Sound Tigers. Kohn pushed for the challenge of being matched up against the opponent’s top line. The result? Well, the team finished with 106 points, and Kohn ended the season with a +6 rating.

Kohn’s yet to find the offensive touch he displayed in junior, where he racked up 50 points in his final season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. However, he did improve on his rookie pro numbers and showed offensive improvement. In 58 games, he contributed 17 points, including 13 assists.

Kohn’s future depends very much upon his performance at next year’s training camp. The Edmonton, AB native appears to be ready to take the next step in his development and there should be an opportunity for him to crack the NHL roster. He’s got a history of offensive production and now he’s shown his proficiency in his own end.

17. Andrew MacDonald, D, 22
Acquired: 6th round, 150th overall, 2006

The 6′ Nova Scotian paired with Kohn to form the Sound Tigers’ top defensive pairing, tasked with facing the opponent’s top line. Like his blueline mate, MacDonald’s season was a rousing success — finishing +7 in 69 games.

MacDonald also played a key role in Bridgeport’s offensive attack, with 23 assists over the season and nine goals to his name. His play did not go unnoticed as he was named to the all-star team as a rookie. MacDonald also earned a three-game call-up with the big club, in which he represented himself well — nothing on the scoresheet, but finished with a +2 rating.

Like Kohn, MacDonald doesn’t have elite prospect future ahead of him, but both players could see plenty of time together in the future as depth blueliners in the Islanders system. Like Kohn, there will be an opportunity for him to crack the NHL roster coming out of camp.

18. Simon Lacroix, D, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 196th overall, 2007

Currently in a dog fight just to stay alive in the QMJHL playoffs, Lacroix’s Cataractes have been among the class of the league all season long — and the 6’2 blueliner from Orleans, ON has been a huge part of that, both literally and figuratively.

Lacroix has proved himself to be among the league’s top offensive defensemen, scoring 12 goals and adding 38 assists in 62 games this season. His performance has cooled a bit in the playoffs, but he’s shown a solid all-around game that helped bring Shawinigan to the cusp of a Memorial Cup berth (Drummondville leads the series 3-1).

The young blueliner still has some filling out to do — although he stands at 6’2, he only carries 180 pounds on a thin frame. Lacroix could also find himself in the pro ranks next season — although another season in the Q as an overager (he turns 20 on May 29) is both more likely and probably more beneficial.

19. Blake Kessel, D, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 166th overall, 2007

Kessel, at 6’2, 205 pounds, has been a physical and offensive presence at the University of New Hampshire in his freshman season.

Coming off a two-year stint in the USHL where he posted eye-popping offensive numbers, and he’s been able to translate that ability to the collegiate ranks. In 37 games, Kessel contributed six goals and seven assists, In his first season, the big blueliner carved out a key role on the club, and he should only improve with greater experience and responsibility.

Unlike the aforementioned Toews, the weight of fraternal comparisons won’t be as heavy for Kessel. Where the Toews brothers play the same position, Blake and Phil are on opposite ends of the ice. The Islanders should hope that this younger brother experiment turns out better than their Lindros attempt.

20. Matt Martin, F, 20
Acquired: 5th round, 148th overall, 2008

One would hope that the scout responsible for covering the Sarnia Sting is getting a good salary — plus bonuses. Three of the Islanders top 20 picks, including Martin, come from that franchise — and all three were big reasons why the Sting surprised so many league watchers this year with their competitiveness.

Asked to take on a larger offensive role following the departure of Stamkos, Martin came up huge — almost doubling his point totals from the year before. The Windsor, ON native exploded for 65 points in 61 games, including 35 goals. He also threw his 6’2, 192-pound frame around with vigor and abandon. He finished the year with 142 PIMs. Martin was extremely effective in opening up space for his teammates and his play improved steadily throughout the year.

Martin’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed among his peers. In the league-wide polls, Martin finished second in the hardest-worker category. And in a decision that was felt throughout the league, he tied with Zac Rinaldo (PHI) as the league’s hardest hitter.

Martin could be taking these hits to the professional ranks, although he is an excellent candidate to return to the Storm as an overager.

Missing the cut

Shea Guthrie, W, 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 76th overall, 2005

Guthrie was named MVP of his college team, the Clarkson Golden Knights, finishing as the team’s second leading scorer with 13 goals and 14 assists in 30 games. Guthrie got off to a slow start to the season, as did the entire team, but picked it up in the second half.  He led the ECAC with four game-winning goals.

The Islanders retain Guthrie’s rights until Aug. 15.

Shane Sims, D, 21
Acquired: 5th round, 126th overall, 2006

Sims played a vital role for The Ohio State University Buckeyes this season, leading them into their first NCAA tournament bid in four years. Unfortunately, a date with the eventual champions in the first round ended the show early, but not before Sims was able to grab center stage.

In his sophomore season, the 5’11 blueliner stepped up his game and took a greater leadership role both on and off the ice. He increased all his offensive totals dramatically with an increased role: He more than doubled his overall total points going to 24 this year from 11 last year. Both goals and assist totals rose dramatically as well, as Sims finished the year with an impressive seven goals and 17 assists from the back end. Despite average size, Sims showed a willingness to throw his weight around, earning more than 40 minutes in the penalty box over the course of the season.

Sims will have at least his junior season to look forward to, as it appears that the East Amherst native has a few developmental years to go before suiting up for his home-state NHL squad.

 Recently graduated: Kyle Okposo, F; Joshua Bailey, C