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Isles will need longshots like DiBenedetto to hit

"I loved to prove people wrong when I played, and Justin and I have talked about that quite a bit. Justin has used that as motivation, as did I. He's proven to everybody he can do it on his own."

>>Eric Cairns, on the development of fifth-year junior Justin DiBenedetto, in the March 30, 2009, issue of The Hockey News

There's been a healthy amount of musing about DiBenedetto, a longshot, sixth-round (175th overall) selection who's draft stock was hurt by the perception that he rode former Sarnia linemate and 2008 #1 overall pick Steven Stamkos' coattails.

But then DiBenedetto started racking up points this season without Stamkos (currently third in the OHL, seven points behind some Tavares guy), and now suddenly people aren't so sure. Reading into junior stats is a dangerous game, but DiBenedetto has 250+ OHL points the past three seasons.

Cairns, who has apparently spent a lot of time visiting the Isles' three Sarnia prospects, has increasingly nice things to say about him: "We love his scoring, but we love what he brings to the table other than that," Cairns said, adding that DiBenedetto has worked hard on the defensive and tenacity sides of his game.

Now, he's already 20 and playing in the OHL when stars have already graduated by that age. He wasn't even among THN's Top 10 Islanders prospects in their recent Future Watch edition (though that list included Jack Hillen, who is already a regular with the big club).

Still, late bloomers do happen. The biggest necessary component beyond their own continued determination is for a club to give them opportunity to make it happen. At this point, as Botta said simply: No one will even go on record to guess what kind of NHLer DeBenedetto might be. But Cairns sounds like the Islanders are determined to give him that opportunity.

If the Islanders rebuild is to ever ascend beyond the league-average youth development that every non-elite NHL team is now chasing, they will need a couple of sleepers or longshots like DiBenedetto to turn into serious NHL assets.

By God, no one is saying he could be a Zetterberg (famously taken 210th overall) or even a David Perron, the Blues' Midget B-to-NHLer skill wiz' who St. Louis could "afford" to draft 26th overall in 2007 because that was their third pick in the first round. Those are longshots of a different order who made good.

But nine months after the 2008 NHL draft, DiBenedetto's prospects sound a lot better than just some kid the Isles took a flyer on before packing up to leave Montreal. He sounds like the tools are there to be a pro. At 175th overall, that's nice asset management.