Ontario Hockey League grad Justin DiBenedetto has moved across Scandinavia to join fellow OHL alumnus Phil McRae with the Espoo Blues of Finland’s Liiga. The former Sarnia Sting star started the year in Sweden in his second year in Europe. Justin brings offensive ability and toughness to a team that is on the rise after not qualifying for the post season in 2012-13.
DiBenedetto played five years in the OHL from 2004-05 to 2008-09 with the Toronto Majors and Sarnia Sting. He was a first round pick by the Majors at the 2004 OHL Priority Selection, 18th overall. However, it was with the Sting that Justin established himself as a star in the league.
In 2007-08, in the shadow of Steven Stamkos’ 58 goal season, Justin placed second on the team with 39 goals and 93 points over just 58 games. Stamkos led in points, as well, with 105.
With Stamkos gone to the Tampa Bay Lightning for 2008-09, DiBenedetto was Sarnia’s leader with 45 goals and 48 assists for 93 points over 62 regular season games. In an OHL season that lacked serious firepower, Justin placed third in the league for goals behind John Tavares and Brett Parnham, two goals ahead of Cody Hodgson of the Brampton Battalion. His point total placed him third in the race for the Eddie Powers Trophy behind Tavares and Chris Terry of the Plymouth Whalers, one point ahead of Hodgson and Matt Caria.
The New York Islanders selected DiBenedetto in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, 175th overall. His first pro action came in 2008-09 after the Sting were eliminated by the Plymouth Whalers in the opening round of the Robertson Cup playoffs. Justin played three games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the Calder Cup playoffs, scoring one goal. Bridgeport was ousted in the first round by the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
DiBenedetto got on the ice for eight National Hockey League games during the 2010-11 season with the Islanders. He has an assist to show for his time in the big league.
Justin has been in Europe since 2012-13. Last year, he led EC Salzburg Red Bulls of Austria’s EBEL with 19 goals and 44 points over 47 games. Another OHL grad, Rob Schremp, led the team in assists.
2013-14 started in Sweden’s SHL with Orebro. DiBenedetto played 35 games, scoring seven and assisting on five for 12 points. He has just played his first game with Espoo after the change of scenery.
Not long ago, we featured Phil McRae as he moved over from Tappara to the Blues eight games into the Liiga season. since, he has played 25 games with Espoo, scoring five and assisting on seven for 12 points. This is his first year in Europe.
McRae played four years in the OHL from 2006-07 to 2009-10 with the London Knights and Plymouth Whalers. He was a first round pick by the Knights in 2006, 20th overall. Phil was then a second round pick of the NHL Blues in 2008, 33rd overall. Like DiBenedetto, Phil’s NHL experience is limited. McRae played 15 games with St. Louis during the 2010-11 season.
After reaching the Liiga finals in 2010-11, the Blues did not qualify for the post season in 2012-13, placing 12th in the 14 team league. Currently, Espoo has moved up to eighth spot and is just a win out of sixth place with 40 of 60 games in the books.
In Finland’s Liiga, the top six teams qualify for the quarter-finals. Teams seven through ten playoff to determine the other two quarter-finalists.