Is this Ottawa's new second line center?. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators decided forward Mika Zibanejad wasn't quite ready for the NHL, sending him back to Djurgårdens IF of the Swedish Elite League for the 2011-12 season. There's not much shame in this--few 18-year-olds are ready to play in the NHL. Jason Spezza wasn't, and he certainly turned out all right.
With the great Zibanejad decision made, there's no point in continuing to second-guess it. Right or wrong, he's no longer available to the Senators this year. Whether this move was best for his development remains to be seen, and further speculation won't do us any good. All we can do now is hope he focuses on the things he needs to improve on and returns next year as a complete NHL player. Given what we saw from him this year, that shouldn't be a major concern for Sens fans.
However, Zibanejad's departure creates new, interesting questions. What was the team's most heated position battle in preseason suddenly appears to have resolved itself with crystal clarity. Let's take a look at what that may mean for the team.
Second line center was a position contested by Zibanejad, Stephane Da Costa, and Peter Regin. We know Zibanejad's fate, and Regin is out indefinitely after suffering a second injury to his freshly surgically-repaired shoulder in a matter of months. That leaves Da Costa as the last man standing. Presumably this is now his spot.
Does he deserve it?
He looked like he did early in the season. In his first few games, Da Costa was bouncing up from big hits and flinging the puck around like a miniature Jason Spezza -- call him Pocket Giggles. But somewhere along the way, his creativity seemed to fade and couldn't make up for his defensive deficiencies. As it turns out, defensive deficiencies are not part of head coach Paul MacLean's vision for the team, and as a result, Da Costa has been centering the fourth line for the last few games. It's very likely he will get the first crack at the vacated position, but he's not guaranteed to hold on to it by any means.
What if he doesn't?
There aren't many good options for the Senators.
- They could try promoting Zack Smith, but this would probably be setting him up for failure. I'm the biggest Z. Smith fan I know, but his style of play is simply not suited for the second line. It's possible that he could try to fill a Colin Greening-type role and create space for Nick Foligno and Daniel Alfredsson, but both of those players are already pretty good at creating space.
- They could try calling up Corey Locke and sending Da Costa down to play in his place. This is possible, but the team's actions from the past season (calling up several players ahead of Locke) give me the impression they consider him to be an AHL player and not an NHL one.
- They could try sliding Nick Foligno to center, a position he has played before. However, Foligno hasn't generally displayed any kind of prowess to believe he'd be any better option than Da Costa.
- They could try trading for a veteran center, but this creates the same logjam if Regin recovers to play--even if Da Costa is sent down, the team would have too many forwards.
As it stands, the team has too many forwards anyway, which creates another problem. The top three appear to be pretty locked in at the moment, but Greening may not last on Spezza's wing all year long. We can confidently say that Spezza, Alfredsson, and Milan Michalek will all be in the top six when healthy. It's probably safe to say that Greening is going to be in the top six for the foreseeable future. Even if we assume that Da Costa takes the second line center spot for the rest of the year and Regin does not return, that leaves one spot for three candidates: Nick Foligno, Bobby Butler, and Nikita Filatov. Add the inspired play of Kaspars Daugavins to the mix, and it's clear that MacLean and general manager Bryan Murray probably aren't done making roster decisions.