Mika Zibanejad will go down in Senators history one way or the other. He represents the second top ten pick under the Murray regime, going 6th overall in the 2011 draft (the first being Jared Cowen going 9th overall in the 2009 draft). He also represents the highest pick in over ten years, with fresh memories of Brian Lee going 9th overall in the 2005 draft under the Muckler regime. This may be the major reason why expectations are sky high for Zibanejad. Ever since missing out on Anze Kopitar and Marc Staal in the 2005 draft and eventually turning Lee into the less than stellar Matt Gilroy, nothing remains of that 9th overall pick in the organization. This thought constantly haunts Sens fans of a what could have been. However, since John Muckler was fired, Bryan Murray has brought a new sense of optimism to Ottawa with his consistently strong drafting. The cream of the crop being Erik Karlsson which for many allowed them to forgive and forget the whole Lee debacle. Nevertheless, the Sens hit a wall in the 2010-2011 season opening the door for a redemption of sorts with a lottery pick we never saw coming, this time under the much praised drafting of Murray. There's no way he could mess this up like Muckler had.
Unfortunately for Ottawa, they hadn't totaled the car when they hit the wall, bouncing back late in the season. This combined with an unlucky lottery draw dropped the Senators down to the 6th overall pick, when many had hoped to get into the top three. When the draft rolled around, most understood that Ottawa would likely not be able to land a "can't miss" prospect at #6. Many Sens fans cringed as they watched Hopkins, Landeskog, Huberdeau, Larsson and Strome all go before Ottawa was up. However, one surprising name excluded from this list was Sean Couturier who had been considered a potential top 3 pick. Also still available was Dougie Hamilton, a much hyped defenceman and arguable the best player available at that point. When the announcement was made though, it was Swedish forward Mika Zibanejad's name that was called. Instantly, the majority of Sens fans approved, Murray was continuing to draft out of Sweden, nothing wrong with that. All the media's reports on Zibanejad were positive, it looked like Murray may have landed a gem.
Fast forward to the 2011-2012 season training camp where all eyes were on Zibanejad, easily the Sens top forward prospect. Would he be able to crack the team just after being drafted. He had previously played in the Swedish Elite League against men (putting up 5G and 4A in 26GP), so the major issue would likely be adapting to the North American ice. He impressed during the preseason, scoring a beauty of an OT goal and making Sens fans anxious to see him in the regular season.
Mika Zibanejad Game Winning One Timer (via djphilislimzzz)
However, when the regular season came around, as is the case with most players (see Brandon Bochenski) Zibanejad found the competition much more difficult and harder to produce points. After nine games he only had an assist to show. Nevertheless, most fans agreed he had been playing well and did not look at all out of place. Coach Paul MacLean echoed this though saying he would prefer to have Zibanejad stick around and use up a year of his rookie contract. Murray would have the final say though and made the decision to send him back to the SEL to further refine his game.
Unfortunately for Murray, he did not realise how big a disaster Djurgardens would be. They would end up struggling the entire year resulting in them being relegated to the second tier league, ending a streak of 35 years in the top league. Zibanejad would only slightly improve his production from the previous year, notching 5G and 8A in 26GP. This obviously didn't sit well with Ottawa as they viewed this as almost a wasted year of development. The one bright side of the 2011-2012 year was during the World Junior Championships where Zibanejad would end up being the hero, scoring the game winning OT goal against Russia to win the gold medal for Sweden. Sens fans couldn't help but get excited, seeing their own prospect scoring a clutch goal under the highest of pressure.
Heading into the present 2012-2013 season, Zibanejad's hype had been complete eliminated by newcomer Jakob Silfverberg who the majority of Sens would agree is the current top forward prospect. Nevertheless, many saw this as a good thing as the pressure on Zibanejad would be lessened by all eye's being on Silfverberg. As well all know the lockout ended up ruining what easily would have been one of the more exciting training camps when it came to forwards. The bright side was that this allowed Ottawa to create a perfect atmosphere in the AHL for their developing Swedes, with Robin Lehner, Andre Petersson, Fredrik Claesson, Silfverberg, and Zibanejad all being sent down. Many didn't mind because this provided an opportunity for the rookie Swedes to adjust to the North American ice prior to attending the NHL season eventually starting.
The Binghamton Senators season would start off very rocky, with the Sens struggling to produce any offence from their top prospects. As time passed though the team began to gel and the win column began to grow with the loss column remaining fairly stagnant. The most impressive player being Silfverberg who appeared to have adjusted to the North American ice fairly quickly resulting in him taking the team lead in points. On the flip side Zibanejad continued to struggle to find his offence despite playing solid two way hockey. Through 16 games he only had 1G and 6A to show. He would then run into injury troubles taking him out of the action just as the B-Sens were beginning to find their groove. It remains to be seen whether or not Zibanejad will hit the same stride as Silfverberg when he returns to action.
This lack of offensive production has many Sens fans beginning to worry. Many had early on projected him to be a future second line center, maybe even first. Did Murray make a mistake in drafting him? Dougie Hamilton certainly looks like he would have been a better option at this point. However, one can quickly dismiss this as likely never happening due to the fact that David Rundblad was still in the Senators organization when Zibanejad was drafted, and the Sens needed to improve their forward depth at the time. The more likely comparison comes down to Sean Couturier. Now nobody knows why the Sens (or Jets) passed on him, especially when many considered him to be NHL ready which he was. Couturier put up a very solid season in Philadelphia putting up 27 points in 77 games playing against the opposition's top lines. He also added 4 points in 11 playoff games to boot. This season in the AHL, he has easily surpassed Zibanejad's production at almost a PPG pace of 20 points in 21 games.
So already Couturier has accomplished far more than Zibanejad has in their short careers. Nevertheless, this has gotten a few Sens fans wondering if Murray should have perhaps gone with the easy and safe choice in Couturier. Based on his play that we've seen so far it's not hard to see him continue growing as a player and likely panning out as a second line forward at worst. Zibanejad on the other hand is still a mystery. When he plays it never appears as if he's out of place, but he just doesn't put up the points. Some will point to the fact that Couturier is a year older than Zibanejad which is a fair argument. Further supporting this is that the Sens for the most part have admitted that they chose Zibanejad based on potential. This has led to many Ottawa fans arguing that once (if?) Zibanejad puts all his tools together he will likely surpass Couturier. I think this is a weak argument at best, because you could say that about many players. There is no proof at all that Zibanejad will suddenly break out and find his offence based on what we've all seen so far. With that being said, I would say that Murray may have made a mistake and it does look like Couturier would have been the better pick as of right now.
Sens fans may have to lower their expectations of Zibanejad, especially after all the hype of his initial draft. I still think he will easily make the NHL, but the question remains of which role will that be in. Based on what I've seen so far he looks destined to be a third line player, perhaps topping off on second line if all goes right. A good player comparison I would make is Mike Fisher. He'll play solid two way hockey, but his point production may be what holds him back. Nevertheless, at #6 even if Couturier turns out to be the better player, Ottawa may still have made a solid pick when looking back at former #6 overall picks in the last five years:
2010 - Brett Connolly: Cracked the NHL in 2011-2012 for Tampa Bay and put up 15 points in 68GP in his rookie season.
2009 - Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Cracked the NHL in 2010-2011 for Phoenix. Most recently put up 32 points in 82GP in the 2011-2012 season.
2008 - Nikita Filatov: Well we own him now and now how that went...
2007- Sam Gagner: Everybody knows about Gagner, can break out for short bursts, but hasn't provided consistent production to make Oilers fans happy.
2006 - Derick Brassard: Has averaged around 40 points in the last three seasons, but has always been rumoured to be on Columbus' trading block.
Based on these players, Ottawa fans should be happy if Zibanejad can develop into a 30-40 point player. Whether or not Ottawa will have pulled another Brian Lee remains to be seen, but it could potentially happen if Couturier lives up to his initial hype. Nevertheless, it might not sting as much as long as Zibanejad develops at a better pace than Brian Lee and earns himself a role with the Sens for years to come. He may not live up to his initial hype, but only time will tell.