USA TODAY Sports
Mika Zibanejad has had a bit of an adventure since being drafted sixth overall at the 2011 NHL entry draft, but he is now giving fans reason for optimism.
When the Senators were due to pick at the 2011 NHL draft, many fans were surprised that the club passed on Sean Couturier and instead went with Mika Zibanejad. He has since played for four different teams in the Ottawa Senators, Binghamton Senators, Djurgårdens IF and the Swedish U20 National Team.
Zibanejad joined Ottawa for training camp in 2011-2012. He started strong and had three goals in preseason, including a memorable overtime winner against Boston. Unfortunately, once games began to count, Zibanejad had just a single assist and 12 shots on goal in nine games. Rather than use up the first year of his ELC (entry-level contract), the Senators chose to return him to Djurgårdens IF to play in the Elitserien.
His team in Sweden didn't go smoothly either. He played for a few weeks in the Elitserien, before leaving to play for Sweden at the U20 World Championships. Zibanejad scored the overtime winner in the gold medal game, but had problems staying healthy once he returned to the Elitserien. He had five goals and 13 points in 26 games in Sweden and suffered one confirmed concussion and was also rumoured to have suffered another one.
Zibanejad's club was relegated and the Murrays were not happy with DIF's usage of Zibanejad, feeling that they were misled about the ice time that he would be given when they agreed to loan him back to Sweden. With the NHL season delayed by a lockout, Zibanejad would start the season in the AHL. He would struggle to find offence there as well, scoring only a single goal and four assists for five points in his first 15 AHL games. He would add two assists in his 16th game but was then out for seven weeks with a "toothache" that was rumoured to be his third concussion at the age of just 19. He wouldn't play again in 2012 and had just one goal on 39 shots.
While 2012 was an unlucky year for Zibanejad, 2013 has gone a lot better. Since his return on 12 January, he would score three times in seven games while firing 26 shots on net. After Jason Spezza's injury in Ottawa, and with Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman also being hurt, Zibanejad was called up to Ottawa for their game against the Capitals on 29 January. He would pick up an assist and four shots on his season debut, and then score his first career NHL goal the following night against Montréal.
The game against Carolina on Thursday was the sixth of the season for Zibanejad, meaning that his ELC is no longer eligible to slide another year. Zibanejad has increasingly gotten more ice time under Paul MacLean reaching a season high of 15:21 against the Hurricanes. While Zibanejad still has a lot of areas to improve on, he certainly doesn't look out of place in the NHL. He has a very heavy, albeit inaccurate shot, getting 15 shots on goal but also missing the target with eight shots. Although he is only 19, Zibanejad is already very physically mature. He has the tendency to speed down the wing and slap a shot that either misses the net or easily saved for a face-off. He has the speed and strength to be able to cut to the inside and create better scoring chances for himself. That is something that will come with time.
Zibanejad has great possession numbers so far in the first six games, with the Senators having 14 more attempts on goal per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 than Ottawa's opposition. However, a large part of this is due to the number of missed shots. Counting only shots that hit the target, the advantage is reduced to +1 instead of the +14 mentioned earlier. While he can be a great possession player, thus far in his career he is not taking full advantage of that yet.
Whether Zibanejad eventually settles as a centre or a winger, he will be given every chance to be part of a very talented Ottawa core for the foreseeable future.