Hello, neutral fan here that didn't get to watch many Sens games last year or get to watch either of these players much before they reached the NHL, and I'm asking this question because I think answering which player is better is almost as difficult as answering which player's name is harder to spell.
So what I'm going to do is give my neutral fan's take on how both players compare to each other, and then I'm going to turn it over to all you Sens fans to fill in the blanks and give your ultimate conclusions on which is the better player (or prospect), and which will develop into the better player, and how good either can really be.
A few things first. I mentioned that I didn't watch tons of Sens' games last season, but hopefully I can make up for that in my analysis because I have had a pretty keen eye for talent evaluation and amateur-scouting (double meaning there) over the years. Also, I wish I had asked this question when both players were still Senators, because it's inevitable now that many Sens fans will feel inclined to say Zibanejad is the better prospect just because you still have him on your team. It's subconscious, it's inevitable. But for the purposes of having the best discussion and really trying to educate myself here and find the truth, I just wanted to try to make everyone conscious of the potential for bias within us all and ask everyone to really try to judge the players objectively, and maybe try to remember who you thought was better back when both were on your team.
Here's the sense I get of the players from the handful of games I watched last season. I feel as though the most striking skill of either player is Silfverberg's shot. Zibanejad has a nice shot as well, but Silfverberg's really looks like something worth noting, like he might have one of the best shots of any young forward in the NHL. I come to that conclusion in part because of the way he scored with it from all over the ice in the Swedish Elite League, which I saw in youtube highlights, as well a few really nice shots he's made in the NHL so far, although the frequency of these events and his overall goal production have both gone down since he's joined the NHL. Zibanejad's shot has also impressed me on a few occasions, but it hasn't peaked my curiosity quite like Silfverberg's. Whether that's just projection on my part based on "the legend of Silfverberg" from his time in the Swedish Elite League that we've all heard about, or if it's actual fact and his shot really is that good (even by NHL standards), it's hard to be certain of at this point.
It doesn't look like it at first because of Silfverberg's upright skating style that doesn't look quite as natural as Zibanejad's, but I'm leaning towards Silfverberg being a little bit faster than Zibanejad as well, with better acceleration. It's his other main strength in my opinion. Speed and shooting.
However, Silfverberg's agility and hip-rotation and footwork don't appear as good as Zibanejad's, and like I said he skates kind of upright. The finer details of his skating just don't look totally natural, where Zibanejad looks very natural and slick in almost every facet of the game.
In terms of size and strength, Zibanejad is slightly bigger size-wise, but not in a big way you really notice. However, when it comes to physical strength, or at least strength on the puck, you do notice Zibanejad has the advantage. Not that he's some huge power forward on the boards either, but his footwork, agility, and edge work, and hip-rotation in his turns pay dividends in the corners when he's turning and bouncing off of checks. He just doesn't get knocked off the puck as easily or as often as Silfverberg appears to, and he also appears to have more powerful, more tree-trunk-like legs than Silfverberg does.
Zibanejad's superior puckhandling ability also gives him an edge over Silfverberg at cycling the puck down low in the offensive zone because he doesn't have to worry about if the puck is still on his stick, or where it went, or having to constantly adjust it to the sweet spot on his stick after it's rolled off, because the puck almost always sticks to his tape and does exactly what he wants it to without really thinking about it. Zibanejad can then put all his focus on evading the defender on his back.
Silfverberg's puckhandling, on the other hand, while I wouldn't call it bad, in fact its pretty good in one sense and his hands can be pretty quick at times, can often be a little "loose," a little imperfect, like he's not a total natural at it. He often shows too much of the puck to the defensemen and the result at the NHL level is almost always that they poke the puck off his stick. In open space, it's a total non-issue, and the puck cooperates with him to an extent sufficient enough for him to skate it where he wants to in order to release his great shot or make a nice play. He can whip the puck back and forth pretty good, and pretty quickly, without any issue, and without losing it, and it's in that sense that his hands are pretty good. It's only in close spaces, or when defensemen are in range to poke check him, where sometimes he's just not precise and natural enough at controlling the puck and someone pokes it off his stick or he loses it on his own trying to evade everyone.
In fact, Silfverberg's game overall seems like it would be better suited to the larger ice surface, where there's a lot more open ice for him to wind his speed up and fire his rocket shot at goal from all over the ice without having to worry about too much traffic in the shooting lanes blocking his shots, or too much traffic that he has to stickhandle through before he can even take his shot. The bigger ice surface also means less puck battles and less having to work in the trenches and cycle, which doesn't seem to be his forte at this point given he gets knocked off the puck sometimes at the NHL level and doesn't seem to have the natural footwork and agility to stop and start and turn off of checks along the boards, skills that could help him compensate for his lack of elite size.
Overall, it's very hard to choose between them. In my opinion Zibanejad looks like the forward with the more natural, slick, complete offensive skill set that we're accustomed to seeing in top-six forwards, yet while he has all the tools, he still needs to take them all up a notch before he can be an elite NHL player. He may have check marks in all the same skill categories as a Jason Spezza or Daniel Alfredsson, but in most of those categories he still hasn't quite reached that level.
Conversely, Silfverberg is closer to those elite levels in a few skill categories, namely his speed and shooting ability, but further away in others to the point where he even looks slightly crude (only by the very high standards of an NHL top-six forwards) in his edge work turning off checks and his lack of strength in puck protection, and the way he shows too much of the puck to defensemen when he stickhandles and cradles the puck too loosely. Few NHL forwards, even top-six forwards, can shoot the puck like he can, and he also has the speed to many of them as well, but there are even fewer top-six forwards in the NHL I can think of that have been able to earn the monaquer "top-six forward" while possessing the same shortcomings and rough edges (figuratively speaking, but perhaps it could apply literally as well...) as Silfverberg does.
So who is better? My conscious brain tells my Zibanejad, and he was the much higher pick as well, but there's some instinct in me that wants to say Silfverberg instead for a reason that's hard to pinpoint, but might have something to do with his instincts. One important area I haven't touched on in this comparison is hockey sense, but on the surface I still think they both have good hockey sense and there's really not much to see in that area so early in their careers that we would be able to use to separate them. However, below the surface, somewhere deep in my gut, I can't help but remember Silfverberg's legendary play in the Swedish Elite League at such a young age and ask if there isn't something more there, something above the norm, where he will be one of those players who becomes more than the sum of their parts, if maybe his hockey sense and two-way play are better than we realize at this point in his career.
And I can't help but remember how Henrik Zetterberg was also MVP of the Swedish Elite League before coming to the NHL, and look what a great player he turned into. Of course, back then the NHL game was a little more open than it was now, so it was easier for players coming from the Swedish Elite League to adapt to the NHL game. Plus, in the case of Zetterberg, he was always very good along the boards and in the trenches protecting the puck. Unlike Silfverberg, Zetterberg's footwork, edge work, turns, strength, and puck protection were always among the best out there pound-for-pound (meaning for his size), which helps to explain his success, but also begs the question, will Silfverberg's deficiencies in those areas compared to Zetterberg doom him to becoming a lesser NHL player than Zetterberg, or can he still become that truly elite NHL player using his own strengths and continuing to improve his weaknesses?
And that brings me to the other question I wanted to ask, which is do you think either of these players has the makings of a truly elite, top-line NHL forward, or is the more realistic goal here for both of them to become second-line contributors and really just celebrate if they can play to that level consistently year in and year out?
Are we looking at star, franchise players here, point-per-game, generational talent guys? Or more in the realm of the fabled "top-nine forward" who you're really happy if they can develop into full-time reliable second-line wings, but who could just as easily end up somewhere in the limbo between 2nd and 3rd liners and eventually sign a huge contract with the Florida Panthers like the leader of their pack, Sean Bergenheim?
What do you think?