With the pending departure of the Ottawa Senators first line centre Jason Spezza, the 21-year-old Mika Zibanejad is poised to inherit a bigger role. After being drafted sixth overall in the 2011 NHL, Draft Mika Zibanejad has been on track to fulfil his potential of becoming a top six NHL forward.
Through his first 120 NHL games he has contributed 23 goals and 31 assists. More impressive at such a young age is his two-way game. Through 69 games last season he had 31 takeaways to 18 giveaways. He was only 46% on face-offs so this will require improvement. In spite of this there are some signs that he is ready for a larger role.
Making line mates better
One clear sign of a young player growing and developing is the time when he starts to raise the performance of those around him. Even though he spent the majority of his five on five ice time with veteran NHLers Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot they generally performed better with Mika Zibanejad than without him.
Only one player played slightly better without Mika Zibanejad and that was Erik Karlsson, no surprise there. On average his line mates Corsi for at five on five play was 2.2% higher when they played with Mika Zibanejad.
Out of his 11 total assists at five on five eight of them were first assists. This is a large jump from the 2012-13 season where he had 12 total assists with five of them being first assists. This can illustrate that Mika Zibanejad’s passing and creativity is beginning to lead more directly to goals.
Another indication that his goal creation has improved is the percentage of goals that he scored out of the total goals that were scored when he was on the ice. In 2012-13 he was scoring 14% of the goals while he was on the ice and this past season that inflated to 37%. This shows that his confidence has grown at the NHL level and he should be able to handle taking on more responsibility for creating offense in a top six role.
Mika Zibanejad has gone from 191 pounds in his draft year to 211 pounds this past season. That is a clear indication that he is putting in his time in the weight room and working hard. This is also evident in his on ice play as he has become more difficult to push off the puck. He has been able to use this increased strength to win many more puck battles this past year. With another summer of increase conditioning Mika Zibanejad will only improve in this area.
So he is ready, who does he play with?
Last season the number one line became a combination of Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan as the season wore on. Both of Mika Zibanejad’s most common line mates in Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek are not likely to be back with the Senators next year.
From within the Senators organization there are not any proven scorers that could flank Mika Zibanejad on a newly formed second line. Right now it would appear that a combination of Erik Condra, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman would be the best offensive options to fill those roles.
Clearly general manager Bryan Murray will not be inclined to head into next season with that as his second line. At the minimum he will need to sign one dependable scoring winger to play alongside Mika Zibanejad next season. Then one of the three of Condra, Stone and Hoffman could rotate in as needed.
Possible options to fill out the second line
Whether that means brining back Milan Michalek or looking to sign a player like Mason Raymond, both would be suitable options. If cost is a concern, and it surely is, Milan Michalek was up to a $4.3 million cap hit last season to go along with a $6 million actual salary. If he is looking to maintain this level of compensation a viable alternative would be Mason Raymond.
The rumor out there is that he wants $3 million for three seasons. A 28 year old winger with speed and a good puck possession record could fill in as a second line winger. Do not let expectations get too far with Mason Raymond. He is likely good for 25 goals and 50 points on the high end of the scale. Although he would more likely be producing anywhere from 15-20 goals, and 40-50 points playing second line minutes.
Regardless of who plays with Mika Zibanejad next season he should receive the chance to become the full time second line centre behind Kyle Turris on the depth chart. The indications are there that he is ready to make well on some of his potential and be a key cog in the Ottawa Senators success.