Top 25 under 25, no. 5: Mika Zibanejad
When the Ottawa Senators drafted Mika Zibanejad this past summer, it left quite a few people scratching their heads considering the prospects who remained available. Some were downright angry. The success of Sean Couturier, drafted just two spots after Zibanejad, with the Philadelphia Flyers this season doesn't help matters. But Zibanejad is big, fast, skilled, and (barely) 19 years old. There's plenty of time ahead for him.
After starting this past year in Ottawa, Zibanejad didn't look ready for full-time NHL duty. He was sent back to Sweden to play with Djurgårdens IF hockey club in Stockholm. He struggled there, at first, but--after an impressive showing at the World Junior Championships--picked up as the season went on and finished on a strong note. It seems like a virtual certainty that he'll be playing with the Sens next season, either at his natural centre position or converted to the wing.
Zibanejad took his big step forward in the 2009-10 season with the Djurgårdens J18 club, scoring 35P (14G, 21A) in 28 regular season games plus 9P (5G, 4A) in five playoff games1. After that season, he was drafted in the sixth round (129 overall) of the KHL junior entry draft by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. (Lokomotiv also drafted John Tavares in the same year.) He split the 2010-11 season between the Elite League and J20 squads, scoring nine points in 26 SEL games and 21P in 27 J20 games.
In Senators training camp this past season, Zibanejad turned a lot of heads and earned a nine-game tryout with Ottawa. As was said above, it didn't work out as well as was hoped, so he was assigned back to Djurgårdens IF for the remainder of the season. In what sounded to be a relatively limited role, Zibanejad scored five goals and eight assists in 26 games played. After the season, Zibanejad's team was relegated to Sweden's second-best hockey league, HockeyAllsvenskan.
Zibanejad also played for Sweden at the World Juniors this past winter, and although he didn't score much (just five points, tied for fifth on the Swedish team), he picked a great time to do it by notching the Golden Goal in overtime to help Sweden win the championship.
At this point, it's very difficult to project much for Zibanejad--mostly because he hasn't really even played that much, and even less has taken place where I could watch them. He's certainly not undersized (the Sens have him at 6'1" and 200 lbs), but he's also a smooth skater and has some sweet hands--watch Exhibit A and Exhibit B (two of few videos of Zibanejad available on YouTube), and pay special attention to his work in tight around the goaltender. Plus he's got good hand-eye coordination and can shoot pretty well.
Still, Zibanejad doesn't seem to have the numbers that would indicate a potential game-breaking first-line player. He has the makings of a good middle-six player, likely a second-liner at some point, and perhaps an effective top-line player if surrounded by the right wingers (I'm thinking he'd fit well with Kyle Turris and Jakob Silfverberg). Whether he can step onto the second line next season or will need some condition lower in the lineup or with the Binghamton Senators remains to be seen, but he's a good player with good size and a good attitude. That's a good mix.
1 - Prospect Mika Zibanejad Player Profile, Hockey's Future