Under Pressure: Mika Zibanejad
Part two of our four part series on players that are under pressure to perform features perhaps the Sens' brightest prospect: Mika Zibanejad
"We expect that Mika is ready to take the next step. Physically, his body is more mature, which is going to help him take the next step. But at the same time, we want to make sure we evaluate it on an ongoing basis to make sure we’re not putting him in positions that he might not be ready for," MacLean said.
The Ottawa Senators just don't quite trust Mika Zibanejad; not yet anyways.
At first blush, the above quote seems like a throw-away line from a run-of-the-mill article about the Sens' face-off woes. But it really does cut to the core of why, exactly, Mika Zibanejad is under pressure this year. It's a window into the reasoning behind the team feeling it absolutely needed to go out and get David Legwand. Simply: the Ottawa Senators just aren't convinced that Mika Zibanejad is ready. In the wake of Jason Spezza's departure, Kyle Turris will assume the mantle of unquestioned number one centre. After that, it's anyone's guess at this stage. Besides the unresolved logjam on the backend, Zibanejad vs. Legwand for 2C is the most intriguing battle in training camp. The shame in it is that Zibanejad is ready; he just needs to be given the chance to prove it.
He's still just a kid
First things first: he's still just a kid. Highly touted prospects tend to get over-exposed, with their every move scrutinized, so it's easy to forget that Zibanejad is still just twenty-one years old. Already he's gone from the high of a top ten selection in the NHL draft to being unexpectedly banished to the AHL (Aside: There's a quote at the end of that article from Murray in which he worries that,"Our goaltending and our back should be really strong. We'll have to wait and see if we can score enough goals". Ah, we were so naive back in those days). Curtis Lazar may be the hot new thing, but he's even more of an unknown quantity than Zibby. NHL teams tend to take a conservative view of when it's time to reward their young players for their performance, so Ottawa's not exactly breaking orthodoxy by believing a twenty-one year old needs to earn his stripes. But there's also a risk in constantly delaying handing over the reigns until the young prospect has incontrovertibly proven himself: you're missing the upside of big production on a cheap contract. He may still be just a kid, but he's not 18 anymore and MacLean would do well to recognize that.
Now, if that's not reason enough for you to believe Zibanejad is going to seize the opportunity to play in the top 6, there's also that:
He's already scoring more than you might know:
A lot of Sens fans are worried that Zibanejad hasn't turned out to be the scorer one would expect to get with the 6th overall pick. To be fair, part of the allure of Zibby was always his highly touted two-way game but 54 pts in 120 games? He can do better than that, right? Well the answer is almost certainly yes, but he'll probably need more ice-time to do so. Over the course of the last two seasons, Zibanejad ranks 100th in PTS/60 at 5v5 for forwards who have played a minimum of 1,000 minutes. You're probably saying to yourself that 100th isn't all that impressive, but consider that this would leave Mika knocking on the door of the type of production you'd see from a first line player. In fact, he's already been scoring at a near-elite rate for a second liner. The trouble is that he's not getting a lot of minutes in which to rack up the points. Over that same stretch of the last two season, Zibanejad is playing just over 11 minutes per game at 5v5. That would rank him 257th among all forwards, or roughly what you'd expect for a player getting a light workout as a third liner. And though it's just the two seasons' worth of sample, Zibanejad played at an almost identical rate in his first and second full seasons. If Zibanejad is going to break into the 50-55 point range like so many Sens fans hoped he would, he'll need to get more playing time at even-strength.
But if those first two reasons didn't convince you, consider:
For a young kid, he's awfully good at driving play
As mentioned above, one of the great appeals of taking Mika Zibanejad so early in the draft was his highly polished 200 foot game. To close observers, it came then as no surprise that he was a possession demon in his rookie season with the #PeskySens. An under-appreciated fact of Zibanejad's 2013-14 season, however, is that he continued his strong puck possession game despite starting more frequently in the defensive end and playing against stiffer competition. In his first full year in the pros, Zibby got butter soft Zone Starts: the face-off was taken in the offensive end 66% of the time when he came over the boards to start a shift. That number shrank to 57% in '13-'14, but yet he still managed to drive play forward to the tune of a 53.5 CF%. Perhaps most impressively, Zibanejad's most frequent playing partners almost all fared better with him than without him, as Mike outlined for us back in June. It's the mark of a truly good player that his teammates perform better with him on the ice than not; that Zibanejad has achieved this lofty status at such a young age can only be a sign of good things to come.
And in case you still needed it:
And what a great call by Gord Miller on that goal, by the way. A scoreless game that didn't feature Team Canada and Gord still delivers the right emotion for such a beautiful, clutch goal.
Mika's under a lot of pressure to perform this year, but if there's one Senator I'd wager will exceed expectations it's him. He's more than earned his shot.