There was a time when Swedish-born center Mika Zibanejad was one of the best-kept secrets in Europe.
Not anymore. Not since his performance at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ont., when the 6-foot-1 1/5, 191-pound center led Team Sweden with 5 goals and 9 points in six games en route to a bronze medal.
"I had the opportunity to play with some great players so that helped me in getting the points that I got," Zibanejad told NHL.com. "I felt I fit right in to playing on the smaller (North American) rinks, too."
It hasn't stopped there as Zibanejad, who will turn 18 on April 18, now is playing a vital role with and against men for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League. Since joining the Elitserien squad from the junior program at the start of December, he has 4 goals and 8 points in 25 games. He had 11 goals and 20 points in 26 games with Djurgarden's junior team prior to his promotion.
"We started him on wing as we do a lot of the younger players when we bring them up," Djurgarden assistant coach Tomas Monten told NHL.com. "When Patrick Cehlin earned a spot on the Swedish team that went to Buffalo to play in World Juniors, Mika got his opportunity to play in his spot. After the first couple of games he was playing so well, we decided to move him to center and he was fantastic.
"Right now he plays center on our third line and really keeps that line going. He's also on our second power-play unit and on the penalty kill … so we keep giving him the minutes."
Zibanejad is considered by many scouts to be the most improved European prospect available for the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25. He was the No. 3-rated European skater on NHL Central Scouting's mid-term release in January and could rise to No. 2, behind fellow Swede Adam Larsson of Skelleftea, when the final rankings are released in April. Assat forward Joel Armia of Finland was No. 2 in the mid-term release.
"Mika's a real power forward but also has soft hands, good vision and fine skating skills," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He has tremendous balance and is hard to knock off the puck. He's very strong in the battles along the boards, finishes checks with authority and has a heavy shot that he gets off quickly."
Monten, who is in his fourth season as an assistant with Djurgarden, compared Zibanejad with another Swedish standout he helped mold a few seasons ago in the Swedish Elite League -- New Jersey Devils center Jacob Josefson.
"It's hard for me to compare since I haven't had a chance to see other players, but Jacob Josefson went to the Devils (at No. 20 in the 2009 Entry Draft), and while Jacob will be a good fit in New Jersey, I can tell you that Mika is a better player," Monten said.
Zibanejad, whose mother is Finnish and father is Iranian, admits he has his own style in the heat of battle. Still, he does find himself mimicking a few NHL superstars on occasion.
"I watch Sidney Crosby for the work he does at center. I watch Alex Ovechkin for the way he scores goals and I watch Pat Kane for the way he stickhandles," Zibanejad said. "I'm not that type of guy to just look for the big hits. I try to play physical but that's only because I want the puck back. Sometimes you have to finish your checks on defensemen in order to tire them out."
While Zibanejad is looking forward to the 2011 Entry Draft, his primary focus is assisting Djurgarden in the upcoming playoffs. Based on the attention Zibanejad has received the last seven weeks, Monten feels he might hear his name called earlier than some anticipate.
"He's played well and has had some big hits … he recently hit a defenseman from the other team into our bench and that's something that almost never happens," Monten said. "I think he was projected to go later in the first round earlier this season, but I think he's raising some questions now and maybe those teams picking higher will even consider him."
Monten feels it would benefit Zibanejad to return to Sweden in 2011-12 to improve his overall game, much like Josefson did after he was selected by the Devils.
"When I first got drafted, I didn't feel like I was ready to come over and it felt like I needed another season to play back home … play against men and professionals," Josefson told NHL.com. "That's a really good league and really good for developing young players. After that year, I felt more comfortable and ready to move over."
In all likelihood, Zibanejad will take the same path.
"I've been approached with options to play in the CHL or the Elite League and I think it would be good for my development to play one more year (with Djurgarden) to get bigger and stronger on my skates," he said. "(Djurgarden) is a great team and this is such a skilled league."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale