After a nine-game trial with Ottawa to start last season, Zibanejad, the sixth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, was dispatched to his home country, where he played for Djurgardens IF Stockholm of the Swedish Elite League. When Zibanejad scored the golden goal in overtime to beat Russia at the 2012 World Junior Championship, the perception was he would have no trouble making it to Ottawa again.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Scotiabank Place.
Through the lockout, the Senators keyed on properly developing their prized prospect. Before the 2013 WJC, they insisted he remain with their American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton rather than compete for a chance to repeat as tournament champions.
Zibanejad ultimately was called up to Ottawa on Monday, and he was named the No. 1 star in a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, his first NHL game in more than a year.
It was a significant accomplishment for the 19-year-old center, who had endured a difficult season to date.
"He didn't get the point production everyone was expecting. He's got a lot of talent offensively, he was just unlucky," said Binghamton Senators coach Luke Richardson, who served as an assistant coach in Ottawa last season. "He was hitting posts and missing nets."
With one goal and five points in his first 15 games with Binghamton, Zibanejad experienced some growing pains in North America, difficulties that likely were exacerbated by the pressures of being away from home for the first time. He had something of a breakout game on Nov. 24, collecting two assists in a 6-1 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. But a difficult first pro season in North America was about to get even tougher.
Following that game, Zibanejad was forced to have all four wisdom teeth removed, effectively putting him on the shelf just as he was starting to gain some traction.
And things quickly got worse.
While recovering, Zibanejad contracted a throat infection, which extended his medical stay. Finally, as he was getting ready to return to the lineup, Zibanejad caught a stomach flu that had been circulating around the locker room. Just like that, he missed more than a month of action, all due to non-hockey-related ailments.
"Not only did his body get worn down, I think his spirit was also down. We really got him back skating and working hard in the gym and then back on the ice. I think he was sick of all the skating drills. He was ready to play again."
-- Binghamton Senators coach Luke Richardson on Mika Zibanejad
"I was gone for six or seven weeks, and I couldn't really do anything," Zibanejad said following Tuesday's practice. "Once I came back, I got to skate with [Binghamton assistant coach Steve Stirling] and it was really good. I got back into it pretty quickly, but it was tough, for sure."
Zibanejad returned to the Binghamton Senators on Jan. 12, registering four shots in a 4-2 win over the Norfolk Admirals. Four nights later, he registered an assist in Binghamton's 5-1 win over the Rochester Americans. By all accounts, he was back from a long and frustrating rehab, one that didn't just require rebuilding his body, but his confidence as well.
"He's a young guy, first time away from home. I don't know if he was getting the nutrition he needed, so his body got really run down," Richardson said. "I think it got to him a little mentally. Not only did his body get worn down, I think his spirit was also down. We really got him back skating and working hard in the gym and then back on the ice. I think he was sick of all the skating drills. He was ready to play again."
Noticing Zibanejad's dedication, Richardson rewarded him by promoting him to the top line alongside Stephane Da Costa and Mark Stone. The move paid off -- Zibanejad scored a goal in three consecutive games. That run earned him some attention with the NHL club in Ottawa, who called him up late Monday, just in time for back-to-back games against the Capitals on Tuesday and Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
He had an assist on the Senators' first goal Tuesday, his first NHL point since his debut Oct. 7, 2011.
"I feel better and better," Zibanejad said before the game. "I think I have more confidence to skate with the puck and be creative, especially after I got back. I feel faster and stronger, and I've been trying to improve my all-round game."