|The Sens believe 18-year-old centre Mika Zibanejad will get a better chance to grow his game back home in Sweden with Djurgarden, where he'll play for the rest of the season (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
The youngest player in Ottawa Senators history is being sent home to keep growing his already impressive game.
With his prized prospect's long-term future in mind, Senators general manager Bryan Murray announced today that the club is returning centre Mika Zibanejad to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League, where he'll fulfill the final year of his contract. It was a decision, Murray admitted, that was anything but cut and dried.
"From a selfish point of view, it was very difficult," Murray said after announcing the decision. "We like him. He's a good man, he's a guy that would work hard and do everything the coaches asked during a game ... We look at this young man and (we could see) at Christmas time or early January, he'd probably be contributing more offensively than he's capable of doing right now.
"But we think, for (his) long-term development and to give him an opportunity to become what we believe he has a chance to become — and that is a quality NHL player — that this is the right step for him at the moment."
For Zibanejad, it was indeed a bitter pill to swallow. Shortly before the decision was made, the 18-year-old Stockholm native smiled as he spoke about "the fun journey" he had taken over the last two months — the rookie tournament success, the overtime winner against the Boston Bruins during the pre-season, and the nine games of regular-season experience he'd gained.
But in the end, he'll look at the return to Sweden as an opportunity to grow even further as a player and a person. Even though he'd done plenty of that in Ottawa where, at 18, he became the youngest player ever to wear a Senators jersey and the youngest Swede to suit up for a National Hockey League game. And he'd already become a fan favourite, judging by the growing volume of Zibanejad No. 93 jerseys spotted in the stands at Scotiabank Place.
"I really wanted to stay and I tried to do everything I could," Zibanejad, the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, said in the soft-spoken tone he's always presented to the media. "It wasn't enough this time, but I'm excited to go home and develop my game and improve my game. This is the best option for me to develop and become the player (the Senators) want me to be ... It’s sad, but on other hand it’s a good thing for me.
“It’s going to be a chance for me to improve my game. I’m going to a place where I know the coach, my teammates and everything around me. That’s my hometown, so I’ll be comfortable and I can focus on improving my game.”.
Surely, Djurgarden can't wait to get Zibanejad in its lineup. And he admitted, with a grin, that "my mom is happy to be getting me back home." Perhaps the toughest sell on the move was Senators head coach Paul MacLean, who thought so highly of his young talent that he had Zibanejad on the ice in the final minute of a tie game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night and gave him two shifts in the overtime period that followed.
But in the end, MacLean admitted the return to Sweden "is the best thing for him."
"In the conversations that Bryan and I and the coaching staff had, even though we were very confident in him as a player and we had the ability to make him better, we want him to be the best that he can be," added MacLean. "We don't want him to be a third- or fourth-line checker. We want him to be a front-line player and a top-six player. In order to do that, he needs to be in a place where he'll have the puck as much as possible and develop those skills of seeing the ice and making plays and attacking the net.
"The best thing for the Ottawa Senators is to send Mika back to Djurgarden so he can have the opportunity to grow as a player. Nowhere is it (about) what's best for Paul MacLean, it's what's best for the Ottawa Senators and this is the right decision that had to be made."
The Senators were allowed to give Zibanejad nine regular-season games without triggering the first year of his entry-level contract. And it was clear, as that nine-game mark approached — and Zibanejad faced daily waves of media inquiries about his status — that the entire process was beginning to weigh on him. He recorded one assist in his first game against the Detroit Red Wings but was held off the scoresheet thereafter.
"You really want to prove you can do something from the start," he said. "Sometimes you're nervous, but it's something you have to get used to. You have to go to the rink every day and battle as hard as you can to prove that you want to stay.
"You say you're not going to think about (the nine-game deadline), but you always have it in the back of your mind. It's hard, but I'm going to have this experience for next year and it'll help me."
Added Murray: "He was playing the last little bit to survive and not make mistakes, rather than being the creative kind of kid that we think he'll turn out to be."
When Murray informed captain Daniel Alfredsson — who witnessed the frenzy around Zibanejad, a fellow Swede, every day from a neighbouring stall in the Senators dressing room — of the move, he received further endorsement.
"That's the right thing Bryan, there's no question," Alfredsson told Murray. "He's got to play more."
The return to Sweden is also likely to give Zibanejad an opportunity to play for his homeland at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, which begins Dec. 26 in Calgary and Edmonton.
"It's always an honour to play for your country," he said with an eye toward that opportunity.
Around the boards
Alfredsson took part in full practice today and expects to be in the lineup Thursday night, when the Florida Panthers visit Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200). "I felt good," he said. "It was a good practice and I should be ready for tomorrow" ... Forward Bobby Butler (groin) also was a participant in today's session and is moving closer to a return to game action. He hasn't played since Oct. 13. “He’s cleared to skate and practise with the team,” said MacLean. “He hasn’t been able to do that as a regular for two weeks. We’re going to monitor him and his fitness level. When he’s ready to play, we’re going to get him in.”