|Swedish centre Mika Zibanejad is all smiles after being picked sixth overall by the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. (Dave Sandford/NHL via Getty Images).
Another NHL entry draft, another Swede addition to the Ottawa Senators' future.
But Mika Zibanejad
, their lastest import from Scandinavia, surely brings a much more unique heritage with him to the organization.
The Senators' selection of Zibanejad, an 18-year-old native of Huddinge, Sweden, with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft no doubt also drew cheers in other parts of the globe. The 6-2, 191-pound centre has an Iranian father — Zibanejad has been nicknamed the "Persian Prince" — and a mother from Finland. And he's thrilled about the opportunity to make a new home in Ottawa.
"It’s so amazing," Zibanejad told reporters after slipping on his first Senators jersey. "I was hoping for this and now it’s a dream come true. I’m really happy about it. Ottawa as a city is really nice and the fans there are really passionate for hockey, so I’m really happy that I got picked by Ottawa."
For the Senators, who have been stockpiling high-end defence prospects in the past three drafts, the addition of a centre was a top priority this weekend at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. And in Zibanejad, a skilled, swift centre with a fondness for the physical game, they feel they got their man.
"We felt it was very important to get a forward that can play fairly early on, whether it’s next year or the year after," Senators general manager Bryan Murray told TSN.
"We got a big guy who can skate and handle the puck, and he brings a real impact to our hockey club. We’re real excited to get Mika."
Zibanejad was one of five prospects to visit with the Senators in Ottawa earlier this month. While he emerged from that meeting with a good vibe, Zibanejad wasn't sure he'd be a Senator until they called his game.
"When they bring you to Ottawa, (you know) they’re interested and I got a good feeling from them ... I thought they liked me, for sure," said Zibanejad. "But there were great players battling for that pick and to be picked that early is an amazing feeling.
"I was surprised (to hear my name), I wasn’t ready for it but I’m so excited."
While Zibanejad has one year remaining on his contract with Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League, there is a window available for him — if he signs before July 15 — to jump to the National Hockey League this season if he can earn a roster spot in training camp. He intends to take his best shot at doing just that.
"I’ll do everything I can, everything possible to work hard to make it," said Zibanejad. "But staying in Sweden one more year, that’s not a bad option."
Said Murray: "I don’t know if he can play this year, but we’ll certainly have a look at him and see where we go in that direction. He’s a player that’s going to play a long time in the National Hockey League."
With the selection of Zibanejad, it's clear the Senators have put a big part of their future in the hands of players who hail from Sweden. Defenceman Erik Karlsson
, Ottawa's top pick (15th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, has already established himself as a cornerstone on the blue line. He could be joined this fall by Skelleftea's David Rundblad, the SEL's defenceman of the year in 2010-11, who was obtained from the St. Louis Blues for Ottawa's first-rounder at last year's draft.
As well, the Senators' top goaltending prospect, Robin Lehner
— the most valuable player of this year's American Hockey League playoffs — is a native of Goteborg, Sweden. Top forward prospect Jakub Silfverberg also calls the land of the Tre Kronor home. And of course, there's Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
, one of Sweden's greatest hockey exports, the NHL's current longest-serving captain and Ottawa's unquestioned leader.
"Being a part of a team that has (so many) Swedes, it helps," said Zibanejad, who's a good friend of Marcus Sorensen, a fourth-round pick by the Sens in the 2010 NHL draft. "I could take advantage of that and use it."
Zibanejad arrived in Minnesota as one of the fastest rising talents in this draft. Rated No. 3 among European skaters at mid-season by NHL Central Scouting, he turned heads with a standout performance for Sweden at the World Under-17 Challenge in Timmins, Ont. In Central Scouting's final rankings, only Skellefea blueliner Adam Larsson — who went No. 4 overall tonight to the New Jersey Devils — rated ahead of Zibanejad.
“It's his offensive ability," Senators director of player personnel Pierre Dorion said earlier this month in explaining Zibanejad's rapid rise up the draft boards. "When we're talking about Mika, his skating is very good (and so is) his strength, his lower-body strength, his shooting ability and his puck skills.
"I was over there (in Sweden) seeing him player for Djurgarden in the playoffs and he had an impact as an 18-year-old playing against 30-year-olds. That's one of the criteria that helped his stock rise for the draft."
What also helped, Zibanejad said, was the chance to move from Djurgarden's junior squad to its Swedish Elite League part way through the season.
"In the beginning it was (an adjustment), but after three or four games, I felt like I was ready for that level," he said. "I’m really happy I got the chance and opportunity to play with them. That’s the level I wanted to play at and I got more confidence after the coach gave me ice time and all that kind of stuff.
"They’re bigger and stronger than the juniors and it’s something I could take advantage of. So for sure (it helped)."
Linguistically, at least, Zibanejad is definitely a man of the world. While he conducted his interviews tonight in English, he also speaks Swedish, Finnish "and a bit of Farsi." He's also beginning to tackle French.
"I've got a lot of languages going on," he said with a grin.
Zibanejad's father, Mehrad, left Iran for Sweden in 1979 during the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader of an Islamic republic. His mother, Ritva, was born in Finland but met Mehrdad in Sweden. His hometown is just outside of Stockholm, where Djurgarden is based.