|Mika Zibanejad, the Senators' top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, intends to push hard to win a spot on the Ottawa roster when he arrives at the team's training camp in September (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images).
The wide grin pretty much told the entire story.
Mika Zibanejad is back in Ottawa, eager as can be to take his best shot at making the Senators roster out of training camp. And yes, September can't come soon enough for the 18-year-old Stockholm native, who was Ottawa's top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
"I'm really excited," Zibanejad said at the Bell Sensplex earlier today following a guest appearance at the Ottawa Senators Hockey Camps. "It's my first (National Hockey League) training camp, so I'm really excited about it."
Make no mistake about it — the 6-2, 195-pound centre isn't coming here just for the experience. While he'd be fine with a return to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League, he'd much rather get started on his NHL career right away and fully intends to make a strong case for himself.
"I want to give the coaches a hard decision (about whether) to keep me here or send me back home," he said. "Hopefully, I can stay here in Ottawa."
While Zibanejad is the Senators' highest pick in an NHL draft since Jason Spezza went No. 2 overall in 2001, he isn't feeling any pressure to make a huge impact immediately.
"I try to have fun out there," he said. "That's why I play hockey. They picked me for a reason ... I won't change anything, I'll still be Mika. I'll try to play my game and try to bring that to Ottawa. That's pretty much it."
A year ago, Zibanejad wasn't high on the radar screen of scouts around the NHL. But his play throughout the season sent his stock soaring skyward as the June draft in St. Paul, Minn., approached. So much so that the Senators couldn't pass on the dynamic Swede when he was still on the board at No. 6.
When he considers how far he's come in the last 12 months, Zibanejad just shakes his head.
"It was a goal for me to just crack a spot back home with a (Swedish) Elite League team," he said. "So it's amazing to stand here now. I have to pinch myself in the arm to believe this."
Since he arrived in Ottawa earlier this week, he's joined informal skating sessions at the Sensplex alongside the likes of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and team veterans Chris Neil and Matt Carkner. As well, Zibanejad has been surprised that some fans already recognize him, even before he slips on a Senators jersey for the first time.
"You're watching them (as a young player) and now you're skating with them, so it's pretty cool," said Zibanejad, who has a special attachment to the No. 93 he'll wear. "I asked about it and it was available. It's my favourite number and it's my birth year, so why not?"
Last week, Zibanejad took part in a mini-tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., that involved world junior hockey championship hopefuls from Sweden, Finland and the host United States. He found it to be a rewarding experience.
"Especially against the U.S. ... they play in small rinks and it's tougher (for me) than it is back home," he said. "It was good competition and a good test for me, to adjust my game to a smaller rink and a higher speed. It was really good."
Zibanejad could fulfil another dream by suiting up for Sweden at the 2012 world juniors in Edmonton and Calgary. But if he's occupied instead with the Senators, he's be equally thrilled.
"It depends on if I make the team," he said. "I don't know if (the Senators) would let me go. But it's been a dream for a couple of years now, to make the world juniors."
His NHL dream, however, burns equally inside. Come rookie camp in early September, Zibanejad will begin the quest to make it come true. He can hardly wait.