|Now that he knows he's staying in North America, Mika Zibanejad believes he'll feel much less pressure as aims to land a spot on the Senators roster for the 2012-13 season (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
There is no mystery this time.
Not a hint of doubt about which side of the pond he'll ply his trade in the season to come.
And that, Mika Zibanejad will tell you, is a rather large weight off his young shoulders as he prepares to dive into the next chapter of his hockey life.
Whether it's living his National Hockey League dream with the Ottawa Senators or heading down to the farm for some seasoning with the Binghamton Senators, the 19-year-old Swede knows he's in North America to stay. No matter where he starts this fall, he'll do it with a smile.
"Obviously, you want to stay (in Ottawa) and play right away and play more games in NHL, because that’s always been the dream," Zibanejad said earlier today following a skate at the Bell Sensplex. "But if it takes time and what I need is to play in the ‘A,’ that’s okay. Hopefully, being over here is going to benefit me. I know I’m staying here and if I go down there, I know I have a chance — which I didn’t have last year — of being called up and getting rewarded if you play well.
"I think it’s good for me, too, that I know I’m staying here and I have a mindset of knowing what’s going on, so I don’t have to think about two different scenarios. Hopefully, it’s going to be better (because of that)."
A year ago, the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft went into the season knowing he had nine games to prove he deserved to stay in the NHL. Otherwise, the Senators — to avoid triggering the start of Zibanejad's entry-level contract — were obligated to return him to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League to play out the final year of his deal there, with no chance of a recall to Ottawa.
Zibanejad admits now that he let the uncertainty about his eventual destination — and the pressure that went along with it — weigh on him a little too much instead of just playing his regular game. He produced just a single point in those nine games and was eventually shipped back to Djurgarden on Oct. 26.
"The longer it went, you could see with him, the loss of confidence," Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray told NHL.com in a recent interview. "The NHL is a tough league for anybody, especially an 18-year-old kid coming from Europe for the first time."
But with that nine-game trial period no longer an issue this fall, Zibanejad believes he should be much more free to show Senators hockey management what he can do.
"Now that I don’t have to think about those nine games, I can just go out there and play my game and not think too much," he said. "That was my problem last year, that I thought about everything, thought about what could happen or what could not happen. Now I can just take it as it comes."
What's also true is that he no longer feels like a foreigner in a strange city. There is a comfort zone for him in the nation's capital, Zibanejad said, adding he's happy to have fellow Swedes Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson on hand to lend a guiding hand when needed.
"I feel more comfortable here," said Zibanejad, who'll make guest appearance at the Ottawa Senators Hockey Camps at the Bell Sensplex on Thursday. "I know all the places here, where to go, and that kind of thing makes it a lot easier, too. Especially, to have someone around who knows stuff, just to take your mind off hockey so you don’t think about it all the time. It’s going to take a lot of energy. I’m happy about that
"It was a big help for me last year, having them here, even though I didn’t stay." said Zibanejad, who'll make guest appearance at the Ottawa Senators Hockey Camps at the Bell Sensplex on Thursday. "It was a good help just to bounce some things off them and just talk. I think that was good for me. Now I have a girlfriend here, too, so that will make it easier. Last year, I was thinking too much. It’s nice to take your mind off (hockey) sometimes and just relax your thoughts, so you have more energy.
"So it’s good now. I feel more comfortable here. I know all the places here, where to go, and that kind of thing makes it a lot easier, too. I feel better better now and I feel like I’m a better player."
The 2011-12 season surely provided plenty of hockey experiences — both good and bad — that he can draw on now. Of course, the highlight was the overtime goal he scored for Sweden in the gold-medal game at the 2012 world juniors in Alberta. But there was also the low of Djurgarden's eventual relegation to the second division of Swedish hockey (Allsvenskan) for the coming season.
"I’ve had a whole year to get better," he said. "Even though for the team and me personally, last year didn’t go as we wanted, there’s always some way you can come back from that and especially to get the world juniors gold, that was good for me personally. But that’s in the past. I can’t change that and I’ve got to learn from that, take what was good and just bring it to this season. It’s a new season starting now."
Added Murray: "For a storied franchise, for that to happen, it was tough. You could see games where he was on the third line and he was a young guy on an older team. There were some tough nights for him (with Djurgarden) but in saying that, that helps you develop character, helps you understand every night it's not going to be roses and rainbows. It's how he responds to that this year that determines what he is."