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Zibanejad opening many eyes at rookie tournament

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Mika Zibanejad watches his teammates go through a 3-on-3 drill during Senators rookie practice today at the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ont. Ottawa's top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft already has his eyes set on main training camp starting Friday (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).

OSHAWA, Ont. — With one breath-taking wave of his stick, Mika Zibanejad offered one and all another glimpse at his bountiful skil.

By the time the 18-year-old Swede's work was done on Sunday afternoon at the General Motors Centre — kickstarted by a beauty of an assist on the goal that opened the scoring — he'd put a rather large exclamation point behind the lofty status he carried into the National Hockey League rookie tournament being played here.

Clearly, the Ottawa Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has been a young man to watch since the beginning of this event, which also includes prospects from the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and host Toronto Maple Leafs. Whether it's his smooth skating stride or his ability with the puck, Zibanejad is opening plenty of eyes during his North American hockey debut.

"The word that we’re looking for (to describe) Mika’s first North American experience would be strong," Pierre Dorion, the Senators' director of player personnel, said after watching Zibanejad's three-point effort in Sunday's 6-5 victory over the Hawks. "He’s been strong on the puck, he’s been driving and penetrating the offensive zone. He’s been going to the net and making plays.

"I think (in Saturday's 4-0 conquest of the Pens), he tried maybe to do a bit too much by himself but now, we’re really seeing the real Mika as far as generating offence but at the same time, being a nuisance for the other team."

Binghamton Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who's directing the Sens rookies at this tournament, couldn't say enough about Zibanejad after watching him bury the eventual game-winner against the Hawks with a laser of a wrist shot.

"He took a pass, he turned around and got it on net right away," said Kleinendorst. "Then he follows up and gets his own rebound. From what I can tell — and I’ve only had him for a few days — there aren’t many shortcuts in his game. He’s an honest player, he doesn’t cheat, he plays the game the right way and that’s probably why he is where he is right now."

While Zibanejad could have returned home for one more season with Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League, he signed an entry-level contract with the Senators in July with the intent of pushing for a job with the team as a teenager. He remains firm in his resolve to make that happen and, with the Senators building a more youthful roster, senses his timing might just be right.

"I’m coming here to win a spot, whether they’re rebuilding or not," he said. "But maybe there's a bigger chance to make the team (now)."

Senators general manager Bryan Murray indicated last week that he's keeping an open mind about Zibanejad and that he'll get every chance to land a roster spot in Ottawa when training camp opens on Friday. But Dorion acknowledged that, while he's showing well in the rookie tournament, Zibanejad will need to offer up even more to make the team.

"This is better than junior hockey," said Dorion. "It’s probably better than a lot of the hockey he’s played. It’s a notch up and he’s doing very well. But main camp will be a notch up from here, so it’ll be up to him to also raise his game."

Because he still has a year remaining on his contract with Djurgarden, Zibanejad can't be sent to Binghamton if he isn't deemed to be ready for the NHL. The Senators would be obliged to return him to his Swedish club if they don't keep the Stockholm native on board.

Zibanejad says he'll be fine with the end result, no matter how it plays out.

"I’ve had this conversation (with the Sens) and we agree on that," he said. "There’s only two options — either make the team here and play in the NHL, or go back to Sweden. But I think that’s a win-win situation for me, for sure."

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