|With each dazzling goal he scores, Senators rookie Mika Zibanejad keeps making a stronger case to be included in the lineup that will start the 2011-12 regular season (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
Mika Zibanejad is staying true to his word.
Almost since the day the Senators made him the sixth overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, his singular focus has been to crack the team's roster as an 18-year-old. To make it as difficult as possible for the Ottawa coaching staff and team management to send him back to Sweden for another year of seasoning.
So far, at least, consider it mission accomplished in that area.
With every dazzling goal he scores — and Zibanejad has notched a pair of beauties in this pre-season — the teen sensation from Stockholm keeps building his case, that he is indeed ready for the rigours of the National Hockey League. But while those around him rave about his talent and the maturity he shows on the ice, he insists the job isn't done yet.
"I wish I could say that, but you've got to ask the coaches what they think," Zibanejad said in advance of tonight's pre-season matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers TV, Team 1200). "I'm just trying to work hard and make it even harder (on the decision makers). I have a couple of games left to improve and show that I'm ready for this."
Though he's far from making a final decision yet, head coach Paul MacLean continues to be impressed by what he sees. Zibanejad had the Senators' lone goal in Monday's 3-1 setback at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets in St. John's, N.L., and it was of the highlight reel variety. The Senators don't have to make the call before camp ends — Zibanejad can play nine regular-season games without triggering the start of his entry-level contract in Ottawa.
"He's a good player," MacLean said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "He's got a good body size (6-2, 200 pounds), he skates well enough to play in the National Hockey League, he's scored a couple of goals for us and he's showing really good signs that he can play in the league.
"We have to more (pre-season) opportunities and maybe nine more to be sure about him, but right now he's a good player and he's going to be a good player."
So, too, are Peter Regin and Stephane Da Costa, and the competition between the trio for the Senators' second-line centre position has been fierce throughout camp. Blueliners Jared Cowen and David Rundblad are also earning long looks from the coaching staff.
"Those decisions are still out there, and I think every one of those players is making a real good case for themselves to play for the Ottawa Senators this year," said MacLean. "They're making it hard (on us). I think that's great for them and it's going to make it great for us."
Regin, for one, is excited about the training camp battles for jobs.
"It's been a good atmosphere around here," said the Danish centre. "Everybody has made it good for the young guys, I think, to really give them a chance to play. That's important in camp, that you don't just pick the team before (it starts) and then guys come in. It should be a battle for spots and it's been like that this year."
"It's tough to break into the league at that age. In today's game, especially, it's so structured and you've got to be coachable and have extreme skill. At 18, you're not at the peak of your career, but (Zibanejad) is a quick learner and he's picking up things fast ... He's got what you need to play in the NHL and it's more about getting used to the speed, but I think as time goes on, he's going to get better and better." - Daniel Alfredsson
The youngest of the bunch, however, is the most intriguing of them all. Last season, Jeff Skinner made the Carolina Hurricanes roster as an 18-year-old and wound up winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. But Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson suggested that's anything but an everyday occurrence for a player so young.
"It's tough to break into the league at that age," he said. "In today's game, especially, it's so structured and you've got to be coachable and have extreme skill. At 18, you're not at the peak of your career, but (Zibanejad) is a quick learner and he's picking up things fast.
"He's got what you need to play in the NHL and it's more about getting used to the speed, but I think as time goes on, he's going to get better and better. He's had a really good camp."
While Zibanejad hears the growing talk around him through camp, he's determined not to let it be a distraction or put any extra pressure on him to perform.
"The pressure comes from myself," he said. "I don't really care what people on the outside think. I do this for myself right now and I want to prove to myself that I can make it. I know it's going to be hard, but I've got a lot of support from my family and friends."
But he knows full well his goal is now within reach, with his determination to get there as great as ever.
"It's a dream and it's been a goal for me," he said. "It's something I really want to achieve. Whether it's this year ... hopefully (it is). It would be a dream come true. I just try to do my best and see how far it goes."
Around the boards
Goaltender Craig Anderson is being held out of tonight's game for "maintenance" reasons and instead, Robin Lehner will get the start between the pipes and is slated to play the full game, with Alex Auld as the backup ... Da Costa and veteran blueliner Chris Phillips are being given the night off to rest minor ailments ... Based on the pre-game skate, here's how the Senators will line up against the Leafs: Colin Greening-Jason Spezza-Nikita Filatov; Mike Hoffman-Mika Zibanejad-Bobby Butler; Nick Foligno-Peter Regin-Erik Condra, and Kaspars Daugavins-Zack Smith-Chris Neil ... The defensive pairings: Mark Borowiecki-Sergei Gonchar; Jared Cowen-Erik Karlsson, and Brian Lee-David Rundblad ... The Senators close out their pre-season schedule Thursday in Boston against the Bruins.