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Zibanejad warming up to challenge of life in NHL

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators

With each passing day, the clock ticks ever closer to a decision that continues to offer little in the way of a clear answer.

For both Mika Zibanejad and the Ottawa Senators.

But by the time the Senators close out a three-game stretch of home games this week at Scotiabank Place, they'll be days away from having to make the call: keep the team's prized prospect (sixth overall) from the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa for the duration of the season, or return him to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League to fulfill the final season of his contract there.

Should he stay or should he go? That it's such a dilemma for the Senators is a credit to the talent level the 18-year-old Zibanejad brings to the table each and every night.

"Mika can play in the NHL," Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean said following the team's practice earlier today at the Bell Sensplex. "Whether or not we decide it's going to be right now, for the rest of (this) year or it's going to be next year ... the final decision hasn't been made. But I think Mika's an NHL player and he's going to play in the NHL."

That he's a teenager and one of just a handful of players from the 2011 draft still on a National Hockey League roster ... that just adds to the intrigue of it all.

"It's definitely a unique case," admitted Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and player development. "But it's all based on confidence. If (young players) come up and they're tentative, no matter how much still they have, they're never going to be able to perform at the NHL level. It's just too good a league.

"Guys like (Zibanejad) and Erik Karlsson and Marty Havlat in the past ... they just have so much confidence that they let their skills showcase themselves at this level. Mika doesn't look tentative. Mika looks like he's playing the right way. And he sold it to us. He convinced us, in our interview meetings prior to the draft, that he's the type of player that is built to play the North American game."

While Zibanejad has one assist in five games to date, he admits his focus is on "feeling more comfortable with my game." And the Senators don't intend to use statistics as the final barometer in deciding whether he stays in the NHL beyond the nine-game window they have to make the call, which ends with their Oct. 25 road matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I don't think we anticipated him to be leading us in scoring like he did in the exhibition season," said MacLean. "I don't think that was ever a realistic thing. We just expect him to be a good player every day and work at his game every day and he's done that."

Added Zibanejad: "It's like a bonus if you get a goal or an assist ... that's how I'm looking at it. Yes, it's fun to have a point or two, but that's not what I'm focusing on right now."

He'll also tell you that platform for improvement is one of the things he enjoys most about life in the NHL, that it's filled with opportunity for a young player to grow his game.

"You get the chance to develop," he said. "You have time for practice. If you don't play well one night, you have a practice the next day and a game again. So you get the chance to play better the next night. That's what I'm enjoying right now."

Even if Zibanejad still has to pinch himself at times when he finds himself competing against players who, just a few months ago, seemed to be in another world.

"It's pretty cool to play against players like (Alex) Ovechkin and (Nicklas) Backstrom, like we did the last game," he said in reference to Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals. "Not long ago, I was sitting back at home watching those players and now I get the chance to play against them. So it's been a fun experience, for sure."

While Lee suggests Zibanejad's performance to date has "exceeded expectations," team management is anything but surprised by his ability to rise to the occasion at hand.

"He's at least receptive to that challenge," said Lee. "That's a good reflection on his maturity and his competitiveness. Some guys would be in awe of the talent level and be either tentative or nervous, and then they wouldn't be able to execute. But it doesn't faze him one bit.

"(Zibanejad) relishes that challenge of playing against the better players and that's a great attribute for any player. It shows great promise for him down the road."

For now, Zibanejad maintains his focus isn't straying past Tuesday night, when the Philadelphia Flyers pay a visit to Scotiabank Place on Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). The decision on his future ... he trusts the Senators will do what's right for him.

"You have to see what the best thing is for me at this time," he said. "I can't do anything more than my best, see how far that goes and see how I can develop and improve my game. I'm just looking forward to the next game against Philly. I'm excited about that."

Around the boards

Defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who suffered a bruised ankle Saturday in Washington, is listed as day-to-day and MacLean indicated he doesn't expect the veteran blueliner to be in the lineup against the Flyers ... Forward Bobby Butler (groin) remains on the shelf, MacLean said, adding "it's going to be longer than we first thought" before he returns to the lineup ... Craig Anderson missed practice today for personal reasons and MacLean plans to hold him out Tuesday night, instead giving a second straight start to Alex Auld. The veteran backup turned aside 26-of-28 shots he faced against the Caps in his first start of the season. 


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