Senators have tough decision on Zibanejad

Mika Zibanejad played a strong game against the Bruins on Wednesday. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

Mika Zibanejad played a strong game against the Bruins on Wednesday. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:49 AM ET

OTTAWA - The debate about Mika Zibanejad’s future probably took place Thursday around many water coolers across Ottawa.

Should he stay or should he go?

The performance of the Senators’ No. 1 pick in the June draft at training camp isn’t a surprise, but his chances of making the team improved after he scored the OT winner in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over the Bruins at Scotiabank Place.

Not only was 18-year-old Zibanejad one of the best players during the rookie tournament earlier this month in Oshawa, he’s carried that performance into camp and he’s pushing for an opening night roster spot against the Red Wings.

“The best thing I can say: He looks like a hockey player,” said Ottawa centre Jason Spezza.

So what will make that determination for the Senators?

“The deciding factor is we have to make sure that we’re not rushing him,” said assistant GM Tim Murray. “He showed some great things (vs. Boston). We know there’s a learning curve, so when he makes a mistake it doesn’t mean he’s not ready.

“He’s big and strong. He’s a man now. He’s not a kid. So, the learning curve could be very short for him. The way he played (Wednesday), he is showing us he’s close, he is showing us that he may be ready to play.”

The Zibanejad decision is going to be a big one. He is battling for ice time with Peter Regin and Stephane Da Costa. All three had their moments against the Bruins, but it was Regin who was the best all-around player of that trio.

If Zibanejad is going to stay, he has to be excellent through camp and perform even better once the rosters are closer to looking like NHL teams next week.

Zibanejad will get Friday off vs. the Canadiens, but will play in the remaining four exhibition games.

“If he’s going to be on our team it’s because he’s ready,” said Murray. “It’s a very easy decision: He’s either going to show us he’s ready or not. We’re not going to force-feed him. He’s going to have to earn it. Then, we’ll make the right call.”

Spezza, sent back to junior after a strong training camp as an 18-year-old, knows what Zibanejad is going through. But Spezza said the young Swede might be in a better spot than he was in 2001.

“I’ve been really impressed with him,” said Spezza. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders and I think he’s worked really hard. They’re going to ask a lot of him this camp and that’s taxing for anybody, especially an 18-year-old.

“His advantage is he probably plays a little more straight line, a little more two-way game than I played. I expected to score lots of points (at his age) and I don’t think that’s the expectation of him.”

Spezza added the environment in the Ottawa dressing room is good for Zibanejad to have success with captain Daniel Alfredsson and defenceman Erik Karlsson on the team.

“The fact we have a lot of Swedes in the room, he’s not shy and he can talk to those guys,” said Spezza. “He sees the young Swedes we’ve had that have had success and that’s going to give him a lot of confidence.”

Zibanejad, who received a congratulatory text from his parents in Sweden, is taking it all in stride.

“I’m here because I want to make the team,” said Zibanejad. “I just want to play my game and make it hard for the coaches to keep me here or send me back home. Hopefully, I can stay here. It’s a long camp, so you’ve got to be on top every day.”

bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca


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