OTTAWA - There should be a half dozen new faces — if not more — in the Senators lineup at the start of the 2012-13 season.
College boy Justin Schultz, an unrestricted free agent, is still in play. So is Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash. But at this point, they could be long shots.
Impending UFAs like Shane Doan and P.A. Parenteau should draw Ottawa’s interest on July 1, just to name a couple. And then there’s the veteran defenceman GM Bryan Murray vows to get to fill the vacancy left by Filip Kuba.
Of players graduating from within, Mark Borowiecki and Patrick Wiercioch appear to have the inside track for spots on the blueline. Up front, Swedes Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad, along with Canadian winger Mark Stone, figure to be the best bets to earn spots.
Purely on the fact that he played all but one game (albeit, a crucial playoff match at Madison Square Garden versus the New York Rangers) against fellow juniors last season, Stone could be deemed in need of some grooming time in Binghamton. Silfverberg, who was the best player in the Swedish Elite League, isn’t at this week’s development camp because the team decided he could use some rest from his long 2011-12 campaign. He’s going to get a lengthy look in the fall.
That leaves Zibanejad, who looked like one exhausted 19-year-old after a gruelling on-ice session at Sensplex Wednesday.
“All depends on how you do (them),” he said when asked if the drills were hard. “If you do (them) good, it’s going to be tough.”
As was duly noted last year at this time, again in training camp, and throughout the nine NHL games he played at the start of the season, Zibanejad doesn’t do anything half-speed. Still, the Senators thought it was best to send their first pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 entry draft back to Sweden for more seasoning. How truly disappointed he was, he hid well.
The highlight of Zibanejad’s season (and what a highlight it was) came when he scored the winning goal to give his country a gold medal at the world junior championship in Calgary. The lowlights were two concussions — one that limited his season with Djurgardens IF Stockholm to 26 games and another that stole from him what might have been an opportunity to play for the Senators in the playoffs.
“Unfortunately me and another guy collided, and I was the unlucky one this time,” Zibanejad said of an accident that occurred during a Binghamton practice. “But it’s all better now, so I’m ready to go.
“The expectations are high this year, every year you come back,” he added. “It’s fun to be back.”
Zibanejad, who can play wing or centre, brings all sorts of promise to the Senators. He skates very well, he has good size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), a quick, hard shot and good hockey sense. Senators coach Paul MacLean commented more than once last October on Zibanejad’s defensive awareness.
He’s a mature teenager, to be sure. But is he prepared to be a full-time NHLer?
“I’m going to make sure I’m ready for next year,” said Zibanejad, who had just one assist in nine games with the Senators before being sent home. “It’s only June now, I have a couple of months before the season starts, and I’m going to get ready for it. But I feel like mentally I’m ready. I had a good experience with regular season and pre-season last year, so I’m going to try to take that as an advantage next year.”
So highly thought of is Zibanejad that it’s believed the Blue Jackets want him as the prime piece to any package the Senators may send them for Nash. Zibanejad maintains such rumblings don’t bother him.
“Obviously, it’s always fun to have people interested in you,” he said. “But I can’t focus on that. I’m just going to keep my focus on the practice and training. I just have to stay focused on what I’m doing right now, and where I am right now. I can deal with it if and when it happens. I’m just going to train hard.”
And, after spending a couple of weeks in Sweden at its world junior camp, bring back to Ottawa what he learned last year.
“It was a good experience to be around the team, the first year,” he said. “Just to see how things are going, through playoffs. Hopefully I can take that with me and take that as an advantage for next year.”