Player Development Profile: Mika Zibanejad

During a media scrum this afternoon, Bryan Murray was posed the question by a reporter, “What does (Mika) Zibanejad have to do to stick around?”

His response?

I don’t know that he has to be the second line center or not. He just has to see if he can be one of the twelve best forwards. If that be the case, it’s a big step. He played in the (Swedish) Elite League against men. We’d like to think that our league is better. That our team is better than it was last year by a margin and for a young guy to play on it, he just has to be able to compete every day and hopefully develops along the way. We don’t want to retard his development by putting him a position in which he doesn’t get a lot of ice-time.”

On the surface, you’d think that the first bolded statement conflicts with the latter. If Zibanejad’s not playing top six minutes, one would assume that he’d be playing with less talented players on one of Ottawa’s bottom two lines. While true that bottom six minutes can be supplemented with the odd specialty team shift, it’s rare for an 18 year old player to receive significant, if any, PK time.

I know when I first heard about Murray’s comments, my initial reaction on Twitter (@6thsens) was, Sweet. Nothing like burning a year off Zibanejad’s ELC to have him play 4th line minutes.

In consideration of this offseason’s transactions that included the UFA signing of Zenon Konopka and the re-signing of Zach Smith to a one-way contract, Ottawa added these two to a group that already included Jason Spezza, Peter Regin, Jesse Winchester, and potentially Nick Foligno. (Or if you’re feeling really audacious, you can expand the list to include Stephane Da Costa or Corey Locke.)

Looking at that group, there’s a rational argument to be made that as an 18-year old rookie, the likelihood that Zibanejad could outperform one of Ottawa’s top three centers is small. In this year’s McKeen’s Hockey Yearbook, they project him to put up a modest 8 goals and 14 assists. To put this in perspective, if he approaches these kinds of numbers, he’d be producing at a rate similar to Zach Smith’s 2010-11 season (4 goals and 5 assists in 55 GP).

While I do recognize and understand the common sentiment that it makes for a better fan experience to watch the future now, the value of what Zibanejad can offer at such a young over a replacement player isn’t large enough to succumb to the temptation of keeping him around. In addition to that point, Jared Cowen and David Rundblad both stand a very good chance of cracking this year’s squad so the yearnings for ‘prospect porn’ should be satiated.

In fairness to Zibanejad, one could raise the argument that he could surpass McKeen’s projected totals but there’s some inherent risk there. I remain unconvinced that it’s worth losing the first year off of his entry-level contract so that he can play at the highest professional level. With Ottawa not spending to the cap ceiling threshold, it might not seem like that big of a deal now but the importance of  one more inexpensive season from Zibanejad down the road cannot be understated. The cap savings could be extremely important in three years when the organization has a better chance of being more competitive and can use that space to make an expensive trade deadine rental or summer free agent signing to augment the team’s young core.

And really, would another year in the Swedish Elite League adversely affect his development?

It’s not like he has nothing left to prove at that level. Djurgarden would likely offer him more minutes and feature him in a more prominent role. He would also be afforded the opportunity to play for Sweden in the U-20 WJHC.

I’m interested in what you readers think, so have at it in the comments thread.

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