Well, I guess this puts an end to the 'Will Mika Zibanejad play center or wing?' speculation.
With today’s 3:00 pm deadline to submit the finalized rosters to the NHL’s offices, the Ottawa Senators have made some waves by sending ballyhooed prospect, phenom, fan favorite, Mika Zibanejad back to the American Hockey League.
Yes Binghamton, DJ Z-Bad, could be making an appearance at a small discotheque near you. They like progressive house in rural upstate NY right?
I'm all for sending guys messages, but it’s worth reminding fans that this is the time of year when asset management plays just as much a part of the decision-making process as a player’s performance in the small sample size known as the NHL preseason.
Of the players remaining from last season’s roster, only Kyle Turris (Ottawa’s leading scorer) had more points than Zibanejad’s 20 (7 goals and 13 assists). So it is somewhat interesting to see that 4 or 5 games worth of preseason hockey have undone what Zibanejad did over the course of 42 meaningful NHL games last season.
I mean there was very little not to like with Mika's rookie campaign. By scoring chances at even-strength he ended the season in dominant fashion:
As a 19 year old his points per game stacks up very well against recent history.
Even things that were an initial weakness like faceoffs, showed growth, first 21 games last year he won 43%, last 21 games he won 47%. Through the preseason he was winning 57% of his faceoffs.
Furthermore, Zibanejad's shot per game rate (3.25) was the third highest in camp — better than Ryan, better than Turris, better than MacArthur.
Given Eugene Melnyk’s comments last week on Sens Mile that acknowledged the Sens were already over-budget on the money they’ve allocated towards player payroll, coupled with management’s decision to avoid carrying the maximum 23-man roster — instead opting to keep 21 hockey players and one Matt Kassian– the the immediate reaction from some was that this must be a cost cutting decision by the Senators. (Or hilariously, that this decision in some way reflects the organization’s condemnation of his DJ’ing hobby.)
His demotion does save the Senators the pro-rated portion of Mika’s $925,000 base salary and could conveniently affect his capacity to reach the $850,000 in bonuses that were negotiated as part of his entry-level contract, however, I’m not convinced that this decision is predominantly financially driven.
It was probably a contributing factor, sure, but it wasn’t the only reason.
Here are some other factors that contributed to the decision:
Putting up 14 goals and 45 points in 41 games at Merrimack College during the 2010/11 season, Stephane Da Costa was a highly sought after free agent commodity in NHL circles.
In essence, he was a lottery ticket for the NHL team that landed his rights and in the years since signing a pro contract, Da Costa has done little (4 goals and 7 points in 37 NHL games) to restore faith that he’s going to going to be an NHL player or the second coming of Adam Oates.
Now that he’s in the final year of his contract and no longer exempt from waivers, Da Costa showed up in camp 10 lbs heavier than he was last season – thanks to spending the offseason training with his brother Teddy in Poland. Admittedly, he’s looked better than he has in the past few camps but is that in itself enough to validate the decision to send Zibanejad back to Binghamton and keep Da Costa around without having to lose him for nothing?
I don’t think so. Barring an injury to Spezza, I can’t really envision a situation in which Da Costa is going to maximize his worth from nothing (waivers) to anything more than a mid-round pick. Although it won’t necessarily hurt the Sens that badly to start Zibanejad in the minors and give him 20-plus minutes a night frontlining Bingo’s offence, I also can’t imagine Da Costa doing enough to earn his keep.
As an aside, poor Jim O’Brien. He goes from Ottawa’s fourth line center to an afterthought during last season’s playoff run to going unclaimed on waivers. He probably thought upon his demotion that he’d immediately become Bingo’s number one center and have an opportunity to prove to the Sens or some other NHL team that he can still play, but now he just gets buried further down the depth chart by Zibanejad.
Staying In The Middle
Whether it’s been Bryan Murray or Paul MacLean, the team has been consistent in its message (at least the last 10 months) that they feel like it’s in the organization’s best long-term interests if Mika Zibanejad develops at the center position.
Now, considering he was in the competition for Daniel Alfredsson’s vacated right wing spot on the second line, his inability to grasp that opportunity coupled with Cory Conacher’s Bochenski-like preseason production (4 goals and 1 assist according to CBS Sports) was enough for management to re-think the idea that it could keep Zibanejad around as a winger.
Pageau, Pageau, Pageau!
Throw in Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s emergence as a viable center last season and extended through this preseason and popularity within this market – fueled in part by a ridiculous performance versus the Habs in the playoffs – and you can understand why the Senators are willing to start Zibanejad’s season in the minors.
Whether you want to look at this as some sort of wakeup call to Zibanejad, I don’t think anyone near the team really believes that this setback is going to be something of the long-term variety. With the team set to embark on an extended west coast roadtrip through the month of October, the likelihood of Zibanejad getting recalled in the event of an injury or as an extra body during this western swing is pretty high.
On the other hand, if Spezza is healthy, where exactly does Da Costa fit in if Jason Spezza is healthy? It's not like he's going to spell Pageau or Zack Smith on one of the team's bottom lines, so if he doesn't fit in on the team's top six, he doesn't fit in at all. And as such, making the team is just a nominal reward for a guy who didn't bust his ass as much as he could have until the chips were down.