Scanlan: Soft-spoken Senators rookie making all the right moves

These young Ottawa Senators do most of their talking on the ice. With their game, that is, not implying trash talk. Mika Zibanejad spoke best with his overtime screamer, a rocket of a one-timer off a Brian Lee pass to beat the Boston Bruins with 1:43 left in OT.

BY WAYNE SCANLAN

These young Ottawa Senators do most of their talking on the ice.

With their game, that is, not implying trash talk.

Mika Zibanejad spoke best with his overtime screamer, a rocket of a one-timer off a Brian Lee pass to beat the Boston Bruins with 1:43 left in OT.

“It’s a great feeling, but I feel like I got a little bit lucky to score that goal,” said Zibanejad, who redeemed himself after what he considered a sub-par first period.

Netting the game-winning goal is one thing, but waxing poetic in front of a swarm of cameras, tape recorders and note pads?

That’s quite another.

For Ottawa rookies, for a variety of reasons, playing the game is a lot easier than talking about it.

Zibanejad, the Senators’ prize pick of the 2011 draft, sixth overall, is a prime example of a young player who has to adjust to the ubiquitous Canadian media, just as he has to adjust to the smaller ice surface after years in the Swedish junior and Elite leagues.

Mika is a man of multiple tongues, but few words. He speaks Swedish, Finnish, English, some French and Farsi, the Persian language he absorbed from his father, Mehrdad, who fled Iran for Sweden during the Iranian revolution of the 1970s.

My hunch is the kid has lots to say in any of the above languages as long as cameras and tape recorders aren’t rolling. Imagine yourself at 18, perhaps in the first year of post-secondary studies, facing a crush of media every other day.

Mika speaks so softly media microphones are pushed even closer to his face to pick up the sound of his faint voice, pushed so close that insiders couldn’t help but notice he’d shaved off the decent growth of beard he had going for his first NHL exhibition game in Toronto.

Zibanejad did OK, although the ice seemed tilted by a few Ottawa giveaways in a 4-2 Maple Leafs victory. By his own account, Zibanejad will have to be better if he is to avoid returning to Djurgardens of the SEL, a pretty good fall-back position for the young centre. Wednesday, he was playing on “home” ice for the first time, against the Boston Bruins, still finding his way in a new league and a new country.

It’s another step from the rookie tournament, said the 6-2, 200-pounder, who seems to carry about 150 pounds just in his massive legs. After a slow start at the rookie fest in Oshawa, Mika scored once and added two assists in Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks’ rookies.

While his pre-season debut in Toronto was about what he expected, Zibanejad says, “everything is new to me. I’ll try to be better, do everything right.”

Against the Bruins, Kid Zibanejad lined up on the second unit with skill wingers Nikita Filatov and Bobby Butler on his wings, meaning the club was giving the rookie a chance to succeed.

“It’s not every day you get to play with such good players,” Zibanejad said.

He has the Gretzky tuck, his #93 Senators jersey tucked inside his black pants.

And while Gretzky is not the comparable for this big, strong centre, Zibanejad clearly has hockey sense. In the first period, he didn’t miss his defensive zone coverage, quickly on Boston centre Tyler Seguin to prevent a scoring chance.

There isn’t much doubt he skates well enough, with a slightly bowed, well-balanced stride.

In the second, Zibanejad took a pass in the neutral zone, raced over the Boston blue-line and ripped a hard shot that was gloved by goaltender Tuukka Rask. Minutes later, he nearly had a goal, redirecting a pass from Filatov, stopped again by Rask.

We’ll see lots more from this prospect down the road, and we’ll hear more, too.

When the subject moves away from hockey and onto a personal subject, namely Zibanejad’s Twitter account, the rookie lights up, his voice amplifies.

“It was my cousin (Sarah), who got me on Twitter,” he says.

“She got so many tweets to ask me questions, it was easier to get an account.”

Let the record show, Mika is also a man of few words on Twitter, rarely threatening the 140-character limit. We’re guessing Kid Zibanejad won’t be in any trouble with the league from his recent tweets:

Battle of Ontario #2 (Sept. 19).

Main Camp (Sept. 16).

Love golfing! (Sept. 15).

Thanks for all the tweets (Sept. 13).

Zibanejad vows to pay more attention to Twitter once training camp is over. He likes the interaction with fans and has appreciated their instant support.

“I’m glad to have feedback from fans, it’s fun,” he says.

While his last name is a mouthful – poor head coach Paul MacLean stumbled over it on Wednesday, as we all have — it could have been worse. Zibanejad’s cousin goes by Zibanejadrad. We should be grateful Mika’s family uses the shorter version.

Some Ottawa fans have already abbreviated it down to a single letter, “Z,” a handle once owned here by Zdeno Chara.

Now there are some big skates to fill.

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