Stung by demotion to AHL, centre rejoins Senators, may face Red Wings
Mika Zibanejad was stunned three weeks ago, when the Ottawa Senators told him he’d be starting the season in Binghamton.
After starting last season in the American Hockey League, he was recalled and stayed in the National Hockey League for the rest of the season, playing 42 games and finishing fourth in team scoring with seven goals and 13 assists.
Surely, he figured, that was worth something, and maybe it would have been for a veteran meriting some leeway during training camp.
For a 20-year-old player with not even a full NHL season behind him, it wasn’t worth anything, certainly not to Senators head coach Paul MacLean.
In MacLean’s world, it’s not how you played last season, but rather how you’re playing today.
So, when Zibanejad sashayed through training camp, apparently thinking he had already made the NHL Senators roster, MacLean dropped the hammer and sent him to Binghamton.
It was, said Zibanejad, an “eye opener,” a lesson in not only how hard it was to make the NHL, but also in how hard it was to stay.
Now he is getting a second chance, possibly on Wednesday night against Daniel Alfredsson and the Detroit Red Wings.
MacLean will make that decision on Wednesday.
He has several options for the team’s fourth-line centre spot: Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who is nursing a minor injury but has practised for the past two days; Derek Grant, who replaced Pageau in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers; or Zibanejad.
The odds are that it will be Zibanejad, who, coincidentally, played his first NHL game in Detroit on Oct. 7, 2011.
The No. 6 overall pick in 2011 remains a prized prospect, and the Senators are anxious to see whether the message has sunk in.
Zibanejad says it has.
The day he arrived at Binghamton, he had a heart-to-heart with AHL Senators coach Luke Richardson, who told him he couldn’t dwell on getting demoted, but had to work at getting recalled.
He did, too, scoring two goals and five assists in Binghamton’s first six games.
So, when MacLean told Richardson to send him whoever was playing the best, he sent Zibanejad.
Getting sent to Binghamton was a huge motivator, Zibanejad said Tuesday.
“Obviously,” he said.
“When something like that happens, you want to prove them wrong, but you try not to think about it too much.
“I just thought about playing hard and doing the things they wanted me to do.
“I hope I took it the right way: just work hard and play, and have fun with the guys and not let that destroy anything for me.”
During training camp, his mistake was in thinking that what he did last season counted for something. He didn’t realize he was in competition with other players for the few available jobs. Before he knew it, he had been passed by Pageau and Stéphane Da Costa.
In Binghamton, Zibanejad was a go-to guy. He played big minutes on the power play and was on the ice in crucial situations. That helped restore his confidence.
“Obviously they’ve been watching me these six games and they’ve been happy with what they’ve seen, so I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing and even take another step,” he said.
“I hope I’ve started to build something down in Binghamton, and I just have to keep building on it.”
MacLean said Zibanejad had earned his recall through his play with Binghamton. To stay here, the equation is simple.
“He has to play good,” MacLean said. “We made the call down there and asked who the best player was and it was Mika. Before it was Derek Grant, now it’s Mika.
“We want him to come up and play with speed, play with energy, use his size and shoot the puck, and just do the things that he does to be successful.
“If he does those things consistently, he can stay in the lineup and ultimately in the NHL.”
MacLean declined on Tuesday to name the Senators’ starting goalie for the Detroit game, but it’s likely to be Craig Anderson.