Zibanejad says goodbye…for now

Mika Zibanejad left Scotiabank Place with his head held high.

“I really wanted to stay, but I knew there was an option that they were going to send me home,” he said Wednesday, moments after the Ottawa Senators opted to ship him back to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League for the remainder of the season. “I was prepared for that and prepared to stay. And this time, it was that I was going home. It’s sad, but on the other hand, it’s good for me. It’s a good option to improve my game.”

Zibanejad had registered only one assist in nine games, the magic mark when NHL teams must make a decision on their first-year players. If Zibanejad had stayed, the first year of his contract would be activated. By going home now, however, his contract slides, meaning that he’ll be still under the first year of his deal next season.

Clearly, the decision wasn’t an easy one to make. Immediately after practice Wednesday, Zibanejad was still unclear of his status. It was originally believed that general manager Bryan Murray wouldn’t be making a decision until later in the week, possibly having Zibanejad watch a game or two before announcing the team’s plans.

That course of action changed, however.

“It’s very difficult,” Murray said of he decision, pointing out that coach Paul MacLean played Zibenajad 14:36 in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes, including pivotal shifts in the final minutes of regulation and in overtime. “He’s a big, strong, good skating young man. The reason we’re probably sending him back is we want him to have the puck, we want him to score points, to be a legitimate top 6 NHL player.

“I think at 18 years of age, he was playing the last little bit to survive and not make mistakes, rather than be the creative kidn of kind of kid that we think he’ll turn out to be.”

MacLean suggested Zibanejad could have survived in Ottawa as a third or fourth line checker, but because the organization fashions him as a dynamic front-line player, it will be better in the long run for him to play as a front-line player in Sweden this season. It’s also believed Djurgardens will free up Zibanejad to represent Sweden at the world junior tournament.

Zibanejad acknowledges that he wasn’t as aggressive as he can be and said, “I felt maybe…that I didn’t want to make mistakes.”

As a mature 18-year-old, he already understands the big picture.

“I get a bigger role,” Zibanejad said of playing in his hometown in Sweden. “I feel comfortable with the game and comfortable with everything outside of the ice and just focus on improving my game and improving on the small details that I have to to make the team next year. That makes it so easy.”

Zibanejad also says it was impossible to put the will he stay or will he go distractions aside.

“It’s hard, especially when you have these nine games,” he said. “You say you’re not trying to think about it, but you always have that in the back of your mind. It’s hard, but I have this experience for next year. It’s going to help me.”

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