Free Z-Bad. Sounds like a pretty good T-shirt, eh? After finding out the Ottawa Senators would not be releasing 2012 world juniors hero Mika Zibanejad for an encore performance in Russia, Swedish national coach Roger Ronnberg may have wanted to buy that gear in bulk.
The Sens’ logic goes like this: Zibanejad, playing his first year of pro hockey in North America, is still finding his way with the American League’s Binghamton Senators and would benefit from more repetition against men than he would playing in a tournament versus teens, particularly since he would be missing time by going to Sweden’s camp even before the sked started.
Zibanejad, who rocketed up the draft charts in 2011, scored the golden goal for Sweden at last year’s world juniors, flipping one past Russia’s Andrey Makarov in overtime to earn the Tre Kroner its first gold medal in 31 years. But with Bingo this season, he’s been a depth player. The rookie has one goal and seven points through 16 games and if you really want to nitpick, his last two points came in a 6-1 blowout of Bridgeport once the game was already out of hand. He’s a minus-3 on a team overwhelmingly populated by plusses.
Which is fine, because ‘Z-Bad’ is young and his upside is tantalizing. Plus, thanks to the NHL lockout, the B-Sens have a little more talent than usual. Before the hiatus, Ottawa was expected to graduate Jakob Silfverberg and possibly Mark Stone up to the big club full-time; now they’re on the farm making noise and competing for special teams and ice time with Zibanejad. In fact, this seems like the perfect time for him to rejuvenate his season by heading out for a different experience; to be leaned on by his country, to be The Man for the defending champs, who will already face adversity because their top two defensemen (Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin) will miss the world juniors due to injury.
The Edmonton Oilers saw the value in the tourney, which is why they allowed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to leave the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons in order to take part in Canada’s camp in Calgary (and barring a miracle return of NHL hockey, the WJC itself). And keep in mind, ‘The Nuge’ was having great success in OKC, with 20 points in 19 games.
Looking to the past, the world juniors has been a great reprieve for players on the cusp of NHL regularity. Last season, Anaheim sent Devante Smith-Pelly and Tampa excused Brett Connolly for Canadian duty as both were with their NHL teams, but not in key roles. Smith-Pelly, unfortunately, broke his foot on a shot-block in the first game against Finland, but Connolly got the chance to play a major role on the team, something he couldn’t achieve on the veteran-laden Lightning forward corps (though he did get the chance to play with some of those stars).
Before that, you had Brayden Schenn (2011) and Alex Pietrangelo (2010), both of whom played huge for Canada during years where their NHL teams didn’t quite want to play them full-time, but didn’t yet want to send them back to junior. Pietrangelo played nine games for the St. Louis Blues in 2009-10; two seasons later he was an NHL all-star.
The fact is, the world juniors provide a playoff atmosphere and tough, meaningful games. Confidence can be so huge for a young player and Zibanejad could have earned some of his back by carrying the Swedes, even if it was just for two weeks.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.