The kid came back

Mika Zibanejad returns to Djurgården with higher expectations

29.11.2011
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Kunteisstadion im Sahnpark Crimmitschau Saxony Germany

Sweden's Mika Zibanejad bats at the rebound in front of Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski at the recent U18 World Championship. Photo: JC Pinheiro / HHOF-IIHF Images

STOCKHOLM – Sometimes things don’t really feel real until you seem them with your own eyes. And even then, you may need more proof. For Mika Zibanejad, Djurgården Stockholm’s 18-year-old forward who started the season with the Ottawa Senators in the NHL, the realization that he was truly in the NHL came after his first NHL regular season game against the Detroit Red Wings, when he saw a photo of himself – and Pavel Datsyuk.

“That’s when I really got it, that I was in the NHL, that I was playing against Pavel Datsyuk, a player that I have looked up to in Sweden,” Zibanejad told IIHF.com.

“Everything felt a little unreal, but that photo is proof that it did happen,” he added, smiling.

Almost exactly a year ago, on December 4, 2010, Djurgården had a new kid in the fourth line in its game against Timrå in the Swedish Elitserien. He didn’t play much, but in the next game, he got to fill in for Marcus Nilson in the first line. That was the team’s 27th game of the regular season, and Djurgården was sixth in the standings.

This year, Mika Zibanejad played his first Elitserien game on November 1, in Djurgården’s 17th regular season game against Frölunda Gothenburg. This time, though, he was no anonymous junior player, playing with a full face mask, and a number – 33 – that the trainers had chosen for him.

Just seven months and 13 days after Zibanejad’s last game with Djurgården – a loss in Game 7 of the quarter-final against Luleå – the Stockholm native was back at home, but now a highly anticipated addition to the team. The cage is gone, and his new number is 93, after his birth year, and the same he wore with the Ottawa Senators.

Between the two games, he had also played in the U18 World Championship, scoring eight points in six games, en route to the final against Team USA, which the Americans won. And in June, Zibanejad was in Minnesota to hear the Senators choose him in the first round, sixth overall – and as the third Swede – in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. And then he went on to grab an early-season roster spot and played nine games in the NHL before the Senators, to his disappointment, sent him back to Stockholm.

“It was too bad that I couldn’t stay up there, but last March, all I wanted was to play in the NHL, and I’ve done that now,” Zibanejad says.

“Having said that, it’ll be good for me to play another season in Sweden. It’s nice to be at home and practise and work on my game to, simply, get better. Now I know that I’ll be here all season so I can focus on Djurgården,” he adds.

His nine NHL games may be the ninth most in Djurgården, but at 18, Mika Zibanejad is still also a kid on the team. That’s why he’s the last one to leave the ice after practice. Sure, he likes to work on that shot, and yes, he does some amazing tricks with his stick, but mostly he’s the last one to leave the ice because he has to hang around to pick up the pucks and move the nets for the Zamboni.

“Last year I came out of nowhere, so it’s a little different now. I can build on all the experiences from last season, but at the same time, there’s only one player who’s younger than me, so collecting the pucks and all that falls onto my plate,” he says matter-of-factly.

The fans probably expected him to collect points as well – as did Zibanejad – but a few good weeks and months haven’t made him a completely different player, even if he is bigger and stronger than last year, and his skating looks very powerful.

Last season, the 18-year-old scored 5+4=9 points in 26 games. In his first eight games, Zibanejad has averaged almost 16 minutes of ice time, and has two goals and one assist, and in the last five games, he’s tied for eighth on the team that has scored 16 goals in those five games.

“I’d like to contribute a little more, considering that the coaches seem to believe in me and give me both penalty kill and power play minutes, but I’m also still a junior player, and everybody on a team is responsible for the team’s success,” he says.

In about a month, Zibanejad will most likely be back in Canada, getting ready for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Alberta.

“It’d be great to get the opportunity to represent my country, and play against the world’s best players in my age group,” says Zibanejad, the son of a Finnish mother and an Iranian father, whose heart is now beating to the sound of Sweden’s national anthem.

“But for now, I try to focus on today, my next practice, and the next game,” he adds.

The last seven months have been quite a journey for Zibanejad. Who knows where he’ll be in another seven months.

Notebook:
  • Växjö Lakers defenceman Ilkka Heikkinen leads the league in goal scoring. The 27-year-old Finn has 13 goals in 23 games. Three of his goals have been game winners and eight are power play goals. He’s also added four assists for 17 points, 12th in the league.
  • Växjö’s Mike Iggulden has the lead in the scoring race, with 11 goals and 26 points in 24 games. Iggulden hasn’t scored a goal since October 27, and has just had one in his last 12 games.
  • Frölunda’s Frederik Andersen leads all goaltenders in save percentage with his 94.26. His GAA, 1.58 in 17 games, is also the lowest in the league. HV71’s Daniel Larsson leads the league in wins, with 13 (out of HV71’s 16). Djurgården’s Gustaf Wesslau is second, having played 23 of his team’s 24 games, and recorded all 12 wins.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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