The biggest surprise in Ottawa, and perhaps the league itself, to come out of the roster shuffling was the demotion of 3rd year centre Mika Zibanejad to the Binghamton Senators of the AHL.
The public reasoning for the demotion was that, according to GM Bryan Murray, that the centre sat there and watched two players come in and take his spot, referring to Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Stephane Da Costa.
While the decision was no doubt a tough one, for both the team to make and the player to accept, there are pros and cons to the move.
Zibanejad is still a 20 year old kid, who is developing his game offensively. A healthy lineup, combined with the Senators stubbornness to keep him at centre, would have seen Zibanejad get third line minutes at best, playing with non-offensive players. Going to Binghamton makes him pretty much the #1 pivot, and he will get the chance to play with more offensively oriented talents like Mark Stone, Andre Petersson and Shane Prince. He can continue to develop his game while getting the ice time needed as well as the special teams reps that will help his game in the long run.
Zibanejad came up last year when the Senators needed him and he performed well as a 19 year old thrust into a major role. That was after the Senators denied the player’s participation in the World Juniors and he also battled injuries. The way the Senators are handling him could be sending a message to the player, and I hope they are right and the player will get the message and take it the right way, lest he be disgruntled and sulk. I guess if he was to go in that direction with the roadblock put in front of him, the Senators would be better off finding that trait out now.
From what I saw, the competition between Da Costa, Pageau and Zibanejad was very close, and although it has been suggested elsewhere that finances might have played a role in the decision, I don’t necessarily buy that. The fact is, with performance bonuses, Zibanejad could earn as much as the other two combined this season. Whether or not he would hit those marks in his role we might never know, but when the Senators are already paying Jim O’Brien and NHL salary to play in the minors, the $750,000 (before bonuses) or so they will save could play a small role.
This sort of reminds me of a couple of situations from the Senators’ past. First off, the handling of Jason Spezza, but in the opposite way. Spezza came in as a one-dimensional offensive player who didn’t mesh well with Jacques Martin’s system when he first arrived. That relationship never really thawed and Spezza didn’t reach his potential until Martin was gone. I am not saying Paul MacLean and Zibanejad have a frosty relationship, but he doesn’t seem to have earned the trust of the coach fully as of yet. And while Spezza’s offensive game was intact almost from birth, Zibanejad needs to develop in that area. When he first came up, Spezza needed to be introduced to his goalie after the game. Zibanejad also has some things to learn in his own zone, but is solid in that area. Different situations, but handled in much the same way. Spezza didn’t like it at the time, nor did I, but it seems to have worked out ok for him in the long run.
The other situation this sort of reminds me of is the Ray Emery situation. Emery became known more for his off-ice pursuits than his on-ice performance before he was ushered out. I know players need to have a life outside the rink, but maybe Zibanejad’s much publicized DJ efforts haven’t sent the image that he is making hockey his #1 priority. Perhaps the Senators privately want to send the message to Zibanejad that hockey comes first, and once that is established, then your extra-curriculars can take shape. On TSN1200 yesterday Murray indicated that both Pageau and Da Costa did what was asked of them in the off-season, and while not pointing the finger at Zibanejad directly for not doing it, stated that Zibanejad didn’t step up and watched 2 players take his job. Emery went off the rails, and I think the Senators are sensitive to the situation and want to nip this one in the bud.
In the long run, its probably a good decision for both the player and the organization. If it puts a chip in the Swede’s shoulder and it works out for the best, he will return soon a better player with something to prove. The Senators send a message that if you put the work in, you will be rewarded, and when there isn’t much to choose between players, those that put the work in will get their just desserts.
Zibanejad will be back in the NHL this season, without a doubt. What he does while he is in Binghmaton, his attitude and the health of the big club will determine how long that demotion lasts.