Young talent quickly coming of age for Ottawa Senators

By Jason Chen

Jarrod Maidens - Owen Sound

Photo: Forward Jarrod Maidens has to yet to return to action after suffering a concussion in November 2011. (CHL Images)

If the Ottawa Senators' appearance in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs was surprising, it was only because no one expected the organization's young talent to develop so quickly. With Erik Karlsson leading the way, the Senators have another triumvirate of future Swedish stars in forwards Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg and goaltender Robin Lehner in the pipeline.

Pro

Top Prospect
Mika Zibanejad, LW, Binghamton Senators (AHL)
Jakob Silfverberg, RW, Binghamton Senators (AHL)

Despite being drafted in different years and playing different styles, Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg will be hearing their names together for the foreseeable future. The two offensive stars are products of the Swedish Elite League, and entering their first full season in North America, are expected to challenge for spots on Binghamton's top line.

It was a difficult year for Zibanejad after being sent back to Djurgarden following a nine-game stint with Ottawa. The 6'3 power forward appeared in just 26 of 55 games and scored just five goals despite possessing one of the league's best releases. Djurgarden finished second-last and was relegated to HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden's second tier pro league. Rather than stay in Sweden playing against lesser competition, Zibanejad is hoping to re-establish himself as a scoring threat. Although used as a center in Sweden, Zibanejad is moving to the left wing, given Ottawa's depth at center.

If Zibanejad's season represented a career low, Silfverberg's was the opposite. Not only did Silfverberg score 24 goals, he also had the league's highest point-per-game average. Silfverberg would then lead fourth-seed Brynas to the league title while claiming MVP honors. The Senators got to see Silfverberg for two playoff games last year, and while it was apparent the 21-year-old is an immensely talented scorer, it was also clear that physical play and smaller rinks would pose a challenge. Once Silfverberg grows more comfortable with the North American game, he is expected to line up on Jason Spezza's right flank.

Bounce Back
Patrick Wiercioch, D, Binghamton Senators (AHL)

The organization has been waiting for Patrick Wiercioch to break out, and entering the final year of his entry-level contract, this could be the year. Wiercioch improved his points total in his second year but also struggled with coverage in his own zone and inconsistent play. Over the summer, the former Denver Pioneer standout packed on more muscle to his 6'4 frame, but it is his offensive game that will make or break his NHL career. Binghamton will feature a slew of rookies this year and Wiercioch needs to make sure he does not get buried in the depth chart.

NHL-bound
Mark Stone, RW, Binghamton Senators (AHL)

When Mark Stone entered the 2010 draft, he was coming off a thumb injury and scored just 28 points in 39 games. There were also major concerns regarding his power skating. As a result, his stock fell and the Senators took a chance on him in the sixth round. Since then, Stone has become one of the WHL's top scorers. Stone is now being talked about as the steal of the 2010 draft and a potential candidate for the coveted right wing spot next to Jason Spezza.

Junior

Top Prospect
Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa 67's (OHL)

Prior to the 2012 NHL Draft, GM Bryan Murray made a conscientious effort to move up from the 15th spot to nab the hometown kid. No trades materialized, but Cody Ceci still ended up falling into Ottawa's lap and the Sens are ecstatic to add yet another swift skating puck-mover in the Erik Karlsson mold to their blue line. Although no official time on ice statistics are kept by the OHL, many scouts say that Ceci plays close to 30 minutes a night. While the ice time is warranted, there are questions about how much abuse Ceci's body can take. Ceci was named team captain prior to the season and the 67's are expected to challenge for the OHL title.

Bounce Back
Matt Puempel, LW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

Matt Puempel had an up-and-down year with Peterborough. He did not have trouble putting pucks in the net, but he did have a tough time staying in the lineup, suffering from injuries throughout the season and being suspended for eight games in December. In June, the Petes granted Puempel's trade request and sent him to Kitchener where he will get a chance to play with Radek Faksa (DAL), giving Puempel a chance to really show what kind of numbers he can put up.

Offensive Breakout
Jarrod Maidens, C, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

Projected to be a two-way center, Jarrod Maidens looked like he was in the midst of a breakout season last year with 23 points in 28 games before being sidelined by a concussion suffered in November. Maidens was expecting to be ready for training camp, but five games in to Owen Sound's season and he has yet to receive medical clearance to play. When he does return, the hope is Maidens can continue where he left off.

Amateur

Top Prospect
Robbie Baillargeon, C, Indiana Ice (USHL)

The USHL is quickly developing a reputation for producing under the radar gems like Robbie Baillargeon. A star from Massachusetts' Cushing Academy, there was concern that the skinny playmaker would have trouble adjusting to the USHL's more physical style of play. Those worries were wiped away when Baillargeon was named to the inaugural USHL Top Prospects Game and sparked a comeback 5-3 win by the East with two goals. Baillargeon is expected to lead the Indiana offense this year before suiting up for Boston University next year.

Freshman to Watch
Tim Boyle, D, Union College Dutchmen (ECAC)

Asides from playing a different position, Tim Boyle does not play anything like older brother Brian Boyle, a center for the New York Rangers. Boyle is a skilled defenseman with good skating ability but considered a long-term project. At 6'2 and 175 pounds, he needs to pack on more muscle. Though he is only a freshman, Boyle is expected to play a big role down the road, possibly on a pair with Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI), the only other drafted player on the Dutchmen roster.

Unsigned for 2013-14
Michael Sdao, D, Princeton Tigers (ECAC)

At 6'4 and 230 pounds, Michael Sdao is a shutdown defenseman with a nasty mean streak. He projects to be an enforcer at the NHL level with ability to play on the wing, much like former Senator Matt Carkner. The Tigers are not a deep team and as an alternate captain last year Sdao was forced to play in unfamiliar situations, and not only did he look comfortable, he flourished. Sdao finished the season with 10 goals, tied for fourth among all NCAA defenseman, and 87 penalty minutes, fifth among all NCAA players. If Sdao continues to improve, there is no reason for the Senators to not offer him a pro contract.

Europe
Top Prospect
Mikael Wikstrand, D, Mora IK (Allsvenskan)

A seventh round pick, Wikstrand is one of five teenagers on Mora's roster, but he is undoubtedly the most talented. A prototypical Swedish defenseman who possesses good skating ability and solid on-ice vision, the most intriguing part of Wikstrand's game is his offense. He has a good point shot and can quarterback powerplays, but like most young players he needs to work on his defensive coverage and on-ice awareness. At this point, Wikstrand is considered a project and at least a couple years away from the pros.