Mika Zibanejad leads talented group of Ottawa Senators prospects

By John Henkelman

Jakob Silfverberg - Ottawa Senators

Photo: Forward Jakob Silfverberg is one of several Ottawa Senators prospects who will be vying for NHL time in 2012-13. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

With a surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2011-12, the Ottawa Senators' rebuilding blueprint is starting to show signs of success. Competition for roster spots and ice time this coming season should be fierce as Jakob Silfverberg, Mark Borowiecki, and Jim O'Brien appear targeted to claim roster spots in Ottawa. Other prospects such as Mika Zibanejad and Robin Lehner should also push for full time spots in the NHL.

Besides their numerous prospects playing at the professional level, the Senators have a number of good players sprinkled among the CHL and the NCAA.

1. (1) Mike Zibanejad, C/RW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 6th overall, 2011

The Senators have high expectations for the physical and highly-skilled Zibanejad, who spent time last season both with the NHL club and Djurgården IF Stockholm of the SEL. The 19-year-old plays with a competitive spirit and sets the tone when he is on the ice with his blend of intensity and skill. His confidence was high coming out of training camp last season and the organization made the decision to move him to Djurgården after nine NHL games, with the idea it would better benefit him long-term.

This offseason he came to the Senators development camp stronger and impressed again with his complete game. After taking part in the Team Sweden's recent tournament in Lake Placid, Zibanejad will continue his training this summer in Ottawa under the guidance of the team. Last season offered many highlights for the young gun – specifically making the Senators squad out of camp and scoring the WJC winning goal for his country.

This coming season, look for him to focus on his consistency, leveraging his one-on-one advantages, and working on improving certain aspects of his game such his faceoff technique. He will likely spend time with Ottawa and Binghamton this season.

2. (3) Jakob Silfverberg, LW/RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, 2009

The Mr. Everything of the SEL this past season, Silfverberg got a jump start on his NHL career with a two-game cameo with the Senators in games six and seven versus the New York Rangers. The gifted winger is targeting a spot on one of the two scoring lines with the Senators this season and looking to build on the new confidence he has demonstrated in the offensive end. Long lauded for his mature play, great hockey sense, and dedication to the defensive elements of the game, his jump up in the rankings is due to his increased mental and physical readiness which led to creating and finishing more scoring chances. There will likely be an adjustment period and a need to embrace the more physical nature of the NHL, but all the makings are there for another young player to make his mark in Ottawa. It will be interesting to see the chemistry he develops in camp with either Jason Spezza or Kyle Turris.

3. (2) Robin Lehner, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2009

For a few years now Lehner has been anointed as the Senators goalie of the future and that remains unchanged although his development path has been fairly atypical. The 21-year-old native of Sweden has completed his second professional season and his drop of one slot in the rankings is more due to the greater advancement of Silfverberg than any knock on Lehner.

The 2011-12 season saw Lehner share the starting goaltender role in Binghamton and receive five starts in Ottawa. While his results in the AHL did not compare to his 2011 playoff MVP run, his challenging butterfly-style was effective for the most part and the fine tuning process of his game is advancing. Bringing in Ben Bishop at the trade deadline last season will serve as competition for the 6'4 224-pound Lehner and also allowed him to return to Binghamton to be the uncontested starter rather than playing 25 games or so to spell Craig Anderson.

At this point in his career the young goalie must temper his enthusiasm to get to the NHL with the realization that more game action will advance his mental focus, improve his technical elements, and consistency ultimately bringing him more success in the long run. A solid season with 50-60 starts should put him in a good position to make a case for the backup position in Ottawa in 2013-14.

4. (4) Stefan Noesen, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2011

After being sidetracked early in the 2011-12 season by a shoulder injury and using his omission from the USA WJC roster as extra motivation, Stefan Noesen came through with a 38 goal, 44 assist regular season which led his club, the Plymouth Whalers, in scoring. That was just a preamble to an outstanding playoff run where he put up 15 points in the seven games he suited up for, again leading his team both in spirit and in scoring.

The Senators need to add guys who play with an edge and Noesen, like fellow prospect Zibanejad, looks to make life physically difficult for the opposition on every shift. Already signed to an entry-level contract by the organization, Noesen will look to further refine his play in his last season of junior hockey. Expect the forward to make a serious push to play in this year's WJC tournament. 

5. (NR) Cody Ceci, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2012

Things could not have turned out much better this off-season than they have for 6'2 209-pound Ceci, who was absolutely thrilled to be drafted by his hometown team. The addition of the offensive-minded defensemen fills an organizational need created by the trade of David Rundblad to Phoenix last season. The right-handed shot has progressed in each of his three OHL campaigns with the Ottawa 67's and was named a Second Team All-Star following an impressive 17-goal, 60-point season in 2011-12. The biggest strength of his game is his outstanding ability to make plays out of his own zone either carrying the puck smoothly or making an excellent first-pass to start the rush. Ceci also has a great point shot and can effectively quarterback a power play from the blue line.

Recently signed to a contract by the Senators, Ceci will be looked upon by the 67's to be an offensive catalyst this season, especially with the graduation of a number of their top players. He impressed the Senators with his confident play in the developmental camp where he was teamed with Mark Borowiecki. In all likelihood he will develop one more season in junior hockey and target an invite to the WJC before embarking on what should be a lengthy professional career.

6. (5) Mark Stone, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2010

Promising power-forward Mark Stone will be targeting a scoring role in professional hockey this season after a stellar final junior campaign with the Brandon Wheat Kings, which saw him finish with 41 goals, 82 assists, and 123 points. Other accolades were a unanimous selection to the WHL East First All-Star Team, leading Team Canada with 10 points at the WJC tournament, and suiting up for the Senators against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The emerging winger has worked diligently to improve his skating which has led to a more-effective forecheck and offensive opportunities. His assets are his size and scoring ability, specifically around the net, which allowed him to stand out at the Senators development camp earlier this summer. Stone will need to add some muscle to his 6'3 205-pound frame and will likely need some seasoning in Binghamton this season before sliding into his likely role as a top nine forward with power-play potential in Ottawa.

7. (6) Mark Borowiecki, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2008

Borowiecki who hails from the Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa and home of Scotiabank Place continues to do everything asked of him by the team. On the ice he plays a smart game with the puck and positions himself well in all zones without it. His physicality keeps the opposition honest and his 127 penalty minutes are a tribute to his tough style of play. Selected to play in the AHL All-Star he will likely never be an offensive star but offers underrated puck skills and produced 22 points last season with Binghamton. What sets him apart from most of the other prospects in the Senators organization is his mental maturity, poise, and leadership abilities.

Borowiecki, as he has affectionately known, will strive to follow up a good development camp with another promising showing in the Senators main camp. The expectation is that he will be eased into the big club's lineup this season where his rugged play will offset the departed Matt Carkner.

8. (10) Andre Petersson, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2008

Petersson is a human highlight reel on the ice. The undersized Swede adapted nicely to the AHL last season, leading Binghamton in goals with 23, which earned him a well-deserved one-game cameo with Ottawa. His package of instant speed, creativity, and great hands make him a handful for opposition defenses to contain. The sentiment was he could not stay healthy but that seems to have been erased at least for the time being based on last season. Areas of his play that will need continued improvement to further his NHL aspirations are to make better use of his teammates when creating plays and a stronger grasp of the basic requirements of defensive responsibility. Size or lack thereof will be a concern so it is imperative he work on his strength, especially with the puck. This season should see him in a scoring role in Binghamton again where he will look to position himself for a call-up with Ottawa. 

9. (8) Patrick Wiercioch, D, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2008

After a major scare last season where he experienced a serious throat injury which not only threatened his career but potentially his life as well, third-year pro Wiercioch spent most of the remainder of the season getting back into his groove after missing two months of play. The rangy two-way defenseman has developed moderately well in Binghamton so far and will need to further progress his game in order to get to the next level. His mobility, instinct to join the rush, and great shot are big pluses, though his decision-making comes into question at times. Attention to defensive zone coverage and improved play without the puck are going to be keys for the 6'4 196-pound defenseman as well as added strength to increase his overall effectiveness. His point production has not been overwhelming to date but it could pay off for the organization to stay patient and target next season for his push for a role in Ottawa.

10. (9) Matt Puempel, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2011

Arguably the best natural goal scorer among Senators prospects, the past two seasons have provided a considerable degree of adversity for the Essex, Ontario native. Selected by the Senators as a potential steal late in the 2011 draft first round based on his injury-shortened draft-year season, Puempel found his first training camp a challenge as he struggled to keep up with the tempo of play and was easily separated from the puck. His 2011-12 OHL season was progressing as expected, with the winger playing a significant role with the Peterborough Petes, before a suspension and concussion curtailed his junior campaign.

After the OHL regular season concluded, Puempel joined the Binghamton Senators for the tail end of their season, suiting up for nine games and recording one goal. The initiation to the pro game gave him an understanding of what is required to succeed at the next level. A recent trade to the Kitchener Rangers should provide a new outlook for him to excel in what will likely be his final tour of junior hockey.

11. (11) Jim O'Brien, C, 6.5B
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2007

Signed to a two-year one-way contract by the Senators this off-season, the 6'2 190-pound center has come a long way since being the first player drafted by Ottawa under the leadership of Bryan Murray. By the end of the 2011-12 season he earned a regular role in Ottawa, dressing for 28 regular season games and all seven games versus the Rangers in the playoffs, playing on the checking or energy line. O'Brien will never be a big point producer in the NHL as evidenced by his six points in the quarter plus season but he does a lot of the little things well and offers some offensive ability generated by his skating and strength.

There will be heavy competition among forwards on the Ottawa roster this training camp, so a continued willingness to compete for pucks in traffic and any creativity he can demonstrate in the offensive end will further enable his roster position moving forward.

12. (12) Shane Prince, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2010

There was a buzz about Prince at the Senators' 2012 development camp, where he impressed with his skills and confidence after signing a contract with the Senators. Prince will never astound anyone with his 5'10 176-pound size, but he does bring a nice mix of impressive speed and puck skills, which allow him to create offense both off the rush and on the cycle. One of the leaders on the 67's, he hit the 90 point level including 43 goals during the regular season and produced another 16 points in the OHL playoffs. He sees the ice well and appears to have an uncanny ability to create chemistry with his linemates, so his development will be worthwhile watching. As with many young prospects, he will need to work on his mental toughness and strength playing against larger, more mature opposition.

Prince will have an opportunity to compete for a forward position in Binghamton however there is a possibility he will be returned to the 67's, as the competition will be tough for AHL spots.

13. (17) Mike Hoffman, C/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2009

Another highly-skilled player with an excellent shot and puck skills, the always-dangerous Hoffman will be entering his third professional season and will look to make it tough for the organization to send him back to the Baby Sens. He nearly doubled his point total and tripled his goal tally with a 21 goal, 49 point season and received a one-game NHL audition. At 5'11 175-pounds there are strength concerns but there's no overlooking his composure and ability to put the puck in the net. Hoffman can contribute very effectively on the power play, and although not blessed with blazing speed, is able to move the puck and make decisions quickly.

14. (7) Stephane Da Costa, C, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 30th, 2011

Da Costa is still a challenging prospect to project in terms of NHL potential. On one hand he offers excellent vision, nice hands, and offensive creativity. On the other his marginal speed combined with his size/strength gets exposed when playing against better competition. In fairness, he has produced points in Binghamton with 36 in 46 games last season and may have had too high expectations placed on him coming out of the NCAA.

In order for him to have success at the top level, Da Costa will need to become a more complete player and augment his impressive anticipation with added strength and improved skating speed. The Senators have recently signed Kyle Turris to a five-year contract extension all but assuring him the second line center spot for the foreseeable future. The shifty forward will look to dazzle centering a scoring line in Binghamton and have an uphill battle to win a spot with Ottawa moving forward.

15. (14) Derek Grant, C/LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2008

A complete forward-in-the-making, the 6'3 192-pound Grant had a challenging first full season of professional hockey. Considered a project at this point, Grant possesses good offensive instincts, size, and solid straight line. He will have to continue to impress when he gets his opportunities and rely on his good decision-making, high IQ, and solid two-way play. At this point he should be targeting a top nine forward slot in Binghamton and make contributions on special teams when called upon. Grant is extremely coachable and will look to establish a good rapport with incoming Binghamton Senators Head Coach, Luke Richardson.

16. (15) Eric Gryba, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2006

Gryba is coming off a season where he played major minutes and was named the Top Defenseman in Binghamton as chosen by the coaching staff. The likable blueliner adds grit and leadership to the lineup and provides physical defensive coverage. With the puck, he plays a low-risk game, although he increased his point production this past season to five goals and 15 assists. Looking into the future the tough 24-year-old will aim to position himself for an opportunity as a third-pairing or seventh defenseman with the big club.

17. (16) Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2011

The slight but quick and multi-talented Pageau brings even more skill to an already talented group of forward prospects. The potential is high for the 5'9 164-pound Ottawa native, who managed 32 goals and 33 assists in just 46 games in the QMJHL.

Possessing good anticipation and awareness, Pageau can play a solid defensive game and even contribute on the penalty kill. There have been many comparisons made of Pageau to other small yet impactful NHL players such as Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis, but he will have to carve out his own career in an organization teeming with talent up front.

18. (18) Fredrik Claesson, D, 6.5D
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2011

A teammate of fellow Senators prospect Zibanejad in Djurgården, Claesson will be competing for a position on the Binghamton backline this coming season, as he adapts his game to the smaller ice surface. A safe player with the puck, he makes nice outlet passes and has a good understanding of where to position himself on the ice. Claesson was able to increase his point contribution in Djurgården to seven points in his second season of SEL play but will mostly be relied on for his overall composed game. The Senators will look for him develop his puck-handling further this season in the AHL, as he integrates himself into the Baby Sens defensive corps. 

19. (19) Ben Blood, D, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 120th overall, 2007

The time has come for the 6'3 227-pound Blood to demonstrate his talent at the pro level. A pick from the 2007 draft class which has already produced O'Brien, the defensive stalwart has noticeably improved his puck handling during his time at North Dakota and combined with his good shot, brings a more refined offensive element to his play. On the defensive end, he uses his size to punish forwards, understands effective use of angles, and communicates well with his teammates. The Minnesota native also brings leadership intangibles to the organization and will likely be in the mix with Claessen and Chris Wideman for a spot on the third-defensive pairing in Binghamton this season.

20. (NR) Chris Driedger, G, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2012

A native of Winnipeg, Driedger has a calm demeanor and does a lot of things well for a netminder. He offers decent size at 6'2 190-pounds and has a quiet style that optimizes efficiency of movement paired with solid technique. A good puck-handler, he has another two seasons to develop further in the junior ranks before embarking on his pro career. Driedger is expected to carry the load for the Calgary Hitmen this season and will look to build on his success from last season, which was highlighted by his play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. As with most young goalies, patience is going to be required with Driedger's development.