Mika Zibanejad turns 20 next Thursday, but the way Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean sees it, the rookie centre turned into an adult in the past eight months.

MacLean bluntly says that Zibanejad was out of shape and had poor focus when he began the 2012-13 season with Binghamton in the American Hockey League.

“His conditioning wasn’t very good, his attitude wasn’t very good and the way he played wasn’t very good,” MacLean said.

Yet after a tough three months in Binghamton, including a series of health issues (whiplash, impacted wisdom teeth) and a healthy dose of tough love from Binghamton coach Luke Richardson, Zibanejad discovered what a professional hockey player’s commitment to the game is all about.

“He has grown not only as a hockey player, but as a young man,” said MacLean. “When guys are 19-20 years old, those are the kinds of changes you expect. I expected that from my sons when they were that age. You have to grow up and stop being kids and you’ve got to be a man. Sometimes, that’s hard to get past that curve and for some of us, we never do.”

All that has translated into a more confident, more productive player, in line with what the Senators expected when they selected him sixth overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft. While Zibanejad was held without a point in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Tampa, he had picked up at least one point in seven of his previous eight games. The line of Cory Conacher, Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg was Ottawa’s best against the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. For the season, he has six goals and 13 assists in 33 games, sixth in the league in points per game among rookies.

“The patience we showed is starting to show great dividends,” said MacLean.