Zibanejad Is the Star Rangers Desperately Need

The New York Rangers have been searching for an elite forward for quite some time. There were periods during which it looked like Marian Gaborik or Rick Nash could be that player but neither of them lived up to expectations. Some feel that Jaromir Jagr was the last truly elite player to play for the Rangers.

But a new player has thrown his name into the discussion. Mika Zibanejad has put up career numbers this season and is proving that he has the potential to be a star forward. Despite having both Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes, the Rangers are regarded as a team with two second-line centers. However, Zibanejad has begun to solidify himself as a first-line center and even Hayes, who is likely to be traded, has made a case to be the team’s top center.

Both players are having the best seasons of their careers, but Zibanejad is the one who stands out. He has been one of the few players on the Rangers who’s put up points at a fairly consistent pace all season, with few scoreless stretches.

Zibanejad Breaking Personal Records

Zibanejad has notched 53 points in 53 games this season, surpassing his previous career high of 51 points in 81 games during the 2015-16 season with the Ottawa Senators. He is on-pace to score 82 points, placing him in the upper echelon of NHL players. He also has eclipsed his previous career high in assists, dishing out 31 of them.

What’s most promising about his statistics is that they are balanced. It is excellent to be an efficient point producer, but it is more impressive when a player has the ability to both score goals and set them up at a fairly even rate.

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad next to Ottawa Senators defenseman Dylan DeMelo. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Zibanejad has been on a tear the past few weeks. He has scored 19 points in the past 12 games, dating back to Jan 8. This includes a remarkable nine points in his last four games and 11 in the last six. Zibanejad set a Rangers record several nights ago against the Los Angeles Kings when he became the first player in team history to record a point on 10 consecutive goals scored. The streak ended Wednesday night against the Boston Bruins despite scoring the Rangers’ first goal of the game.

Zibanejad is also on-pace to break his previous career high in shots on goal. He’s on track for 242 this season, which would pass last season’s total of 212. On the same note, he also has a higher shooting percentage this season than in any season prior at 14 percent.

Improved Defense and Special Teams Play

The Rangers’ power play, which ranks 13th in the league, has benefited from Zibanejad’s services. He is two points shy of setting a career high in power play points. He notched 21 points on the man advantage in 72 games last season. This season he has 19 in 20 fewer games.

On the defensive side, he is four takeaways shy of a career best. He had 49 takeaways in 72 games last season but already has 45 in 2018-19. He also is on-pace to block 68 shots, four more than his previous record of 64. Finally, he’s on-pace to record 128 hits, which would be his highest hits total as a Ranger and second highest of his career.

Is Zibanejad Elite?

From all this, it seems as though Zibanejad may be turning into that elite talent that has eluded the Rangers for so long. That’s not to say that signing a top free agent this summer wouldn’t help, but Zibanejad has provided the Rangers with a new level of play that was previously dormant.

This should give the Rangers a little more confidence as they continue to rebuild. While receiving a lottery pick and potentially selecting Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko is intriguing, perhaps it isn’t as necessary if Zibanejad is to maintain this rate of production. Furthermore, he has been able to put up these impressive numbers with a weaker team around him than in prior seasons.

The Rangers are regarded as a team that may take a run at unrestricted free agent Artemi Panarin this summer, which seems like a worthwhile effort to complement Zibanejad’s improved play. Combining these two players with rookie Filip Chytil would create an impressive line of raw speed and finesse.

Zibanejad’s improvements have allowed him to receive more time-on-ice as well. He has hovered around the 17-18 minutes per game mark for much of his career but is averaging over 20 minutes per game this season.

Regardless of the reason behind Zibanejad’s stellar season, he is now a formidable presence in the Rangers lineup. If he continues this level of play, then the Rangers may be able to expedite their rebuild.