Players like Mika Zibanejad are a rarity in the NHL. He’s a natural leader; a power forward built too strong to be knocked off the puck, yet with soft hands and a tremendous hockey IQ. The Swede is a dynamic, passionate player who isn’t afraid to be physical. He has blossomed into a star on the New York Rangers.
Zibanejad is in such a sweet spot in his hockey career, after eight NHL seasons, over 460 career games (468), split between two teams that each made playoff appearances with him on the roster. He’s a player in which a franchise can be confident but can still expect improvement, simply because of how he’s progressed each season.
There’s no other way to say it: The Rangers should plan their rebuild around Zibanejad. Amid all the chaos this season, he has managed to mark up the scoresheet and make a difference in what seems like every game. He’s someone the Rangers can bet their chips on.
Rangers’ Most Lethal Offensive Line Has Chemistry
It’s easy to talk numbers when it comes to Zibanejad’s credibility. In the last 15 matchups, the 25-year-old has posted 14 goals and nine assists. Overall, he has 58 points in 59 games. The last five games, he averaged almost 21 minutes of ice time along with 25 shifts a game.
The best part isn’t his stat line, but the two players he centers. The Rangers’ holy grail line is Chris Kreider, Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello. The trio combined for 55 points in the last 15 games, which speaks for itself.
You can’t put a price on a player who makes those around him better and the chemistry on the top line is one of the only things keeping the Rangers from plummeting to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.
If you’re general manager Jeff Gorton, do you cut off the top line’s right hand and threaten to throw off the only consistent point source? It may be a price they’ll have to pay for what Zuccarello is worth, but things might get ugly if he is dealt away in the next four days.
It could be something to think about, considering Zibanejad and Zuccarello’s numbers are among the top five on the roster. With No. 93 at the heart, the first line slots in as the 14th most productive line in the NHL.
Special Teams, Scoring a Part of Zibanejad’s Identity
Zibanejad’s presence is always noticeable. His 6-foot-2, 200-pound stature takes up a lot of space and, with the number of minutes he plays, he always seems to be part of the play. This helps him be more effective on the power play than the average NHL-er.
He leads the Rangers with nine power-play goals while setting up 11 this season. With 21 games left in the regular season, Zibanejad is just one away from tying his career-high point total on the man advantage (21).
Like any good center, the 2011 first-round pick (sixth overall) can create. What’s unique about Zibanejad is his ability to do it under pressure and in crucial moments. He’s put up nine goals and 13 assists in the third period this season, along with five game-winning goals (14th in the NHL).
Zibanejad plays a complete game more often than not. Along with his offensive production, he is third on the team in hits (101) and seventh in blocked shots (45). At even strength, head coach David Quinn has Zibanejad take 54.8 percent of his faceoffs from the defensive zone. If anybody needed a sign that the coaching staff has faith in him as well.
Zibanejad’s Logistical Future in New York
In 2017, Zibanejad signed a five-year, $26.75 million contract with an annual average salary of $5.35 million. This season, he will earn a base salary of $5.5 million, with a cap hit of $5.35 million. The Rangers locked him up until 2022, giving the organization plenty of time to assemble the right pieces around him to complete the rebuild sooner than later.
If the front office continues to keep their promises and makes a few more moves for young, developing talent, the roster down in the Hartford Wolf Pack will become a breeding ground for players who can slot in next to Zibanejad. For starters, Brett Howden would be the logical choice to try on the top line next season. He has spent some time practicing along side Kreider and Zuccarello, which could earn him the jump if Quinn sees fit.
Anxiously waiting in Hartford is also Lias Andersson, Timothy Gettinger and Vinni Lietieri. Although Gettinger is the only natural winger of the three, the other two could make the adjustment to fill the anticipated hole Zuccarello will leave if traded. There are just three impactful wingers on the Wolf Pack right now, but Gorton could be fishing elsewhere during this trade period.
Zibanejad is the highest paid forward on the Rangers, while Henrik Lundqvist eats up the other major chunk of the team’s checks. Lundqvist is set to hit free agency the season before Zibanejad, which will be a major factor in where the team goes from there. Parting with a franchise goaltender, especially one like Hank, who has given all of himself to New York City, is never easy. But as much as no one wants to talk about it, he’ll be close to 40 years old.
Whether or not Lundqvist is traded away, re-signed or — do I dare say? — retires, it will have a direct impact on Zibanejad’s future. Assuming Zibanejad only goes up from here, he’ll be looking to get paid by the time he’s up for free agency. And we’ve seen him hold out until arbitration was dangerously close without batting an eye.
With such a consistent player booked for the next three seasons, the Rangers have their middle man to work off of. Zibanejad has proven he is a dependable asset to lean on during the trials and errors of the Rangers rebuild.
A senior sports journalism major at the University of Massachusetts with bylines in the New York Post, Stan Fischler’s newsletter The Fischler Report and the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, MA.