NY Rangers Trio Led Charge in First Half

NHL All-Star weekend has come and gone, and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was the sole representative of the team, his fifth time being named an All-Star. He and Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby represented the Metropolitan Division.

Lundqvist won the save streak competition at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 25, topping Holtby, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. He and the Metropolitan Division then won the All-Star mini-tournament the next night. While it doesn’t do anything for the record books, his performance showed that the 37-year-old can still hang with the best and why he represented New York in the All-Star festivities. He even rocked a great suit game.

But while there were times in the past when Lundqvist was head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates, this season presented a different story. There are a few other choices for the Rangers’ best player thus far in 2018-19 and could have been dark horse candidates to represent the Blueshirts this past weekend. Three forwards in particular stand out: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad.

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, all of them making it onto the Metropolitan Division All-Star team wasn’t possible. All teams must have at least one representative, and the fans only select each division’s captain and the new list of “Last-Man In” candidates. Add that they are competing in a division that features forwards Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, and it’s not an easy journey to gain an All-Star spot.

Maybe they’re not official NHL All-Stars, but Zibanejad, Kreider and Hayes all deserve recognition for the production they’ve put in during the first half of the season.

Zibanejad Leads the Offense

Zibanejad may not have the tenure with the Rangers that the likes of Lundqvist, Kreider or Mats Zuccarello have, but he’s got the talent. If one were to select a face of the team other than its longtime goalie, Zibanejad seems to be the perfect choice. He currently leads the team in points with 44, including 27 assists, which he also leads the Rangers in. His 44 points rank 13th among Metropolitan Division skaters.

Mika Zibanejad Rangers
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers, Mar. 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Rangers took a bit of a chance when they acquired him prior to the 2016-17 season, trading away a talented center in Derick Brassard in the process. He performed well in his Blueshirts debut season despite missing two months with a fibula injury, and the Rangers committed to him with a five-year, $26.75 million deal. Zibanejad followed that up with a 47-point performance the next season, and now he’s on-track for statistical career-best marks.

The Rangers’ offense isn’t as bad as it was earlier this season, but it’s still quite weak. First-year head coach David Quinn has made constant changes to the lines over the course of this season, but Zibanejad is consistently playing at the top. To see someone like him succeed the way he has is quite a sight. If Lundqvist represents the past on this team, Zibanejad represents the present.

Kreider’s Coming-Of-Age Season

Just as this season represents a time of changes for the Rangers, it also represents one for Kreider. Kreider was once a young chipper, playing with and looking up to guys like Brassard, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards. But those days are gone, and Kreider is now a veteran presence. More than that, Kreider is a scorer, a leader and the kind of player Quinn desires.

Kreider leads the team with 22 goals, and he’s second in points with 37. He’s been about speed since coming up to the NHL during the 2011-12 postseason. He always seems to be looking for an opportunity — consistently shooting, chasing after the puck and playing a physical game. And that all fits the criteria of a player Quinn is looking for.

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, back in August, Kreider discussed embracing the new fast-paced, physical style Quinn brought over and preaches. It helps that a man Quinn brought over, current assistant coach Greg Brown, was a coach at Boston College during Kreider’s three seasons with the Eagles — two of which ended with NCAA titles.

As seasons have come and gone, Kreider has stepped up and evolved as an athlete. He’s a true leader younger Rangers can look up to, and combine that with what he’s brought to the table, he’s another candidate for the team’s best player thus far.

Hayes’ Surprising Surge

Coincidentally, there was another current Ranger on those Eagles teams Kreider played on and Brown coached. That man, Hayes, also has found success under the new Rangers system.

Things originally didn’t seem like Hayes would even be in New York, however. As a restricted free agent last offseason, he was chasing a bigger contract, but ultimately settled for a one-year deal. With Zibanejad leading the centers, and plenty of young talent at the position, things looked like while Hayes ultimately re-signed, he wouldn’t be around for long.

Kevin Hayes - Rangers
Kevin Hayes, New York Rangers, September 27, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But this season was looking like one of Hayes’ most successful until he went down with injury. Hopefully, he can return to the same form once he comes back. He has 33 points on the season, good for third on the team. In fact, Jimmy Vesey, who’s fourth in points, trails Hayes by nine. Hayes is also second on the team in assists with 23 and fourth in goals with 10.

Hayes has been a consistent player throughout his tenure, with physical play and strong power-play performance. Yet, it seems the best is still to come and the 26-year-old can offer more. Some feel it’s essential to trade him now for the rebuild, while others feel his play gives a reason to stay. Whatever should happen, what can’t be denied is that Hayes was a key contributor during the first part of the season.

It’s unfortunate there are limited spots on All-Star rosters each season, but all this Rangers trio missed was an exhibition. What they have done for the team thus far is a lot more important. Some may consider their performances to be damaging to the rebuild, but it might be more appropriate to say they’re keeping things interesting, and each wants to prove why he should stick around.