The New York Rangers have a lot of uncertainty coming into the 2019-20 season. There is a very large sense of hope with this team, but that hope has risk hovering right above it.
Leading the way for the younger and unproven group, and potentially leading the team for the future, is Mika Zibanejad. The first-line center, as well as leading scorer from last season, is now joined by left winger Artemi Panarin. The duo can be devastating to opposing teams and won’t be like anything seen before.
Now, unless Chris Kreider re-signs for the foreseeable future, he, of course, would be the leading figure. Kreider is still suiting up for the Rangers for the duration of this season, but his future with the Blueshirts is seriously hanging in the balance.
With the very recent re-signing of Pavel Buchnevich, the buyout period is going to be a busy one for the Rangers. If there is any hope in freeing up the cap for next season and keeping Kreider with the Rangers, it will happen sooner, rather than later.
For now, it looks to be all eyes on Zibanejad. Can he continue to be a skillful all-around first-line center, and become a leader to this inexperienced team?
After the trade-deadline departures of Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello last season, the Rangers forwards veteran core was gutted. Now, aside from aforementioned Zibanejad and Kreider, Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome are now among the most experienced Rangers.
Zibanejad has seen an improvement in offensive production over the last three seasons. In his third year with the Blueshirts, he averaged .90 points per game, the highest of his career. Last seasons also saw career-highs in goals with 30 and assists with 44.
#NYR Mika Zibanejad named the @NHL‘s ⭐️⭐️ of the Week!— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 21, 2019
Last week Mika led the NHL in goals and game-winning goals (GWG in all three games), and ranked second in the NHL in points with 7. pic.twitter.com/waC10z4v0O
The offensive contribution isn’t the only thing that is improving, as his all-around game flourished last season. Zibanejad led Rangers forwards in blocked shots with 66 and was second to Kreider in hits with 134. Zibanejad was also one of 12 forwards in the NHL last season with 600 or more faceoff wins.
With a mixture of leadership qualities as well as consistency, Zibanejad makes sense as the future of the Rangers. He has been consistent on the ice and taken the first line minutes in stride, after only spending an average of 15:46 on the ice in Ottawa.
It All Starts at the Top
When the Rangers signed Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5-million contract, the first line was upgraded significantly. Opening night, as well as a good amount of the season, will feature Zibanejad and Panarin with most-likely Buchnevich or even newcomer Kaapo Kakko.
Establishing a steady and lethal first-line trio will be crucial for the overall success of this upcoming season. With the middle six forwards featuring untested talent, the production of the top line that plays the most minutes is the most important thing. Aforementioned Kakko will be joined by Vitali Kravtsov and some other youngsters like Brett Howden, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson.
Panarin, who has been a scoring machine with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks, is seemingly still getting better. His past two seasons in Columbus have been deemed as his best, with producing 82 and 87 points, respectively. Supplementing Panarin with such a skilled player like Zibanejad should be a boost for both of them.
The only negative thing hindering the Rangers at the moment is salary cap space. Rangerstown faithful will have to trust in general manager Jeff Gorton’s ability to use the buyout period to alleviate that hindrance.
Everything else is as good as it gets, in terms of players, coaches and overall positive energy surrounding the team. There is still an unknown factor in the young potential, but with the signings of veteran players like Panarin and Jacob Trouba, it should even itself out. Now, the Rangers need to find and hold onto leadership in the locker room and out on the ice.
If Kreider isn’t re-signed past this season, then the future resides in Zibanejad. His skill and impact on the ice, as well as leadership within a team with a bunch of young centers and forwards, is crucial. With ZIbanejad signed through the 2021-22 season, there is ample room for him to teach, as well as grow, with this young team.