The 2019-20 NHL season should have been just a rebuild phase for the New York Rangers. Thanks to great hockey players like Mika Zibanejad, however, the team suddenly became a playoff contender.
The big turnaround came in early February. The Rangers won nine of their ten games and started to chase a playoff spot realistically. Zibanejad showed his best and became February’s second star in the NHL.
There are many things that make Zibanejad great. Let’s have a look at five of them now.
Zibanejad: Well-rounded Player
Zibanejad is a well-rounded player. He is a trusted man in the top six; he is also a key figure on special teams. On the Rangers, only Artemi Panarin is ahead of him in power-play time. He has clocked 3:39 on average per game, whereas Zibanejad’s number is 3:33. On the penalty kill, only Marc Staal has more penalty-killing time (2:47 on average) than Zibanejad (2:41).
Zibanejad is still a bit underrated league-wide, but he should be mentioned in the same breath as players like Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, who play a 200-foot game and can dominate at all strengths. Toews and Kopitar are both winners of multiple Stanley Cups. They have also won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.
The playmaking skills are obvious. As of Mar. 2, Zibanejad has scored 32 goals and 65 points. In points-per-game, he is 10th in the league with his mark of 1.25 and ahead of players like Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos. The Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl (1.57) and Connor McDavid (1.51) are in a league of their own.
But never forget his shot — he doesn’t shoot as often as Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon do, but he has quick release; the shot is hard and lethal. His shot percentage of 17.3 ranks very well among NHL centers, who have scored 30 goals or more this season: only Draisaitl (19.3) and Sebastian Aho (18.2) have done better.
He protects the puck as well as anybody in the NHL. Zibanejad uses his big frame and legs perfectly to drive off any opponent in a hunt for an easy takeaway. We’ve seen several breakaways — and goals — to which his puck protection has attributed greatly.
This NBC Sports video provides a fine example of his puck protection skills. See how he completely outplays Boston Bruins’ Charlie Coyle by putting his body between the puck and the opponent. And scores.
This season, Zibanejad has allowed just 35 giveaways while collecting 39 takeaways. The ratio is the best among Rangers centers.
Zibanejad has a compelling personality. His calming presence is much appreciated by the team — hence the “A” on his jersey — but when on ice, he unleashes the beast within. To some, he may seem overly calm, stoic even. But when the time comes, his smile can light up an entire hockey arena.
In today’s multicultural NHL, rich heritage is an asset. Zibanejad, a Swede, is the son of an Iranian father and a Finnish mother. In addition to English, he can talk to teammates Henrik Lundqvist and Jesper Fast in Swedish and to rookie Kaapo Kakko in Finnish. “My Finnish is quite good, although I have to search for words sometimes,” Zibanejad told me recently. “I think I have to learn some Finnish hockey talk. It’s nice to talk with Kaapo in Finnish between periods.”
He is extremely valuable for the team, but not irreplaceable. Zibanejad started the season magnificently, scoring 11 points in the first nine games before suffering an injury. He missed a bunch of games, but the Rangers did well. The Blueshirts won eight of their 13 contests without the star center.
Panarin, obviously, was great and notched seven goals and 21 points over the span. Those who stepped up during Zibanejad’s absence were Ryan Strome (14 points), Filip Chytil (seven goals), and Pavel Buchnevich (nine assists). Heck, even Kakko had a hot streak with eight points in as many games.
Rangers Must Respond to Chris Kreider’s Absence
Everyone in the Rangers camp now hopes that the team can respond to Chris Kreider’s absence the way it reacted to that of Zibanejad. The Rangers’ playoff hopes were boosted by Kreider’s contract extension on deadline day — only to be crushed by the same player’s injury three days later.
The initial reaction wasn’t great — the Rangers lost both games in the home-and-home against the Philadelphia Flyers. On Sunday, the Flyers beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and on national television, 5-3.
We dug ourselves a hole. They got two power-play goals early, and for us, that’s not the way to start a game, obviously. It’s hard to come back from a situation like that. We weren’t good enough in some areas, so we have to get back to playing the way we can.
Mika Zibanejad on March 1
With Kreider out, the Rangers need players like Zibanejad and Panarin to deliver fully. That may not be enough, however: a lot more is expected of secondary scorers, including the team’s young forwards. The excellent offensive input of Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox must continue. Although a key forward’s injury made the playoff race ever more challenging, there’s no reason to write off the Rangers. Time and again, the team has proven they’re a never-say-die bunch — a characteristic perfectly exemplified by Zibanejad.
Pasi Tuominen is a sportswriter based in New York City. He has covered the NHL in the USA since 2008. Originally from Finland, he is a graduate of the University of Westminster and University of Jyvaskyla. A professional writer since 1999 and the founder of East Side Media.