Rangers’ Zibanejad Being Overlooked Despite Career Season

Chris Kreider authored yet another unforgettable moment during his career season of 2021-22 on Tuesday night, reaching the 50-goal mark in a campaign hardly anyone thought possible for the longtime New York Ranger.

Teammate Artemi Panarin didn’t record a point for only the second time in 11 games, noteworthy given that the left wing is enjoying another stellar effort in his third season in a Blueshirt, reaching a career high in assists and having an outside chance to match his career-best 95-point output achieved during the 2019-20 season. He then drew closer to that mark by scoring a goal in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

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Mika Zibanejad managed an assist in the 4-2 home loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday – though even a goal for the Rangers center might have gone somewhat unnoticed. Such has been the dampening effect on the attention paid to Zibanejad in 2021-22 thanks to the brilliance of Kreider and Panarin.

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Yet Zibanejad, like Kreider and possibly Panarin after the Blueshirts’ final seven regular-season games are done, is also in the midst of the best season of his career – whether his name has been on the figurative marquee with them or not. With 75 points, he’s matched his previous high, achieved in just 57 games during the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 campaign. While this season hasn’t been as spectacular as that one, a closer look reveals that Zibanejad’s 2021-22 performance is even more encouraging.

Two years ago at this time, it was Zibanejad holding the NHL’s attention hostage, as he was in the midst of piling up 24 goals and 16 assists over his final 25 games before the pandemic-induced shutdown. He was the most dominant offensive force in the league during that stretch, punctuating the run with a five-goal performance that included the game-winner in a 6-5 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals on March 5, 2020. Zibanejad concluded that truncated season with a career-high 41 goals along with 34 assists.

Zibanejad’s Resurgence has Provided a Front-Office Exhale

Unlike Kreider’s completely unexpected ascendance to 50-goal scorer and the routine superstar-level play now largely expected from Panarin, however, this “quietly” outstanding season from Zibanejad has to be met with a sigh of relief from the front office.

Zibanejad’s worrisome 2020-21 now feels like a distant memory, the season in which he lacked his trademark jump and dynamism having been officially stamped as an anomaly. Though he finished with 50 points while playing all 56 games of that abbreviated campaign, he wasn’t himself, obviously less energetic and doing most of his damage against lesser opponents.

Chris Kreider New York Rangers
Chris Kreider celebrates one of his 50 goals this season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s easy to forget now just how severe Zibanejad’s decline appeared to be. Remember former coach David Quinn benching him for a large stretch of the second period in a 6-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on March 4 of that season? At that point, 21 games into a campaign that didn’t begin until mid-January, Zibanejad had two goals and five assists.

The 11th-year player finally admitted in May 2021 that his contracting of COVID just before the opening of training camp that season played a role in his downturn. Fortunately for his employer, Zibanejad has again looked more like the bonafide No. 1 center stolen from the Ottawa Senators six years ago than ever before – and his 21 goals over the final 29 games of 2020-21 probably should have served notice of what was to come the following season.

As great as Zibanejad was in 2019-20, he’s doing even more now. That season, he was a plus-9 with a 52.0 Corsi for percentage and 49.2 faceoff win percentage; in 2021-22, he’s at plus-30, 53.1 and a career-best 52.3, respectively. His 48 assists are also a career high.

Related: Rangers’ Zibanejad Extension Makes Perfect Sense

Whether general manager Chris Drury was looking to take advantage of Zibanejad’s “down” season, or was putting his faith in the player to rebound, or a little bit of both, his decision to ink the soon-to-be 29-year-old to an eight-year, $68 million extension days before the start of this season looks like a stroke of genius. The average annual value of $8.5 million is hardly a bargain, but it projects pretty well now after the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft spent the last six-plus months re-affirming himself as one of the NHL’s top players.

“Total effort every night. Defensively, offensively,” coach Gerard Gallant said last month. “Talk about candidates for awards, there is another one, he’s been outstanding. Two-way player, works hard, competes, creates chances every night for us, plays great defensive hockey. He’s been awesome.”

The fact that Gallant highlighted Zibanejad’s all-around game is further evidence as to why Drury was so eager to get him signed long-term. Zibanejad has become so much more than just a stellar offensive player since arriving in New York; he’s developed into one of the NHL’s top centermen this season by excelling in all the facets of what that description entails.

“I heard good things about his two-way game, but when you watch it for as long as I’ve watched it this year with him, he does it every night, plays hard every night, a two-way game,” Gallant said. ” … I think he’s one of the best two-way players in the game, I really do. I didn’t know that before I coached him, but he’s been outstanding at both ends, kills penalties, faceoffs, on the ice the last minute of every game. He’s one of those real good players that plays it both ways and does a great job every night for our team.”

Rangers’ Heist of Zibanejad From Senators Keeps Looking Better

Also easily forgotten these days was the knock on Zibanejad that he was mostly a shooter, not a distributor who consistently elevated the play of his linemates. That’s gone by the wayside in 2021-22, as his passing has played an integral role in longtime running mate Kreider’s huge goal production and resulted in the aforementioned career-best assist total, four better than Zibanejad’s previous high. He hasn’t gone two games without a point since mid-December.

While Zibanejad won’t reach his goal output of 2019-20, there’s little question he’s never before played a more complete game. That shines an ever-brighter spotlight on the trade pulled off by former GM Jeff Gorton, who got Zibanejad and a second-round pick for Derick Brassard and a seventh-rounder July 18, 2016. The Blueshirts’ reward for that highway robbery has been 358 points in 398 contests – and a great deal more.

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Zibanejad’s faceoff percentage of 52.3 is a career high (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Like Kreider and Panarin, the Rangers have locked up a player in his prime who looks to still be improving in the second half of his career. While the contract extension might not look quite as appealing toward the end, as the deal takes Zibanejad through age 36, his best two seasons have come over the past three years – including this one, which has undoubtedly been his best.

Even if, thanks to his two fellow pillars of the Rangers’ forward corps, not nearly enough people have noticed.