The New York Rangers don’t have any big-name unrestricted free agents this offseason, but Mika Zibanejad is set to become one after the 2021-22 season. The team’s star center went through a massive slump early in the season after recovering from coronavirus but broke out of it in a big way and ended up leading the Rangers in goals this season. After years of searching for a true No. 1 center, he developed into the player the Blueshirts were looking for. His play warrants a big contract extension and given the organization’s lack of depth at center, it’s crucial that they re-sign him.
Zibanejad’s Dominant 2019-20 Season
After Zibanejad was slowed by injuries in his first few seasons with New York, he stayed healthy during the 2018-19 season and finished with 30 goals and 44 assists. Both were career highs at the time and he built on that season’s success during the 2019-20 season.
Zibanejad got off to a hot start, but suffered an upper-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for a month. He didn’t show rust once he returned and he continued to play well. In addition to producing offensively, he was excellent defensively and one of the Rangers’ best penalty killers.
Late in the season, Zibanejad went on a tear offensively and no player in the NHL was hotter when the coronavirus pandemic brought the season to a halt. He had 24 goals and 16 assists in his last 25 games of the season, including five goals in a victory against the Washington Capitals.
Zibanejad finished the 2019-20 season with 41 goals and 34 assists in just 57 games. If not for the pandemic, he would’ve had a shot at scoring 50 goals despite missing a month due to injury. He led the Rangers in power-play goals with 15 and in shorthanded goals with three.
Zibanejad’s 2020-21 Season
The start to this season was disastrous for Zibanejad as he looked a step slower and his timing was off early on. In his first 25 games, he had just three goals and six assists, but he broke out of his slump in a big way in a victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. In that game, he had three goals and three assists in the second period. He scored a natural hat trick with one goal coming shorthanded, another on the power play and one at even strength.
After his breakout performance, he played the way he did during the 2019-20 season and was once again one of the Rangers’ best players. In his final 31 games, he had 21 goals and 20 assists. He helped the Blueshirts make a push for the postseason, but they ultimately came up short.
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Even when he was struggling, Zibanejad was excellent defensively, and late in the season he became one of New York’s biggest threats on the power play thanks to his powerful slap shot.
For the Rangers
The Rangers haven’t had a center who has produced offensively the way Zibanejad has since Michael Nylander during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons; however, Nylander played alongside Jaromir Jagr, which boosted his numbers quite a bit. Zibanejad has spent the majority of the past few seasons playing alongside Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, who are both very good, but certainly not superstars like Jagr was.
It’s very difficult to find top centers, and now that the Rangers have one in Zibanejad, they need to try to hold on to him. He’s an all-around player who is still just 28 years old, and he is even more valuable to the team because they don’t have much depth at center. Ryan Strome is the only other established center on the team, and though Filip Chytil has shown promise, he has won just 39.6 percent of faceoffs thus far in his career, which makes it difficult to trust him.
With just one year remaining on Zibanejad’s contract, it would be a huge risk to not re-sign him now and face the possibility of either losing him in free agency or being forced to trade him right before the trade deadline. Zibanejad’s development and strong play make him worthy of a big contract and the Rangers need to make sure they hold on to their best center as they look to transition from rebuilding to contending.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, rooting for the Rangers, Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. When my dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees fell short, I started writing about sports instead. I’m a proud graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.