The New York Rangers have found their No. 1 center for the foreseeable future in Mika Zibanejad. At just 26 years old, he has transformed into an undeniable NHL talent and his playmaking abilities rarely go unnoticed whenever he’s on the ice.
When Rangers’ general manager Jeff Gorton traded Derick Brassard for Zibanejad in 2016, little did the Rangers know they’d be getting a diamond in the rough. The Swede has 230 points as a Ranger in just 265 games. Without further ado, let’s take a look at his development since joining the team about four years ago from the Ottawa Senators.
During the 2016-17 season, the Rangers’ play started to seem like the beginning of the end for that generation of players. The team had lost to Zibanejad’s former team, the Senators, in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six games. However, despite this being the last true year of the Rangers’ playoff contention, Zibanejad turned in a decent regular season and an even better playoff performance. He collected 37 points in 57 regular games for the Blueshirts to go along with 9 points in 12 playoff contests.
This season was more of a showcase of potential for the then-23-year-old. He showed poise during the playoffs and had the playmaking skills of a future NHL top-six player. If Zibanejad played all 82 games during that season, he would’ve been on pace for about 53 total points in his first season as a Ranger.
Zibanejad’s second year wasn’t the biggest season of growth for the budding center, but he still found himself increasing his point totals from the season prior. He ended the tumultuous season with just 47 points. While collecting only 27 goals and 20 assists may have seemed like a stunt in his growth, Zibanejad had the second-most points on the team. Only Mats Zuccarello (53) had more on the depleted Rangers roster that failed to make the postseason.
Despite the small increase in points, it was always a good sign that the center improved in his second season during the team’s down season offensively and record-wise. The slight uptick in production foreshadowed how Zibanejad would perform for the seasons to come on Broadway.
The 2018-19 season was one of true growth from Zibanejad. He led the team in points (74), goals (30) and assists (44). He was also the only skater to play in all 82 games during the season. The Rangers were very clear about rebuilding, or “retooling,” its roster, making that season much more impressive.
With Zibanejad, there was a clear shift in his confidence. His point totals were good enough for tied-20th best in the league. He made it obvious that he was New York’s clear-cut future No. 1 center, with eye-opening performances every night. He was one of the only driving offensive factors considering the next best Ranger points-wise was Chris Kreider with 52. Little did New York’s front office know that the big breakout was still set to come.
You look at the current season Zibanejad is having, and you just have to be astonished at his overall growth as a player and a leader. He has 39 goals and 33 assists in just 55 games played. That’s good enough for 72 points, which places Zibanejad at 13th-best in the league in points. What’s most interesting is his improvement on special teams, collecting 15 power-play goals and three shorthanded tallies. The 15 power-play goals puts Zibanejad at third place in the entire NHL, trailing only Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak.
Outside of just the total numbers on the season, Zibanejad is single-handedly helping the Rangers fight for a wild card spot in the upcoming playoffs. He scored 28 seconds into overtime against the Islanders on Feb. 25. and then proceeded to put up a monstrous five goals, including the overtime winner against the Washington Capitals on March 5. Zibanejad has become a leader to this Ranger team, especially since the absence of Chris Kreider. The 26-year-old has grown leaps and bounds since his first season in New York and he’s putting forth a magical season on Broadway.
Zibanejad will be a major piece for the Rangers’ current and future success on the ice. He is a playmaker, a goalscorer and a leader. He will have a fantastic shot to become the next Rangers’ captain because of his growth over the last few seasons.
Sophomore journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Business director and play-by-play broadcaster for WMUC Sports. Former intern for the Anton Media Group.