On July 18, 2016, the New York Rangers made a franchise-altering trade when they acquired Mika Zibanejad and a second-round draft pick from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Derick Brassard and a seventh-round draft pick. While the trade was initially met with skepticism, in hindsight, it was a brilliant move for the Rangers.
Though Brassard helped the Senators defeat the Rangers to reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, his play declined in the years following the trade. After producing 58 points with the Blueshirts during the 2015-16 season, he hasn’t produced more than 46 points in a season since his trade to the Senators. He has played for six teams since the Rangers traded him.
While Brassard has become a journeyman, Zibanejad has developed into a star center with the Rangers. He suffered a broken leg in his first season (2016-17) with the Blueshirts but still finished the season with 14 goals and 23 assists in 56 games. He also played very well in the postseason, while New York’s top center Derek Stepan struggled.
Zibanejad scored a clutch overtime goal on the road to give the Rangers a 3-2 series lead in their first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens in 2017. He added an assist in Game 6 as New York won 3-1 to clinch the series. In 12 postseason games in 2017, he had two goals and seven assists.
Injuries also slowed Zibanejad down during the 2017-18 season. However, he had a breakout 2018-19 season, as the Rangers committed to rebuilding. He formed chemistry with wingers Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich and ended the season with 30 goals and 44 assists. He became very strong on the puck and repeatedly scored with his one-timer. He also developed into a very good defensive forward and excelled on the penalty kill.
During the 2018-19 season, Zibanejad built on his strong play and became a dominant scorer for the Rangers. No one was hotter when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. 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. He also scored a clutch overtime goal with a one-timer against the rival New York Islanders. He ended up finishing the season with 41 goals and 34 assists in 57 games.
Zibanejad began this season in a huge slump after recovering from the coronavirus just before the start of the season. However, he once again played brilliantly during a hot streak late in the season. He scored a hat trick and had three assists in consecutive games against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a weapon on the power play and also provided a spark by scoring shorthanded. In his final 31 games of the season, he had 21 goals and 20 assists.
The Rangers used the second-round pick they acquired from the Senators along with a third-round pick to acquire Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings during the 2016-17 season. He was strong defensively and stepped up for the Blueshirts during the playoffs that season. He finished the postseason with four assists and was plus-8 in 12 games while playing just under 20 minutes per contest.
New York signed Smith to a four-year contract after the season, but he struggled in the following years. Giveaways and poor decisions plagued him, and the Rangers waived him during the 2017-18 season. He briefly played for the Hartford Wolf Pack but stuck around with the Rangers as he became a key penalty killer and got ice time as a fourth-line forward.
Smith played well late in the 2018-19 season and earned his spot alongside Jacob Trouba as a top-four defenseman. He ended the season with three goals and five assists in 62 games while also becoming a veteran leader for the Rangers.
This season was Smith’s best one with the Rangers as he spent the entire season as a defenseman, finishing with five goals and five assists in 48 games. He was also a physical presence who played with grit, which is something New York sorely lacked this season. He stepped up for the team after Tom Wilson injured Artemi Panarin.
This was the final season of Smith’s contract, and Zibanejad has just one more season remaining on his deal. The Rangers need to find a way to re-sign Zibanejad, who has become a star and is arguably New York’s best center since Mark Messier.
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Over Zibanejad’s last three seasons, he has 95 goals and 199 points in 195 games. He is a great goal scorer who is responsible defensively and a threat whenever he’s on the ice, including on the penalty kill.
As for Smith, after a few disappointing seasons, he has gotten back on track, which may earn him a short-term contract to remain with the Rangers. New York has plenty of skilled prospects on defense, but they may not be ready to make the jump to the NHL yet, which makes bringing back Smith an option for New York.
Despite Smith’s inconsistent play, acquiring Zibanejad for Brassard has proven to be a brilliant move for the Rangers after five years. Additionally, Zibanejad is still in his prime, and this could become an even better trade if his outstanding play with Blueshirts continues.
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.