Mika Zibanejad just keeps getting better and better
When you discuss the top five centers in the National Hockey League since 2019, what names come to mind? Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, and Nathan MacKinnon are the no-brainer answers. But who’s fifth on that list? I’d argue that it has been New York Rangers star center Mika Zibanejad.
Some outside the New York bubble may not think of the 6-foot-2 Swedish center as an elite level forward but the numbers since 2019, Zibanejad’s breakout year, would tell you otherwise.
Mika Zibanejad one of NHL’s best centers
Zibanejad ranks in the top 10 in goals (4th), assists (10th), points (6th), plus-minus (6th), power play goals (2nd), goals per game (4th) and offensive and defensive point share (6th each) among centermen since 2019. Of those eight key categories, Zibanejad is only one of two players that appear in the top 10 in each one. That other player is Connor McDavid.
“Mika Zibanejad has 18 goals when the score is tied. He’s the guy that breaks the game open, he pushes you ahead. That to me is MVP quality. Only Connor McDavid has more goals than Zibanejad when the game is tied, he has 12. Mika has 18. We watch every game. Why does it feel like this guy scores every big goal this year? The analytics just back up the eyeballs for me, it just feels like he’s been scoring big goals all year.”Steve Valiquette on the Garden Faithful Podcast 3/23/23
Zibanejad established a new high for single season points total (82 and counting) when he assisted on Chris Kreder’s power play goal on Thursday. Mika would have flirted with the 100-point milestone back in the 2019-20 season had it not been for the world stopping from COVID-19. His 41 goal season shattered his previous career high of 30, set in the 2018-19 season, and Zibanejad could more than likely tie, if not, surpass that 41 goal this season.
“[Mika’s] a great player. A 200-foot player in all situations. It doesn’t surprise me what he does. He’s a great player and one of those guys that should be considered for the Selke every year,” said Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant following Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets where Zibanejad tied his career high in points.
It’s not just offensively where Zibanejad shines, as Gallant mentioned. He has rounded himself into a trustworthy defensive centerman that can play in all situations. Over the last four seasons, Zibanejad’s PDO (a stat that adds together a team’s shooting and save percentages at 5-on-5 while that player is on the ice) ranks fifth among centers. His 190 takeaways during that span puts him just outside the top 10 in the 11th spot, tied with the Islanders center Matt Barzal.
Regular season numbers are nice, but the playoffs are where stars are born. Mika’s 24 points in the Rangers 2022 run to the Conference Finals cemented one of the greatest playoff performances in franchise history. Only Brian Leetch and Mark Messier in 1994 tallied more points in a single postseason.
Owning a single month does not make you one of the best players in the world at your position, but it is impossible to talk about Mika Zibanejad and not admire the stranglehold that he has in the month of March, which by the way, is an imperative month in the NHL season. As of March 29th, 2023, Zibanejad has played 71 games in the month of March as a New York Ranger. In those 71 games, he has registered a mind-boggling (unless your name is Connor McDavid) 45 goals and 46 assists for 91 points.
There are many different directions you can go in classifying what a top five center in the NHL produces. If it’s a high-end offense, Zibanejad has got it. If it’s reliable defense, Zibanejad has got it. If it’s producing at the highest level when the games and moments matter the most, Zibanejad has got it. Not only should Mika be considered a top five center, but in the words of Chris Kreider when he was asked if Zibanejad deserves Hart Trophy votes this season in a recent article via The Athletic, simply put, “Yes”.