Rangers need Mika Zibanejad to explode out of offensive doldrums

NHL: New York Rangers at Dallas Stars
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As someone who has been one of the most vocal and open Mika Zibanejad supporters throughout his time with the New York Rangers, I’ve made sure to acknowledge all the good he’s done since his breakout season in 2019-20, where he scored 41 goals in just 57 games.

But now, seemingly for the first time in his Rangers career, Zibanejad is healthy, and not producing. And it’s not just at even strength, where he’s only tallied three points. Zibanejad has been a non-factor on the power play as well with a single goal and five assists for the league’s second-best unit.

“I think it’s a matter of time,” coach Peter Laviolette said recently. “He’s had looks, and he knows how to shoot a puck. I personally think it’s just a matter of time.”

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Rangers need more from Mika Zibanejad

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

There have been 100 forwards in the NHL this season who have logged at least 300 minutes. Zibanejad ranks 94th in even-strength offense goals above average. It should be noted that Chris Kreider ranks 97th and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid ranks 96th on this list.

While offensively Zibanejad has been about as bad as they come for a top-line player, he has played some excellent defense. He ranks 20th in even-strength defense goals above average.

However, it appears that Zibanejad has completely shifted his game to the defensive side of the puck and has ignored what has made him the dangerous goal-scorer Ranger fans are used to seeing.

The big question now is, what can be done to get Zibanejad going? The obvious and simple answer is to move Chris Kreider off the top line and replace him with Artemi Panarin for a couple of games. In fact, a top six of Panarin-Zibanejad-Lafrenière, Kreider-Trocheck-Wheeler could allow both Kreider and Zibanejad to get going at even strength.

It’s no secret how dominant Panarin has been this year, despite his point streak ending in Dallas on Monday night. Letting Zibanejad play with Panarin allows for more scoring chances for number 93. Chris Kreider and Blake Wheeler have not been able to get Zibanejad scoring chances consistently this year.

Confidence seems to be another big issue for Mika. I was in attendance on Monday for the 6-3 loss against Dallas that saw the team surrender four third-period goals. Zibanejad looks like a guy who is second-guessing every decision he makes on the ice. Pucks rolling off his stick, shots not hitting the net, and the reluctance to shoot the puck, which is something seemingly unfathomable for a guy with his caliber of shot.

Sticking Mika with a guy who has all the confidence in the world right now in Panarin could be the golden ticket to get Zibanejad out of one of the worst starts in his career. Also allowing him to play with another guy oozing with confidence in Lafrenière might allow for Zibanejad to not think as much and just play his own game.

By no means am I saying the panic button needs to be hit yet for Mika. If you remember back to the 2021 shortened year, Zibanejad started the season with zero even-strength goals and four total points through the first 16 games of the season. He ended the year with 24 goals and 50 points in 56 games.

While the start to the season and lack of offensive production from your first-line center is concerning, there is plenty of time left for number 93 to turn on the jets and get back to the same elite goal-scorer Ranger fans are used to seeing. And with the team still playing some of the best hockey in the league despite Mika’s struggles, when he can get right, the Rangers could be even more lethal than they have been this season.

Steven Pappas is a North Jersey native who works as a news anchor and reporter at WHAM-13 in Rochester,... More about Steven Pappas