Why Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad playing well despite scoring slump

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
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There has been a lot of discourse on the play of Mika Zibanejad this season. He hasn’t had the scoring touch that the New York Rangers are used to seeing from someone who consistently hovers around 30 to 40 goals a season.

With just 16 goals in 51 games, Zibanejad is on pace for his lowest goal total over an 82-game season since his final year in Ottawa, when he had 21 goals in 81 games.

The reason for his lack of goal scoring this year is two-fold. One, he has yet to click on the power play. Zibanejad has seven power-play goals after potting 20 on the man advantage last season. The phrase “power-play merchant” has become popular with guys who excel when their team is up a man. Historically, Zibanejad fits this description.

Since joining the Rangers ahead of the 2016-17 season, 96 of his 220 goals (44 percent) have come on the power play. He has just two power-play goals since Dec. 15, each scored when his team was down 3+ goals in the third period. With a switch of the power-play units Sunday, coach Peter Laviolette is trying to get Zibanejad and other players going, as the Rangers haven’t scored a goal on the man advantage since Jan. 21 against the Anaheim Ducks. 

Two, Zibanejad is less willing to shoot the puck this season. With 122 shots in 51 games, he is on pace for his lowest shot total over 82 games since his last season in Ottawa (184). If his shot pace continues, it’d be the first time he doesn’t eclipse the 200-shot mark in a full season with the Rangers. 

Related: Rangers 2024 trade board

Despite goal-scoring drop off, Mika Zibanejad plays major role for Rangers

NHL: New York Rangers at Vegas Golden Knights
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With all that being said, this has been a player who is currently being dragged through the mud by the fanbase. Does Zibanejad deserve criticism for the low goal totals? Yes; but the overarching theme of being “one of the worst No. 1 centers in the League,” as some suggest, is crazy. Completely ignoring the fact that this is the same player who, since this “championship window” opened during the 2021-22 season, is second on the Rangers in goal scoring and total points in the regular season and playoffs.

Zibanejad is 18th in scoring this season among centers that have played at least 48 games. He has more points than Bo Horvat, Vincent Trocheck and John Tavares. And he has only four points fewer than Sidney Crosby, who’s on pace to put up close to 90 again this season.

It has been his play at even strength that has caught the critical eye of fans and analysts. Zibanejad ranks 227th in expected even-strength goals above replacement this year, among players that have logged at least 500 minutes. But it’s an area that he has never been the strongest at, never ranking higher than 109th since New York’s “window” opened. In 2021-22, before the the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Final, Zibanejad ranked 197th in the NHL in that same category. But couple that with his lack of power-play scoring and it adds up.

“One thing about Zibanejad is that when he is not scoring, he’s generally playing pretty well away from the puck and he is still this year. He does an awful lot,” Larry Brooks of the New York Post told Forever Blueshirts in January.

Away from the puck this season, Zibanejad has been an elite penalty killer and on one of the League’s best penalty kills (fifth; 83.5 percent). Cumulatively over the past three seasons, the Rangers penalty kill is 4th in the NHL, with Zibanejad front and center.

“It’s not as if Zibanejad when he doesn’t score, he’s adding nothing. It’s not, it’s the opposite. But they still need him to score,” Brooks said

We are getting to the point in the season when Zibanejad has turned it on before. Past success doesn’t mean it will happen again, but there’s a track record. For some unexplained reason, in the months of February and March, Mika has owned the League. Since the 2019-20 season, Zibanejad has 58 goals and 58 assists for 116 points in 100 games in those two months.

Do I think this has been one of Mika Zibanejad’s best seasons on Broadway? No. I’m not blind to the fact that if the Rangers have any chance at making a serious run in the postseason, he, Chris Kreider and whoever is plugged in at the right wing on that top line must produce more. That being said, the overreacting clickbait criticism of one of the players who helped turn this franchise around has been nonsensical.

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

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