Zibanejad emerging as the player the Rangers hoped for

Zibanejad (Getty)

One of the brightest spots in this rebuilding season is the play of Mika Zibanejad. When the Rangers acquired the former 1st round pick, 6th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft from the Ottawa Senators, the hope was he’d realize his full potential.

It looks like it’s happening.

In the summer of 2016, the Rangers sent 29 year old, Derick Brassard and a seventh round pick to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for 23 year old, Mika Zibanejad and a 2nd round pick. Brassard was coming off a 58 points season and Zibanejad tallied 51. So why would the Senators make this trade? The logical person needs to ask that question, especially since there’s a 6 year age difference, and salary increase to Ottawa of almost $2.5 million.

Here’s the business side from Ottawa’s perspective. Zibanejad had one year left and rumors were out there that he was looking for $6 million per on his next deal. The Sens opted for Brassard’s $5M contract but didn’t want to pay his bonus, so they waited until the Rangers paid it and gave them a 2nd rounder for doing it. Still, why would the Senators give up on a player they drafted so highly just 5 years ago?

Ottawa’s Concern

“We felt Mika has great potential down the road,” Dorion said. “We felt with Derick we were getting someone that’s more proven, a better hockey player at this point in time. Our ultimate goal is to make the playoffs again and we think Derick’s going to help us make the playoffs.”

Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion

The Senators biggest problem with Mika’s game was his consistency. It had some people in Ottawa calling him lazy. Not to mention his defensive game was a mess. This led to healthy scratches and demotions from time to time with growing concerns about Zibanejad’s dedication by some fans and media personalities. Just read the comments on this tweet by top Senators beat writer, Bruce Garrioch.

Zibanejad scores (CBC)

Even The Score wrote 2 years ago that Ottawa won the trade regardless of Zibanejad being slightly better offensively. Let’s just say that article has not aged well and Brassard was traded a year and half later.

A Rocky Broadway Start

“I think the potential is there for more upside,” he continued. “He’s just scratching the surface at age 23. There’s not a lot of guys that have done what he’s done as far as score 20 before that age. You look at the way the game’s played. You look at some of the things — he kills penalties, he’s really emerged on the draws. I think since he’s come in he’s gotten better every year.”

Rangers GM Jeff Gorton

It wasn’t all wine and roses in Mika’s first year in New York. Zibanejad suffered a broken leg that limited him to only 56 games and 37 points. The Rangers were outed in the 2nd round of the playoffs by an inferior Senators team and he scored 9 points in 12 playoff games, with a goal and 4 assists in the 6 game series loss to Ottawa.

Many were expecting more, including myself. Then two weeks later Zibanejad released his first single as a DJ but the timing of it, plus all the previous reports from Ottawa raised an alarm for me. Other’s didn’t see it that way, but it isn’t hard to understand why one would be concerned.

In the 2017-18 campaign the Rangers traded away their top center Derek Stepan and extended Zibanejad for 5 years at $5.25M. The big question still needed to be answered; is he a #1 center?

Let’s be fair, last season was abysmal for the entire organization and Zibanejad dipped slightly in production. The highlight was his 27 goals but his 47 points in 72 games with a -23 didn’t give anyone the answer they wanted. Questions remained if he was a top line guy. Even earlier this year blogs and papers were writing about the possibility of trading him.

Coming Into His Own
Zibanejad’s Goals and Points Per Game by Season

In the last few weeks, Mika Zibanejad has been on an absolute tear. His point production for the season is at 1 point per game which is almost double his career average. He’s also on pace to break the 30 goal barrier for the first time in his career.

If people are still wondering about his ability to be a top line center, wonder no more. He has shown he can handle it. The other thing his play has done is made it easier to trade Kevin Hayes to help expedite the rebuild. That move needs to happen in order to free up space for Lias Andersson at center and Vitali Kravtsov for next season.

We also need to remember that Filip Chytil is a center and has offensive potential to be a #1 in a few years. A future where Zibanejad, Chytil, Andersson and Howden are down the middle not only solidifies that position for the Rangers but could be the best collection of centers in the NHL.

The time has come. Zibanejad has earned his accolades and proven to be a top line center in the league. And for what it’s worth, it is clear that the Rangers won the trade – by a landslide.

Hey Mr DJ! Keep playing that song.

Anthony Scultore has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL since 2014. His work also appears at... More about Anthony Scultore

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