New York Rangers Q&A, 7/27/17: Zibanejad Projections and Sleeper Defensemen
Sep 22, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Graves (58) in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

How will Mika Zibanejad play next season? Who will end up filling out the New York Rangers’ defense? Keep the questions coming. 

The question and answer format is an excellent way for writers and fans to connect. It gives writers a chance to answer fan questions in a format in which answers can be explained more fully than on social media.

Thus, I would like to do a Q&A segment regularly, on any team or topic I cover (all teams and topics are in my biography at the bottom of my articles). Feel free to use the comment section or twitter to send questions you’d like to see answered.

“Who do you think is a sleeper to make the team” – Neal Purcell

Nicklas Jensen would have come to mind had he not signed with Jokerit in the KHL. But with Jensen no longer in the organization, the “sleeper” to make the team is Ryan Graves. The Rangers defense appears to have one spot open, with Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brenden Smith, Brady Skjei, and Anthony DeAngelo all seemingly penciled in on opening night.

The Rangers should enter camp with some competition on the back end. Alexei Bereglazov (signed to entry-level contract (ELC) after playing in the KHL), Marc Staal (current alternate captain), Sean Day (2016 third round pick out of the OHL), Neal Pionk (signed to ELC after playing with University of Minnesota-Duluth), and Ryan Graves (2013 fourth round pick out of the QMJHL) are all options to make the roster as the sixth and possibly seventh defenseman.

Many fans think that Bereglazov has the inside track to the sixth spot, and he probably does. He was one of the best defensemen under 24 in the KHL last year, and his numbers were similar to Nikita Zaitsev at the same age.

However, Graves has the ability to earn a roster spot as well. He’s a very good defensive defenseman with a powerful shot that he’s still honing. He isn’t a great puck mover, but with McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Skjei, and DeAngelo all being very good in that role he doesn’t have to be.

New York Rangers

Graves is the new breed of shutdown defenseman, one who can skate well for his size and use his body to separate the puck carrier from the puck. He has won the AHL hardest slap shot competition (in his first AHL season), and he’s coming off a 30 point season in his second professional year.

Graves isn’t a favorite to make the roster, but he could very easily make a push for the final spot on what should be a very good blue line. He deserves to be talked about more than he is.

Zibanejad’s career highs are 21 goals, 30 assists, and 51 points, all set during his final season with the Senators (2015-16). He missed some time last season with an injury and had he played 82 games scoring at the pace that he did when he was healthy he would have put up 20-34-54. Zibanejad’s point total improved every year in Ottawa, and last year he had his highest assists per game and points per game totals.

If he stays healthy, he could improve in all three major offensive categories, as well as on faceoffs (his faceoff percentage has gone up every season since his rookie season). He’ll be the top line center for the first time in his career, assuming the Rangers don’t trade for Matt Duchene. Thus, he will see more minutes, and more opportunities to score.

Playing on the “KZB line” with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich will help him as well. They found chemistry early in the season and were only split up due to Buchnevich’s back problems and Zibanejad’s broken leg.

Zibanejad should have no problem living up to his new contract. There’s no shortage of potential wingers for him to play with, and he has good chemistry with several of them already. He should have no problem setting career highs in all major categories.

Final prediction – 23-42-65, 53.5% on face-offs.

Remember to keep asking questions, on any topics listen in my author biography, either via twitter or in the comments section.

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