Mika Zibanejad has proved himself as the New York Rangers number one center. What does this mean in the long run?
The New York Rangers have been lukewarm, at best, since the NHL All-Star Break. Concerning the Stanley Cup Playoffs, things aren’t looking great. They are 11 points out of a playoff spot with a record of 25-25-8 and 58 points. The squad is 4-5-1 in their last 10, alternating wins and losses in their last six.
The Blueshirts are not doing too great. But if there is something positive to take out of this, it’s that Mika Zibanejad is proving he is this team’s number one center.
Unless you have been living under a rock, Zibanejad is on fire. It seems like almost every game the 25-year-old Swede puts up at least a point or two. Over the past 15 games, Zibenejad has 14 goals and nine assists for a total of 23 points. One of those games even featured a hat trick over the rival New Jersey Devils.
Zibanejad’s success is not limited to this recent run. He has 58 points in 58 games. This beats his previous total of 51 points in 81 games as an Ottawa Senator in 2015-16. If things continue to go well, Zibanejad will beat his previous best by a lot.
With those kinds of numbers, he’s making a serious case for team MVP. Not only is he leading the team in points by a commendable lead, but he also leads in both goals (26) and assists (32). Mika’s next goal will tie his career best in a season of 27. With 24 games left, he can really add to that total, possibly even go well into 40-plus goals.
Like a good center, Zibanejad’s play has been rubbing off on his linemates. Centering Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, the three forwards became the Rangers top line. Kreider has put up 13 points, with four goals and nine assists in the past 15 games. Meanwhile, Zuccarello has been almost identical to Zibanejad. The 31-year-old from Norway has seven goals and 15 assists for 22 points in his last 15.
This means in the past 15 games, the top line of Zuccarello, Zibanejad, and Kreider have put up 25 goals, and 58 points altogether. With those kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see why David Quinn has confidence putting them out there in key situations.
With the kind of success Zibanejad is having and how it has affected his line, it does put Jeff Gorton in a tight spot. While a playoff appearance is certainly unlikely, the Rangers are by no means out of it. There’s still around two months left in the season.
The Blueshirts have some key members of their team in contract years. The aforementioned Zuccarello, and the next best center on the team behind Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes.
Let’s say the Rangers break the inconsistency and put together a winning streak. They end up back into the playoff hunt. Zuccarello and Hayes are expected to be traded before the deadline. But could Gorton want to try to keep at least one of them with the success Zibanejad has had?
Maybe Gorton decides to trade Hayes and keep Zuccarello. Sign him to an extension so that the chemistry of that top line is not compromised. Maybe Gorton trades Zuccarello and signs Hayes to an extension. This way he gives Quinn the one-two punch of a spectacular first line center in Zibanejad and a solid second liner in Hayes.
But both of those scenarios are unlikely. I think in order for one of those situations to happen, one of the two players needs to take a hometown discount. The Rangers are in cap hell right now being stuck with Marc Staal‘s $5.7 million cap hit and Henrik Lundqvist‘s $8.5 million for another two seasons. The much safer scenario for Gorton is to trade one of, if not both, of them to get some pieces for the future.
But for now, one thing is for sure: the Rangers have their number one center in Zibanejad. They have a young center with skill and size to build around and appears to be entering the prime of his career. Build the team around him correctly and the Blueshirts can be a dangerous competitor when the rebuild is over.
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