Mika Zibanejad Lias Andersson
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

If there was a leap at any position for the New York Rangers in 2018-19, it came at the center ice position.

Dom Renna

One of the biggest areas that saw the most improvement for the New York Rangers in 2018-19 was, without a doubt, at the center position.

Entering the year, the Rangers knew there was plenty depth in the organization should they needed it, but what they could not have expected was to see the progress from some of these up and coming players. Led by Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers have a legitimate number one center who is responsible enough to play in all different situations. Once you know you have a number one, it becomes a bit easier to slot the rest of their centers.

After the Kevin Hayes trade, some of that depth was put to the test considering how a majority of the players filling in that spot were rookies with limited experience playing in the NHL. Hayes wasn’t the only piece that started the year with the Blueshirts down the middle who didn’t finish the year in New York; Ryan Spooner would find himself in a new home as well.

Youth down the middle was also a major theme this year considering the playing time Brett Howden, Lias Andersson, Boo Nieves and Filip Chytil saw. At season’s end, the Rangers had one of the youngest groups around the league, leading to some eventual growing pains.

Chytil spent most of his time on the wing this year, so he won’t be graded in this edition of Ranger report cards.

Grades are determined based on impact to the team, performance and consistency. Some players might have an incomplete due to the fact that they left us wanting more or had their opportunities taken away.

Ryan Strome

The Rangers acquired Ryan Strome in a Nov. 16 trade which saw Ryan Spooner head over to the Edmonton Oilers. Spooner simply did not work out under first-year head coach David Quinn after flourishing in 2017-18 and the Rangers felt it was time to make a move. The move worked and the Rangers were able to find a legitimate player for their bottom six.

After coming to the Blueshirts, Strome scored 18 goals and 15 assists in 63 games after scoring just 14 goals in 100 games with Edmonton. Where Strome did a majority of his damage for the Blueshirts was after the trade deadline in a more increased role. Since the deadline, the 25-year-old found the back of the net nine times while picking up six assists seeing 17:56 in ice time.

We talk about teams winning trades so often and simply put, Jeff Gorton won this trade before the season even ended. Spooner would get traded again midseason, while Strome became an integral part of this young Ranger team. You can’t help but wonder where the Rangers would have finished the year if they did not go out there and pick him up. The production he provided was beyond their wildest dreams, and they now know he can handle being a bottom six center for a young team.

Overall, he had a great season for the Rangers and if he’s back in 2019-20, he will be a big part of what they do short term.

Grade: B+

Mika Zibanejad

Entering 2018-19, we all knew the potential Mika Zibanejad had after glimpses of what he could be throughout his first two seasons on Broadway. Even though we saw what he could do, we were still waiting for him to put it all together and he did just that.

Zibanejad came into this year and was a completely different player establishing career highs in every scoring category. He finished the year 30 goals, 44 assists for 74 points, leading the Rangers in all of those categories. What made his year so much more impressive was how he was still able to be that go to center even after the Blueshirts made their deadline moves with all of the attention of teams trying to shut him down.

Perhaps the biggest reason for all of the success Zibanejad saw this year is the fact that he played in all 82 games for the first time in his career. It was really an important goal for him to hit considering how he missed time the last couple of years which affected his game trying to come back from those injuries. Simply put, he was able to play his game all season and did so consistently even with all of the noise that was the trade deadline.

His effort this year won him the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award voted by the fans, and he rightfully deserved it with the season he put up. He’s become an important piece on and off the ice as the Rangers look to accelerate the rebuilding process they began a year ago.

Grade: A

Brett Howden

Right at the beginning of training camp, Brett Howden impressed the Rangers and their coaching staff. He impressed them so much he made the team over Lias Andersson, one of the Blueshirts’ highly touted prospects.

Early on, it looked like the Rangers made the right choice going with Howden as he took the team by storm with one of the more impressive starts for a rookie. He scored eight points in his first 13 games including a gorgeous goal against the San Jose Sharks which allowed fans to see how much skill he actually has.

Despite the early success, Howden hit the rookie wall playing in a much longer season than he’s used since coming straight to the NHL after playing in the WHL the last five seasons. After the Rangers bye week, he looked like a different player but suffered an injury that cost him a significant amount of time making it hard for him to return to the player the Rangers saw in October.

He finished his rookie year with six goals and 17 assists while being relatively responsible on the defensive side of the game. For a rookie, he had a successful season, and the hope is for him to take the next step with the valuable experience he gained last year.

Grade: C+

Lias Andersson

Lias Andersson found himself in a tough situation in 2018-19. After failing to make the team out of training camp, he got off to a great start in Hartford and found himself back in the NHL after an injury to Howden.

When he was in the NHL, he was used in a bottom six role sometimes seeing less than 10 minutes a night. His usage might have been one of the most frustrating things about this Rangers season because you wanted to see what he can do in a top-six role, but David Quinn felt the role he gave him was better for his development. Even with a limited role, we saw glimpses of what the Rangers saw when they drafted him seventh overall in 2017.

Some fans have started to call Andersson a bust, but it is still way too early in his career and development to even throw that word around. In 2018-19, the Rangers might have mishandled his usage a bit at times, but he still was able to play some valuable minutes in the NHL that will help him down the road.

Don’t give up on him just yet; we still have yet to see enough of his game to determine what type of player he’s going to turn out to be.

Grade: Incomplete

Boo Nieves

After a cup of coffee with the Rangers in 2017-18, Boo Nieves established himself as a legitimate fourth line center down the road.

He’s not going to be a flashy player or someone who will put up ridiculous offensive numbers, but his skill set has shown it can play in the perfect role. Even with that role, there are still times where he surprises us with an occasional burst of speed resulting in a quality scoring chance the problem, however, has been finding the back of the net.

In 43 games this year, he only scored 10 points, four goals, and was rewarded with a contract extension on the trade deadline. He looks to be in line to be the Blueshirts’ fourth line center in 2019-20, and we all know how important it is to have depth down the middle. The Rangers won’t be able to send him to the AHL unless they put him waivers, so count on seeing him a fair amount next year.

Grade: C

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Dominick is a graduate of Canisius College. He has covered the Rangers for the last seven seasons and the Yankees for the last four.