Mika Zibanejad, the hero Gotham and the New York Rangers needed, is a man on absolute fire to start the NHL season.
Feb. 8, 2018, is a day that will live forever in New York Rangers history. Interestingly, the date doesn’t correspond with good times. In fact, it represents the very opposite.
On this day, Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton announced that the team was going to rebuild. The letter was a warning to fans. The team is going to struggle, but better times are ahead.
This date was the official start of the Rangers turning the page to the next chapter and taking a step in the right direction.
On second thought, actually, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the actual date, or unofficial start of the rebuild, was July 18, 2016. That’s the day they traded for Mika Zibanejad.
Sure, the Rangers’ competitive window, while closing, was still open at the time. But let’s be honest, the front office knew what they were doing. That day, they acquired a No. 1 center.
When the Rangers window was open from 2011 to 2017, the thing they were lacking was an elite center. Sure, guys like Brad Richards and Derek Stepan did the best they could, but they weren’t all-star caliber centers like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews who led their teams to Stanley Cup victories. In fact, neither Richards nor Stepan eclipsed 30 goals in their time on Broadway.
On the other hand, Zibanejad has been everything the Rangers were hoping he would be. The Sweden native led the team in goals in each of the past two seasons. Twenty-seven in 2017-18 and 30 in 2018-19. With his great shot, big size and his two-way instincts, Zibanejad’s is now the all-star caliber center the team’s been missing when they were competing for Stanley Cups earlier in the decade.
With his emergence in New York the past three seasons, the 26-year-old solidified that he is the center of the future. The question remained, “Who would play alongside him?” Fortunately for the Rangers, the hockey gods rewarded them.
They landed the second-overall pick to draft Kaapo Kakko in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. They then acquired Jacob Trouba, who is not only a solid young defenseman, but the new quarterback of their power-play. Then, of course, they added Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad’s linemate who has also been phenomenal to start this season.
Zibanejad has taken full advantage of the situation so far. Kakko is still growing, but Zibanejad’s connected with Panarin and Trouba for five of the Rangers 10 goals so far this season.
Saturday night, Zibanejad netted his third career hat trick against the Ottawa Senators, the team who traded him. How good has Zibanejad been to start this season? With eight points (four goals, four assists) in two games, he is the first player since Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96 to tally eight points in his team’s first two games. He is the second Ranger to do this, the other being Hockey Hall of Famer, Rod Gilbert, in 1976-77.
We are only two games into the season. It’s way too early to tell if the Rangers can say the rebuild is over like the New York Yankees were able to in 2017. However, once the time comes for the Rangers to be elite again, it’s safe to say Zibanejad will be the top-line center that the Rangers were desperate for not too long ago.
He’s the hero that Gotham deserves, the one that it needs.