Mika Zibanejad Is Providing First Line Firepower for the New York Rangers

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

Not since the 2011-12 season have the New York Rangers had a player cross the 70-point mark. That distinction goes to Marion Gaborik, who recorded 76 points (41 goals, 35 assists) that year and 86 points in the 2009-10 season.

But that’s old history. Mika Zibanejad is looking to make new history and top 70 points for the first time in his career. He is off to a hot start with 17 points in 16 games which puts him on pace for 81 points, easily surpassing that mark. Can he keep it up?

First Line Minutes for Zibanejad

Over the offseason, Zibanejad signed a contract extension after the Rangers traded former first-line center Derek Stepan to free up cap space. The contract signified a commitment to the young Zibanejad, and confidence that he could step into Stepan’s shoes. So far, so good. At least offensively.

For what it’s worth, Stepan’s career-high in points was 57, a number Zibanejad should easily surpass barring an injury. He did suffer a broken leg on an awkward fall into the boards last season, but I’d chalk up that injury up to a freak play than anything else and would not be concerned about his durability over the long haul.

Mika Zibanejad could reach a career high in points in 2017-18. (Photo credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

Entering this season, Zibanejad’s career-high in points was 51. He accomplished that during his last season with the Ottawa Senators in 2015-16. So, on the surface, a jump to 70 might seem a bit extreme but he was only 22 years old at the time and averaged 17:46 of ice time per game. His TOI then dipped last season with the Rangers to 17:04 per game, but at that point, he was the team’s second line center. He has since upgraded lines.

Now, at 24, he has seen his minutes jump to nearly 19 per game on the top line. The Rangers are beginning to score more and Zibanejad is a big reason why.

Power Play Prominence

Perhaps the biggest boost has been his performance on the power play. He already has five power-play goals. Heading into this year, his previous season-high was four and he will likely shatter that record.

Add in his five assists on the man advantage and he already has ten power play points through 16 games, where his previous season-high was 14. He is going to shatter that number, too. Projected over the course of a full season, he is on pace for 51 power-play points. Stepan’s career best on the man advantage was 18, another total Zibanejad should top.

However, 51 is an outrageous number and bit much to expect. Since 2012-13, there are only seven instances of a player reaching 35 power play points or more and only Nicklas Backstrom topped 40 in that span with 44 in 2013-14. If Zibanejad reaches 35, then he’s more likely on his way to an 80 point season than a 70 point one.

Zibanejad’s success on the power play can be attributed to his great release. He’s scored power-play goals on one-timers, on wrist shots, or just by being opportunistic. As a right-handed shot, he has been successful taking passes on the left side of the ice. That is a pivotal area on a power play and one where Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have also succeeded in their careers. They perch themselves by the left circle and let their release do the rest. Now, I’m not saying Zibanejad is on their level, but he has been using a similar game plan. His goal on opening night against the Colorado Avalanche was just that, he took a pass and one-timed the living daylights out of the puck.

New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad

New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

I have also been impressed by his ability to find room on the power play and walk the puck towards the net as he shoots. His third-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights was a great demonstration of that ability. He took a pass at the point from Kevin Shattenkirk, settled the puck, moved to the top of the circle and released a hard wrist shot with a man in front. Good things can happen from that area on the ice and he is proving a vital asset to the Rangers’ power play which ranks sixth in the NHL.

Related: Rangers Lay Foundation for Success

Zibanejad Needs a Little Help from His Friends

Zibanejad scored five goals in the opening six games of the season. Despite that, the Rangers struggled to produce much else. Not including Zibanejad’s share, the rest of the team combined for eight goals in that stretch. Furthermore, they scored two or fewer goals in five of the first six games and averaged a mere 2.16 goals per game.

There just wasn’t a whole lot going on offensively. They have woken up since then, averaging 3.9 goals per game between October 17 and November 6. Only the New York Islanders have averaged more over that stretch.

It goes without saying, but if your teammates cannot finish their chances, it will be hard to accumulate assists. So, it should not be surprising that Zibanejad failed to record an assist in those opening six games. Now that the team is starting to finish more, Zibanejad should be able to tally more assists.

Linemate Chris Kreider has come alive of late and is finishing the chances Zibanejad is creating. He has four goals in his last six games and Zibanejad has assisted on all of them. Kreider’s all-around offensive game couples nicely with Zibanejad’s skill set. Kreider is often strong to the net, where he can be fed a pass or create a screen in front of the goalie for an incoming shot. His speed can be chaotic and lead to defensive mistakes for the team to capitalize on.

Zibanejad’s other linemate has been Pavel Buchnevich, who has been heating up too. He has five goals and three assists over his last seven games. The trio has been dangerous and is performing like a top line should.

Averaging over a point per game is tough, but that is what we are looking at with Zibanejad right now. At the beginning of the season, 70 points seemed like right mark to hit. But with how well he is playing early on, he just may reach 80 points. Either way, he has been an exciting player for the Rangers this season and his career is looking up.

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