The Runner Sports

It Is Time For Mika Zibanejad To Lead The Rangers

Welcome back to New York Rangers hockey! The Rangers’ 2017-18 season kicks off Thursday night at MSG against the Colorado Avalanche. A lot has changed since we last saw the Blueshirts blowing late leads against the Senators. Jeff Gorton has done a great job of rebuilding this team on the fly. They got younger and faster. The golden ticket of free agency, Kevin Shattenkirk, joins the squad as well as a young stud in Tony DeAngelo. Gone are Derek Stepan, Anti Rantaa, Oscar Lindberg, Dan Girardi, and Kevin Klein.

On a team that is as deep as any with forwards, one young Ranger is ready to carry the team. That would be 24-year-old Swede, Mika Zibanejad. He came over last year from Ottawa for Derek Brassard, part of the Rangers’ youth movement. Now, as the team continues to get younger, Zibanejad has become the face of the new generation of Blueshirts.

Zibanejad had an up and down season a year ago, as a bad leg injury in November sidelined him for two months. Even after returning, he clearly wasn’t the same player for some time. However, in the playoffs, Zibanejad showed his true potential and impact he can have on a team.

One of the many moves of their eventful summer, the Rangers rewarded Zibanejad with a five-year, $5.3 million contract, making him the 2nd highest paid forward and 5th overall on the team. That is a lot of trust in a kid who only played 56 games.

Despite all the moves by Jeff Gorton, he was unable to shore up one important position. Center. After trading Derek Stepan and losing Oscar Lindberg to Las Vegas, Gorton had to patch together the position. Asides for re-signing Zibanejad, the other centers on the opening night roster are Kevin Hayes, David Desharnais, Filip Chytil, and Paul Carey. Hayes is a nice player, who had a strong bounce-back season last year. Nonetheless, he has a way to go before being considered a bona fide top six center. Certainly, this not a group that opponents will lose sleep over.

Chytil, an 18-year-old phenom, is an intriguing story to follow early in the season. The Rangers’ 24th overall pick in the 2017 draft was extremely impressive in camp. He beat out the likes of 7th overall pick Lias Andersson and Boo Nieves to make the team. As good as he was, he still may not be around long. It is only worth keeping Chytil around if he will see the ice. If not, he is better off in the AHL or Europe where he can log a lot of minutes, like Andersson, who was sent back to Sweden for this season. Knowing coach Alain Vigneault, it is hard to see him getting important minutes. At this point, he is nothing more than a temporary solution.

Overall, the Rangers tout many talented forwards, which was what carried them last season. However, there are still plenty of question marks. Aside from Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash, who else is going to put the puck in the net and be a leader of the forwards? No one expects Grabner to put up 30 plus goals again. JT Miller was terrific but can he keep it up? Buchnevich has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to play meaningful minutes.

This puts all the more pressure on Zibanejad to carry the load. To start the season all indications point towards a first line of Zibanejad with Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider on his sides. He will also be trusted to run a revamped powerplay, along with newcomer Kevin Shattenkirk, to fix what has been a thorn in the Rangers’ side in recent years.

Zibanejad has improved in his goals, assists, total points, and faceoff percentage every year in his career. Last year, with the injury and missed games, was an aberration. Nonetheless, a line of 14-23-37 in 56 games is not too shabby. Playing on a line with Kreider, Buch, McDonagh, and Kevin Shattenkirk, this guy could be in store for a monster year.

The Eastern Conference and the Metropolitan Division look wide open this year. The chance is there to make a run. With Zibanejad leading the pack of young forwards, paired with a potentially dominant defense and The King, there is reason for optimism in MSG.