The day before Thanksgiving I asked Blueshirt Banter’s writers who they thought the team’s MVP was for the first quarter of the season, excluding Henrik Lundqvist. Why excluding Lundqvist? Because the goaltender is most valuable and important position in team sports. The fact that a goalie doesn’t take home the Hart Trophy is pretty much shenanigans, but I digress.
The majority of our writers chose 24-year-old center Mika Zibanejad. And really, it wasn’t much of a contest after filtering out the heart picks.
Zibanejad entered this season with a lot of weight on his shoulders thanks in large part to the Derek Stepan trade and his new five-year contract. Anyone who has watched the Rangers this season knows how Zibanejad has risen to the occasion. One could even say that the $5.35 million cap hit of his new deal already looks like a huge victory for general manager Jeff Gorton.
Through the first 22 games of the 2017-18 season Zibanejad has been a point-per-game player. It’s worth mentioning that scoring is up this year across the league, but that does little to diminish what Zibanejad has brought to the Rangers. Last year he scored 14 goals in a 56 game season that was cut short by a broken leg. This season the Swedish import already has 11 goals, five of which have come on the power play.
The power play is where Zibanejad has truly shined. On Thanksgiving Day only four players in the league had more points on the man advantage than the former sixth overall pick. The big shot that we saw last year is back with a vengeance in Zibanejad’s second season on Broadway and it has directly contributed to Zibanejad leading the Rangers in power play goals. There’s no controversy in saying that he and Kevin Shattenkirk are the two best things about the Rangers power play.
If you were building a case against Zibanejad being the Rangers most valuable skater thus far this season, you might turn the spotlight on his 5-on-5 production. Kevin Hayes, the Rangers de facto second line center, has the edge on Zibanejad in 5-on-5 primary points by a substantial margin.
One of Zibanejad’s 11 goals has been an empty netter. Oh and there’s also this recent goal which was pretty much a gift from the hockey gods.
So Zibanejad’s production at even strength has left something to be desired this season, but the same can be said for almost all of the Rangers forwards. Last season the Blueshirts were seventh in the league in team goals for during 5-on-5 hockey. This season they’ve dropped to tenth. That may not seem like much of a difference, but it played a huge role in the team’s early season struggles.
However, Zibanejad’s positive influence on his teammates during 5-on-5 play is as clear as day when you dive into the numbers. There’s a lot more going on just a He has the best possession numbers on the team by a significant margin (excluding the small sample size of Tony DeAngelo) and there are just two Rangers who have fared better without Zibanejad on the ice (note: data excludes the Rangers most recent game).
Analytics aren’t your thing? Zibanejad is second on the Rangers in shots on goal and is leading the Rangers in points by a margin of four. And, most importantly, he’s stayed healthy while embracing the responsibilities that came hand-in-hand with his big new contract. Zibanejad is second among Rangers forwards in ice time and is even chipping in on the penalty kill this year.
There’s no longer any doubt that Zibanejad is a legitimate number one center. He is putting up points, playing sound two-way hockey and stepping up when his team needs him most. His big right-handed shot is one of the Rangers greatest weapons and this season Zibanejad has arguably been the most consistent skilled forward on the team.
Oh, and he’s also a DJ.
So, do you agree? If not, who is your Rangers MVP in the first quarter of the season if not Mika Zibanejad or Henrik Lundqvist?
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Shattenkirk, Pavel Buchnevich