It is often hard for players to adjust to being traded to a new team before the start of the year. It’s even harder when said player was acquired for a downright fan favorite.
Mika Zibanejad came into the picture for Derick Brassard in a trade so good you needed to look twice at it. Zibanejad started off the year red-hot, centering a line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich that might have been one of the more lethal lines in hockey. As all good coaches do, however, Alain Vigneault broke up his best line and didn’t put them back together again until the playoffs -- where he used them twice and then broke them up again. Needless to say, the Rangers suffered for said decision.
Because throughout the playoffs there was a notion that Zibanejad is way worse than Barssard, I am obligated to remind you of the following:
Zibanejad: 14-23-37 in 56 regular season games played | 2-7-9 in 12 playoff games
Brassard: 14-25-39 in 81 regular season games played | 4-7-11 in 19 playoff games
Are we done with that nonsense now? No? OK how about if I add Brassard will be 30 before the 2017-2018 starts and Zibanejad won’t be 25 until April? Now are we done? Good.
What derailed Zibanejad was a mid-season broken fibula that kept him out for nearly two months. It took Zibanejad a few weeks after he returned to get back into form, and the injury broke up whatever consistency he was working towards with the team.
Zibanejad is an all-around player, who has a lethal shot, sneaky-good vision, and can take care of himself in his own zone. At his best, Zibanejad was creating space with his skating off the rush, using his shot, and when he didn’t have the space he was getting the puck to guys who did have space. He was great at breaking the puck out of his own zone, did wonderful work in the neutral zone, and every now and again was the special teams monster he was projected to be in the preseason.
Speaking of ... One of the drawbacks on Zibanejad was that he either wasn’t using his shot enough, or when he did he was missing the net. Zibanejad had a habit in the preseason of setting up shop on the power play in the Ovechkin Office and ripping the puck bar down or picking corners. During the year the Rangers adjusted their power play strategy away from this method. Zibanejad still set up shop, but the puck movement wasn’t designed to get him the puck for those blasts, and when it did work out to get to him there, he often missed the net.
Those are things that can be fixed. Trying to be too perfect or gripping the stick a little too tight will do a large amount of damage when you’re working in such a finite area rarely works well, and him getting back in form from the injury probably doesn’t help there either.
With all that said though, Zibanejad was one of the Rangers’ best players down the stretch and easily one of their best forwards in the playoffs. Sometimes Zibanejad doesn’t play a fancy game so it’s easy to lose him, but he had nine points in the 12 playoff games (which led all Rangers).
As a pending RFA, there’s a rare opportunity here for Jeff Gorton to lock down a cornerstone player long term for under market value. Because of his perceived “down year” the Rangers would be smart to avoid a bridge deal. I’ll have a longer story on that later, and Tom did a wonderful contract comparison here.
Zibanejad had a solid regular season and a very good playoffs. Considering the two line mates he worked best with were pulled out from under him, and that he took a massive injury-midway through the year, I’m happy to give him a B for the regular season. For the playoffs I think Zibanejad was one of the Rangers better players, even if he missed the net far too often. Regardless, adding in the playoffs his overall grade is a B+.