Earlier this month; I took a look at how the Rangers chose Mika Zibanejad as their center of the future and the spearhead of the team’s current rebuild. In that article, I talked about how over the course of the last few years the Rangers made series of trades that either directly or indirectly led them to having the young Swede as their clear number one center.
Of course this started with the 2016 trade to acquire Zibanejad (and a 2nd rounder) when the team sent Derick Brassard to Ottawa along with a 7th round pick. That season, an uneven debut thanks to an unfortunate broken femur, saw Mika fill the void left by Brassard as the team’s 2C behind long time 1C Derek Stepan, and in front of 3rd line center Kevin Hayes. With the Rangers bounced from the playoffs early yet again that year, it was time for things to change; at the 2017 Draft, the Rangers dealt Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta to Arizona for Tony DeAngelo and the 7th overall pick.
At that point, Zibanejad suddenly found himself thrust into the first line role with Stepan gone, and again showed signs of promise until a concussion derailed his second season as a Ranger. It was also during this season the Rangers finally decided to tear it down and go through a proper rebuild, trading off Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and J.T. Miller all for a bundle of draft picks and prospects.
Finally, earlier this season with the rebuild fully underway, Zibanejad fully cemented himself into the number one role. He’s been a healthy and steady presence on New York’s top line, which has led to Mika being the first Rangers’ center to score at least 28 goals in a season since Eric Lindros did the deed during the 2001-02 season.
At the deadline the Rangers made their last move to solidify ZBad’s status as the nucleus of the next great Rangers team when they traded pending UFA to be Kevin Hayes to Winnipeg for Brandon Lemieux and a 1st round pick.
With all of these moves, it begs more than a few questions. One of them is “did the Rangers make the right call?” Well, to answer that I took a look at all four centers over the first two hundred or so games of their Rangers careers using both their offensive totals and underlying stats.
Outside of their power play and short-handed scoring rates, all numbers above are at 5v5 and adjusted for score and venue. Looking at those numbers, it’s clear that Zibanejad is more or less producing right along side the other three centers through their first 200 games as a Blueshirt. Where Zibanejad lacks in even strength production he more than makes up for it with his expertise on the power play.
A few things to keep in mind are that all four of these centers played in very, very different roles, under very different coaches, and very different teams through their first 200 games. Also keep in mind that these are counting up three full seasons for Hayes, Stepan (with a lockout shortened season in there for good measure), and Brassard. I don’t expect a twenty point explosion for Zibanejad over the next week or so, but it would be cool to see.
Now let’s take a look under the hood and see how these four pivots match up with more advanced metrics. What really stands out are their relative Corsi and xGF numbers here; it shows that even on weaker teams, Zibanejad pushes play and generates chances at a better rate than any of his three contemporaries and he’s playing on notably worse teams.
You’ll also notice, in that far right corner, GAR, or Goals Above Replacement. What is GAR? Well, here’s a good introduction to it from Pension Plan Puppets “In concept, GAR is a one size fits all number that encapsulates how valuable an individual player is in terms of on-ice play, relative to a ‘replacement level’ player. A replacement level player is a player of a caliber such that they are readily available and can be acquired and played at a moment’s notice.”
Essentially, Mika Zibanejad is producing just over 15 goals above what replacement player would contribute if given the same ice time and linemates that Zibanejad has had.
Just for fun, here’s how all three centers finished their Rangers careers. Zibanejad still has some catching up to do, but based on the way he’s played on this team, the question is less about whether he’ll match their scoring, but when he will.
Given the his style of play and his relative age, the Rangers made the right call in tapping Zibanejad as their top center to build around. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.