On July 18th, 2016, the New York Rangers traded fan favorite and ‘1B’ center Derick Brassard and a 7th round pick to the Ottawa Senators for 23 year old center Mika Zibanejad and a 2nd round pick. At the time, the trade was seen as the Rangers swapping 2nd line centers, while at the same time getting younger and creating a bit of cap space.
The word “rebuild” was the furthest from the Rangers sphere of influence at the time. The Blueshirts down the middle had Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, and Kevin Hayes — pretty solid group for a team ready to make one last push — and extended their window of strength with a younger addition.
In Zibanejad’s first season in Rangers blue, the 23 year old Swedish center had a hot start with his new team until he broke his leg in a game against the Panthers.
This freak accident knocked Zibanejad out of action until late January and the promise he showed at the beginning of his first season never seemed to come back, as he finished that campaign with 37 points and 14 goals in 56 games. That postseason the Rangers advanced to a second round showdown with old friend Derick Brassard and the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately that reunion didn’t go well for New York and the Rangers were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs again far sooner than they expected to be. Zibanejad, for his efforts, put up 9 points in those 12 playoff games.
Now that offseason, things really began to change as the Rangers shipped long-time 1C Derek Stepan, along with Antti Raanta, to Arizona for the 7th overall pick in the 2017 Draft (Lias Andersson) and mercurial offensive defenseman Tony DeAngelo. It was this move that really triggered a sea change on West 33rd between 7th and 8th, as general manager Jeff Gorton dropped the “rebuild on the fly” line when discussing the trade. The trade of Stepan not only signified the start of the Rangers’ rebuild, it gave them the opening to set the course of their rebuild by signing Zibanejad to a five year, $26 million extension. There was some trepidation at the time of the signing though. Had Zibanejad done enough to warrant such a big bet from the team and the front office? He only played 57 games, maybe this was too soon for a commitment like that?
Well, last season, in his first as the team’s legit top center, Mika silenced his doubters. Though he missed ten games because of a concussion, Mika set a season high with 27 goals to go along with a 47 point campaign. The Swedish-Iranian center was showing signs of really breaking through and though the Rangers missed the playoffs, ZBad was one of the few bright spots for a rather moribund team. Since it was a good building year for the young pivot, suddenly the conversation around the trade and extension began to turn.
So we come to this season. The Rangers are fully rebuilding, everyone and their mother knew it and basically the first half of the season was dedicated to seeing not if the Rangers are going to sell off at the deadline, but who, and how many players were going to be playing on different teams come February 25th. In fact, there were early debates on whether the Rangers should keep and invest in Kevin Hayes over Zibanejad.
Then the season started and Zibanejad began putting up points, dictating play, and really looked like a bona fide number one center. Sixty-five games into the season and DJ ZBad has already matched his career high in goals set last season and has shattered his career total in points with less than 20 games to play.Zibanejad is on pace to be the Rangers first 70-point player since Marian Gaborik’s 76 point 2011-12 campaign.
He’s answered every question and challenge the Rangers have thrown at him thus far, and with the team in the midst of a rebuild, the 25 year old has cemented himself as the focal point of the next great Rangers team.
Everyone knows that the best teams are built down the middle and the Rangers have an interesting crop of young centers in Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden who are all currently playing at the NHL level. All three are extremely talented, but they are still very raw and will take a year or two to really come into their own. Luckily, they won’t get thrown into the deepest end of the pool just yet with Zibanejad leading the way. His presence on the Rangers’ top line not only gives them an incredibly talented and polished center to build around with young wingers like Pavel Buchnevich and, eventually, Vitali Kravtsov. It also allows Andersson and Chytil to learn the NHL game while both playing against teams’ lower lines and learning from Zibanejad who has been thrust into a leadership role this year and thrived with it.
After coming to New York surrounded by question marks, Mika Zibanejad has taken his opportunities in New York and run with them, developing into a center and leader the likes of which the Rangers haven’t had for long time.
Not bad for a kid with some sick beats, eh?