It’s been two years since Ryan McDonagh was traded from the New York Rangers, leaving the team with a group of rotating alternate captains.
At the beginning of this season, it was reported that the Rangers would not be naming their 28th captain, leaving the position up for debate by many. As the Blueshirts enter the final stretch of the season, it has become clear that there are two leading candidates to wear the “C” in linemates Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, with one being more evident than the other. Both players have donned an “A” since the McDonagh trade but only one will be rewarded with the “C”.
Before breaking his foot, Kreider had played 63 games this season, scoring 24 goals and tallying 21 assists. It appeared that he was on track to exceed his previous high of 28 goals and with 45 points total, he was in range of surpassing his current career-high of 53 points in a single season.
When he re-signed with the Rangers for another seven years, many fans believed that this was an indication the left winger would be wearing a “C” come next season. The 28 year-old is a proven veteran as he has displayed his dominance on the ice with his defensive aggressiveness in the neutral zone, in addition to the scoring opportunities he creates with his size and speed.
Being the longest tenured Ranger skater, the organization and fans have watched Kreider develop into his current leadership position on the team. Ryan Lindgren said of Kreider, “The younger guys, we all look up to him and talk to him and ask for advice, and he’s just such a great teammate and a great guy. You can’t undervalue how impactful he’s been for the younger guys and everything he does for this entire team,” (NHL.com).
His ability to communicate for and with the other players is another important aspect of being captain. He has physically backed his teammates on the ice and has developed relationships with them off over the years, which can help unite this group as they rebuild into a contending team. And, his veteran status as a Blueshirt makes him a fitting leader for this young team.
Then there is Kreider’s linemate, Mika Zibanejad.
In recent years, Zibanejad has been one of the more popular Rangers and has become a leading candidates to assume the captaincy. Traded to the Rangers in 2016 from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard, Zibanejad has developed into one of the team’s best all-around forwards. In his first season as a Blueshirt, he suffered from a broken leg and finished with 37 points. The following year, Zibanejad became more consistent, but missed time with a concussion and ended the season with 47 points.
Last year was a breakout season for Zibanejad, as he avoided injury and played a full 82-game season in which he had a career high of 30 goals and 44 assists for 74 points. Currently in his third year of a five-year contract, Zibanejad had to deal with an upper-body injury and missed 13 games early this year. Nonetheless, he persisted and has recorded 72 points with 39 goals and 33 assists this season, reaching an all new career high in goals and is three points away from a new career high in points.
The 26 year-old has been on fire lately with six goals in the last two games. He is also leading the NHL in goals per game with 0.71 in 56 games and has been one of the NHL’s most productive players in calendar year 2020 with 41 points in 29 games. Besides producing offensively this season, he has become one of the best defensive forwards in the league which has helped him push play back into the offensive zone, where he can show what a game-breaker he’s become.
Overall, Zibanejad is a charismatic person who gets along with and is well respected by his teammates. He’s become one of the Rangers’ most marketed players, and unofficially has been the face of the team. Although his contract expires in two years, it is hard to see a future of this Rangers team without Zibanejad leading it. After the contracts of Brendan Smith, Marc Staal, and Henrik Lundqvist end, and Kevin Shattenkirk’s buyout payout decreases by $4.65 million, a deal similar could be made given his importance to the team.
“I didn’t know he was this good when I took the job,” second-year head coach David Quinn said. “He has such passion for the game, and he wants to be the best player he can possibly be. [He] comes every day and works hard. He’s everything you want in your best player.” (New York Post)
That importance showed this past week. Losing a tough game to a division rival and Kreider with a fractured foot could have been defeating — Zibanejad noted how rough their situation was. But this past Thursday night, the Swedish center responded a career defining game, scoring five of the Rangers’ six goals against the Capitals, setting milestones and adding to the team’s history. His overtime winner broke a three-game losing streak for the Rangers and gave them the fuel they need as they continue to make a playoff push.
Zibanejad has become an elite and very reliable player for the Rangers, coming in the clutch for them in key moments such as Thursday night’s game, and on February 25 vs. the New York Islanders in overtime. His explosive chemistry alongside Panarin, in the absence of Kreider, was just another display of Zibanejad’s ability to step up when the team needs him to.
It wouldn’t be surprising or disappointing if either one of these forwards is given the Rangers’ captaincy, but with all that being said, Zibanejad rightfully appears to be the leading candidate. Having two strong candidates is beneficial for the Rangers, as it shows the leadership group they’ve developed. And having two players as close as Kreider and Zibanejad should result in a lot of support from the other once the “C” is given out.
To this point, naming a captain hasn’t been a necessity. However, it should be an exciting step forward in their rebuilding process.