Evaluating Mika Zibanejad’s First Half As Rangers’ No. 1 Center

How does Zibanejad stack up with other No. 1 centers at the All-Star break in his first season as Rangers’ No. 1 pivot?

The 2017-18 season is Mika Zibanejad’s second season with the New York Rangers, and his first since signing a five-year, $26.75 million extension. Heading into this season there were numerous expectations surrounding Zibanejad following the departure of Derek Stepan, as the transaction thrust him into the No. 1 center position.

Management only got a glimpse of him the season prior, as his first year on Broadway was limited to 56 games after breaking his fibula in November 2016. So far this season, Zibanejad has appeared in all but nine games (concussion), and his 41 games can analyzed to see how he stacks up against other first-line centers in the league.

Those centers include:

Ryan Getzlaf, Derek Stepan, Patrice Bergeron, Jack Eichel, Jordan Staal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Sean Monahan, Jonathan Toews, Nathan Mackinnon, Tyler Seguin, Henrik Zetterberg, Connor McDavid, Aleksander Barkov, Anze Kopitar, Mikko Koivu, Phillip Danault, Nico Hischier, Ryan Johansen, John Tavares, Derick Brassard, Sean Couturier, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Brayden Schenn, Steven Stamkos, Auston Matthews, Bo Horvat, William Karlsson, Mark Scheifele and Nicklas Backstrom

These players were identified using TOI information provided graciously by Shayna, as well as a cross referencing of line combinations. There may be a player or two not listed, ie: Travis Zajac has seen some time as NJD’s No. 1 center, but this grouping is pretty sound.

5v5 Numbers Through 1.25.18

Rel CF%5.228th
Rel xGF%5.1710th
AVG TOI12.6430th

The first thing you may notice here is that when looking at 5v5 numbers, Zibanejad is in the bottom portion among centers in a majority of categories. He is second to last among first-line centers in GF%, average TOI, total TOI, and PDO. He is also at or near the bottom of the list in points, points per 60, and CF%. Where Zibanejad does rank favorably is CF% relative to his teammates (8th), expected goals for percentage (16th), and relative expected goals for percentage (10th).

I think an accurate profile for Zibanejad would state that he is a center who is posting quality possession numbers on a dreadful possession team. The way he plays the game suggests that he should have better numbers than he does. He happens to be sporting a rather low amount of time on ice and when you look at his PDO of 95.78, it suggests that he is due for better results. The fact that he drives possession, relative to his teammates, suggests that he isn’t a passenger of a player and his standard stats do not tell the whole story.

When I originally saw that Zibanejad had just 13 points 5v5, I will admit I was a bit concerned. Looking at the underlying numbers supported my assumption, though. Anyone who has watched the KZB line (Kreider, Zibanejad, Buchnevich) has an understanding of the pace and jump the line plays with, and how unlucky at times they have been.

Here’s a quick snapshot of each line’s performance season to date via Natural Stat Trick:

  • KZB - 194:04, 55.25 CF% , 56.07 SF%, 38.46 GF%, 95.7 PDO/

Since Chris Kreider has been sidelined, his place has been filled by Rick Nash, and here’s how the line has performed for some context:

  • NZB - 70:48, 46.20 CF%, 56.18 SF%, 66.67 GF%, 104.3 PDO/

Ultimately the fact remains that from a 5v5 perspective, it is fair to say Zibanejad is doing the right things but just not getting rewarded enough.

Personally, it would be nice to see him fit in the No. 15 spot or anywhere above. There are a lot of talented centers in the league to put in a top 10 like Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Seguin, Connor McDavid, Aleksander Barkov, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Auston Matthews and Mark Scheifele just to name a few, and at this point Zibanejad isn’t on their level. There’s a good chance he may never be on some of their levels, but at age 24 there is still time for him to improve his overall standing. In other words, he’s at the bottom of the table this season, but has the talent to be middle of the league or better.

With that said, I wanted to look at where Zibanejad fell among all centers by considering all situations.

All Situations Through 1.25.18

Rel CF%5.934th
Rel xGF%7.364th
AV TOI17.9028th

In this view Zibanejad remains toward the bottom in points per 60 (20th), total points (26th), average TOI (28th), TOI (28th), GF% (29th), and he was dead last in PDO. Areas where Zibanejad’s numbers were more favorable include Rel CF% (4th), xGF% (5th), and relative xGF% (4th).

I think the same statement from the 5v5 section applies here – Zibanejad is doing a lot of things right, but isn’t getting the results. It doesn’t help that his TOI isn’t there, although the total TOI is a byproduct of missing nine games. Still, his average TOI relative to other centers still isn’t there, and it should be much higher. He’s deserving of more ice because he’s a smart player who makes things happen, and knows how to get the puck where it needs to go.

Zibanejad currently ranks fourth on the Rangers in scoring with 28 points in 41 games. He is third in goals with 14 and seventh in assists with 14 as well. He’s been one of the Rangers most important players this season, and it is fair to say he’s been a success thus far. Over a full season, he’s on pace to score 56 points which would be a career high.

In terms of points per game played, Zibanejad has shown growth year over year in points per game while showing consistency in overall points per 60.

  • 2017-18 - 0.68 P/GP | 2.29 P/60
  • 2016-17 - 0.66 P/GP | 2.32 P/60
  • 2015-16 - 0.63 P/GP | 2.09 P/60
  • 2014-15 - 0.58 P/GP | 2.10 P/60
  • 2013-14 - 0.48 P/GP | 1.95 P/60
  • 2012-13 - 0.48 P/GP | 2.11 P/60/

There’s every reason to believe that should continue in the future given how dynamic he’s looked with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, and at $5.35 million the Rangers have quite a bargain.

The Rangers have been a team that scores by committee over the last few years and that explains why they have lacked elite offensive talent from an end of year stat table perspective. With that said, does Zibanejad have the potential to buck that trend?

The answer is maybe, but either way there’s reason to be optimistic about him. Last season, only 19 players tallied at least 70 points. I don’t know if he has the potential to be a point per game player over a full season, but 70 points in a full season seems like a realistic ceiling. If not that, 60 points over an 82 game season is very reasonable (0.73 P/GP).

That seems even more attainable with high-caliber linemates; Buchnevich, for example, has shown what he’s capable with Zibanejad as his center, and they could become a real power duo.

These numbers may seem lower than fans want, but you need to temper expectations.  Here’s a look at the Rangers’ leading scorers over the last six seasons, one of which was a lockout year.

Rangers’ Single Season Scoring Leaders 2011 to 2017

2016-17Mats Zuccarello801544590.74
2015-16Mats Zuccarello812635610.75
2014-15Rick Nash794227690.87
2013-14Mats Zuccarello791940590.75
2012-13Derek Stepan481826440.92
2011-12Marian Gaborik824135760.93

On the high-end Zibanejad’s 0.85 P/GP average (70 points in 82) would be fourth-best if it stood. The lower end 0.73 P/GP average (60 points in 82) would be just behind Zuccarello’s numbers last year.

While they aren’t world beaters, it isn’t like the Rangers have had someone among the league leaders in quite some time.

The last time a Ranger was in the NHL’s top 20 in scoring was the 2014-15 season when Nash tallied 69 points in 79 games (0.91 P/GP). And the last time a Ranger was in the NHL’s top 10 in scoring was the 2009-10 season when Marian Gaborik tallied 86 points in 76 games (1.13 P/GP).

The potential is there for Zibanejad to do some good things but for now there should be some appreciation for what he’s done.

Zibanejad has been pretty good this year. The numbers aren’t as high as fans would have liked, but if the numbers suggesting he’s been a bit unlucky are true, he is bound to reap the benefits when the bounces start going his way.