Even when they won six in a row, the Rangers hadn’t been getting production from everyone. Now that the winning streak is over courtesy of who else but the rival Islanders, who prevailed 4-2 last night in Brooklyn, it’s time to take a closer look at one of the key forwards who has been mostly MIA lately.
Center Mika Zibanejad was brought in from Ottawa last summer in a cap cutting deal that sent popular Blueshirt Derick Brassard to the Senators before his no movement clause kicked in. The 23-year old Zibanejad got off to a good start on Broadway producing at nearly a point-per-game clip the first two months. In his first 19 games as a Ranger, he tallied five goals and 10 assists totaling 15 points before a broken leg sidetracked him two months.
The big right-handed pivot who remains the club’s most dependable in the face-off dot winning 52.1 percent of draws returned on Jan. 17 in a wild and crazy 7-6 home defeat to the Stars. In that game, he scored twice looking like he hadn’t missed a beat. At the time, coach Alain Vigneault reunited him with rookie Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash. But after a few games together, he broke it up.
Eventually, inseparable duo Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello wound up with Zibanejad. While chemistry has continued between Kreider and Zuccarello, who are near the top of the leader board on the Rangers, the same cannot be echoed for Zibanejad. Without a goal over his last dozen games, he’s only picked up four assists over that stretch. They all came within a five game stretch.
Zibanejad is without a point in the last three. It was okay because other teammates were coming through. Particularly the cohesive third unit of Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. They are the biggest reason the Rangers have hung tough in the Metro Division. Nash has played with Derek Stepan and rookie Jimmy Vesey, who scored in a second straight with him the team’s best skater.
The issue for the Swede is this. Consistency hasn’t been there since the injury. He’s totaled six points in 13 games. This is a talented player with a top heavy shot that can be a weapon. With the Rangers power play resembling the old Perry Pearn and Mike Sullivan days, it hasn’t helped that Zibanejad hasn’t been able to get off his lethal one-timer from the off side. He hasn’t been hitting the net as frequently.
Want proof? Here are his shot totals in the 12 games since his two-goal game against Dallas:
1/19 @ TOR 2
1/22 @ DET 1
1/23 vs LAK 0
1/25 vs PHI 1
1/31 vs CBJ 2
2/2 @ BUF 1
2/5 vs CGY 1
2/7 vs ANA 1
2/9 vs NSH 1
2/11 vs COL 0
2/13 @ CBJ 1
2/16 @ NYI 2
Total Shots: 13
It’s literally impossible for Zibanejad to only have totaled 13 shots over the last 12. Absurd. Even if he’s looking to set up Kreider and Zuccarello more, he’s not shooting enough. Whether it be some attempts missing completely or getting blocked, he needs to do a better job getting shots on goal.
How can Vigneault keep him with Kreider and Zuccarello? It’s not like Nash has been tearing it up either. He has spurts during shifts but still isn’t finishing enough. Even with missing 12 games, 16 goals in 45 isn’t the kind of production you expect from the team’s highest paid skater. It makes leaving him unprotected for the upcoming Las Vegas expansion draft a certainty. Especially with one year left and owed $8.2 million with a cap hit of $7.8 million.
It’s not a knock on Nash. He plays hard and has turned himself into a complete forward similar to what Marian Hossa is for the Blackhawks. As he enters his mid-30’s, that kind of two-way player still has value. Nash could still be capable of 25-30 goals if he finds the right fit. It’s clearly ending in 2017-18 here.
As for Zibanejad, he’s fully capable of more than seven goals in 32 games and none in the last 12. Even more mystifying, he has yet to score a power play goal. That seems far fetched. He has five power play assists. With a cap hit of $2.625 million and earning $3.25 million in the final year of his contract before turning restricted, he needs to finish strong.
General manager Jeff Gorton could penny pinch Zibanejad. Especially if he doesn’t improve. There’s still plenty of time left for that. With 25 games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs ahead, that’s where the former 2011 sixth overall pick of the Senators can earn his money.
Make no mistake. If the Rangers are to be successful, they need him to come through similar to Big Game Brass. The journey is just ahead.