Hartnett: Rangers Must Hold On To Zibanejad During Rebuild

Mika Zibanejad
Photo credit USA TODAY Images

It feels like Mika Zibanejad has been around forever. His 2016 arrival in the Big Apple saw the Rangers part with popular playoff performer Derick Brassard. At the time, the Blueshirts were taking a form of risk by dealing away a proven commodity in Brassard for a potentially higher upside replacement in Zibanejad.

Trading experience for youth can sometimes work out handsomely and other times can devastate a franchise if a young player fails to reach his potential. Zibanejad was 23 at the time of the trade. He still had a lot to prove despite his production increasing year-by-year in Ottawa.

His first season in New York showed tremendous promise but was interrupted by a gruesome broken fibula collision into the boards. Though Zibanejad would miss 25 games, the potential that he demonstrated as a fast, two-way center was obvious. The Rangers had stolen a real talent in the making from the Senators, acquiring a high-ceiling center who fit in with the organization’s desire to rebuild and reformulate its core.

Flash forward to 2019. The Rangers are in the midst of a serious rebuild, and Zibanejad is a few months shy of celebrating his 26th birthday. His contract runs through the 2021-22 season at a market-friendly cap hit of $5.35 million. As the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches, the Rangers will be inclined to shed some of their established players for youth and draft picks that will aid their rebuild.

Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello and other familiar faces could be gone by the time the deadline passes. At age 25 and under contract for three additional seasons, Zibanejad is in a different place from several of his teammates. He fits into the organization’s long-term plan and could be hitting his best years once the Blueshirts make the jump from also-rans to legitimate contenders.

Lately, the Rangers have come out of a cold spell by playing some of their best hockey of the season. They showed a large uptick in tenacity and togetherness in Saturday’s 3-2 road win against the Boston Bruins to extend their winning streak to three.

Zibanejad has been instrumental to the Rangers’ turnaround by scoring the winning goal in each of the three victories over Carolina, Chicago and Boston. He was named the NHL’s second star of the week. Notably, he became the second player in Rangers’ history to record the winning goal in three consecutive games since franchise legend Rod Gilbert in 1966.

Impressively, the 6-foot-2 Swede is enjoying the finest year of his career on a young team that has seen some of its best players traded elsewhere. Zibanejad has recorded 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists) through 48 games. He’s playing at a 0.92 points-per-game clip. That’s higher than several superstars at his position including Evgeny Kuznetsov of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals (0.9) and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks (0.86).

The Rangers are intent on forming a winning team through the youth movement that should coincide with Zibanejad entering his peak years. Should the Blueshirts assemble and develop the right pieces around him, Zibanejad will be a major force driving this franchise toward Stanley Cup contention.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey.