A Look at Mika Zibanejad and His Hot Start for the New York Rangers

Mika Zibanejad
Mika Zibanejad celebrates scoring a goal in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 9, 2017 in New York City. (Phot by Getty Images Sport)

The hockey world now knows the name of the New York Rangers Mika Zibanejad with his stellar play through the first two games of the 2019-20 NHL season. The Rangers centerman notched eight points (four goals and four assists) in his team’s first two games of the season. It was enough to earn him the NHL’s First Star of the Week alongside Anthony Mantha and Auston Matthews.

Zibanejad’s hot start is one of just a handful of times he’s gotten significant attention from the league in his nine-year career. Let’s take a closer look at the Swede, and how he now has the chance to be a premier two-way centre in the NHL.

A Deeper Look at Mika Zibanejad

Before the NHL

Before coming to the NHL, Zibanejad tore it up in his native Sweden. He has represented his country in the Under-16, 17, 18, and 20 World Championships. In the 2009 U-17 World Championship, Zibanejad scored five goals and four assists in six games. He led the tournament in goals while Sweden won the bronze medal.

In the 2011 U-18 World Championship, Zibanejad continued to score over a point-per-game. He notched four goals and four assists in six games while his team won a silver medal. Zibanejad also scored the most points by a junior player in the SHL while playing for Djurgårdens IF. In 19 games played with Sweden’s U-18 team, Zibanejad scored 13 goals and 10 assists.

That drew the attention of the Ottawa Senators, who selected him sixth overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Zibanejad made the opening-day roster, registering an assist in nine games before being sent back to Sweden.

That allowed him to play in the U-20 World Junior Championship where Zibanejad truly made a name for himself. His point totals weren’t as gaudy as they were in the younger divisions. Zibanejad still had four goals and an assist in six games. None of his goals were bigger than in the gold medal game, where Zibanejad scored the overtime-winner to prevail over Russia.

Welcome to the Show

In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Zibanejad found himself in the Senators everyday lineup. He was mainly on the third and fourth lines, picking up 20 points in 42 games. He added a goal and three assists in the playoffs in Ottawa’s run to the second round.

In 2013-14, Zibanejad started the year playing with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. He scored two goals and five assists in six games before being called up to the Ottawa Senators. Zibanejad never looked back, suiting up in 69 games for the Sens that year. He posted a respectable 16 goals and 17 assists while taking just nine penalties all year.

Zibanejad had solidified himself as an NHL regular and his numbers began to increase. He had career-years the following two seasons. In 2014-15, he recorded 46 points (20g, 26a), then followed with 51 points (21g, 30a) the next season.

After a career-year in 2015-16, Zibanejad was traded to the New York Rangers for Derick Brassard and a second-round draft pick. It was clear that the Senators were going to have to sign the Swede long-term. They had given Zibanejad a two-year bridge deal the previous year when he was a restricted free agent.

The new scenery took a toll on Zibanejad’s numbers, scoring just 37 points in 56 games while battling injury. He was healthy in the playoffs though, helping the Rangers reach the second round by scoring two goals and seven assists in 12 games.

Establishing Himself in the League

It was clear the Rangers liked what they saw out of their new centreman. They inked Zibanejad to a five-year, $26.75 million contract in the summer of 2017. The increase in pay coincided with an increase in numbers. Zibanejad recorded a career-high 27 goals in 2017-18. He was dominant on the powerplay, scoring 14 goals and 21 points on the man advantage.

He elevated his game again the next year. In the first season which he played in all 82 games, Zibanejad shattered career-highs in goals, assists and points. As the clear-cut top centre in New York, he notched 30 goals and 44 assists. He was the Rangers everyman, playing in all situations. He scored 13 goals on the powerplay and recorded two shorthanded goals. The only cause for concern was the career-high 47 penalty minutes he took. That could be attributed to matching up against the opposition’s best lines for the first time in his career.

The Rise of Mika Zibanejad

Zibanejad’s rise to an elite NHL center shouldn’t be a surprise. He has maintained a Corsi-for rating above 50% in all but one season. In 2018-19, he had a 49.6 percent rating in his first season as a first-line centre. His career Corsi rating is 54 percent, with a Fenwick rating to match at 53.9 percent. When Zibanejad is on the ice, he is creating scoring chances.

But Zibanejad is more than just a scoring centre. He is a strong two-way player. The only season he has taken more than 10 minor penalties was also the 2018-19 season. He is a trusted penalty killer, recording five shorthanded in his career.

As a center, he is tasked to win faceoffs. He maintains a career-winning percentage of 49.9 percent. He is 64.4 percent in the dot in two games this season.

The Takeaway

At 6’2 and just over 200 pounds, Zibanejad is built to be a top center in the NHL. It has been a long road for him to attain a top-line job. But he has been in the league since he was 18. He has almost 500 games of experience, and over 300 points (139g, 178a) to show for it. At just 26 years of age, Zibanejad is now in his prime.

The Rangers have him for the next three seasons and have pencilled him as the top center. He also has a crop of talented players to play with. Playing alongside Artemi Panarin, and being able to mentor young forwards Kaapo Kakko and Lias Andersson could be factored in Zibanejad’s early-season success.

So far this season, the Swede has four goals and four assists, including a hat trick against the Senators. Three of his points have come on the powerplay, while two of them have come shorthanded.

Zibanejad has shown that he can perform at every level of hockey he has played in. He has participated in big games and contributed in clutch moments. He is a coach’s dream being a two-way center who now has a year of experience matching up against the NHL’s best forward lines.

While it’s certainly early to say that Mika Zibanejad is a top-10 centre or a Selke candidate, Week One in the NHL has shown signs of serious improvement in Zibanejad’s game.

Mika Zibanejad celebrates scoring a goal in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 9, 2017 in New York City. (Phot by Getty Images Sport)

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