Once the dust settled from the Rangers offseason, they were entrusting Mika Zibanejad to be their top center the five-year, $26.75 million contract they gave to the 24-year-old Swede after Derek Stepan was traded serving as a symbolic handing of the keys to that role.
Through nearly the first quarter of the season, Zibanejad has lived up to it by putting up a team-high 18 points in 18 games, and hes done so aware there were those wondering if he could handle the greater responsibility and expectations.
I kind of try to play the underdog card a little bit because I knew there were a lot of questions, a lot of ifs Can he? and whatever, Zibanejad told the Daily News Tuesday before the Rangers (9-7-2) flew to Chicago for Wednesdays game. So far its been a fun challenge, and I said that from Day 1 I think after that contract, its gonna be a fun challenge to be able to be that guy, to get that role and to be, I guess, trusted on to provide offensively and provide a good overall game. The consistency over the first 18 games have been better than last year I find, so my lows are not as low as last year.
Hes been a prolific power-play player in helping boost the Rangers to a 25.8 percent man-advantage success rate, third-best in the NHL entering Tuesdays games. Zibanejads 10 power-play points (five goals, five assists) were fourth-most in the league behind Steven Stamkos (14,) Nikita Kucherov (13) and Phil Kessel (11.)
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The power play is where Zibanejad and linemates Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich have had their most success, combining for 22 man-advantage points. Theyve all been on the ice together for just two even-strength goals, but they are generating chances, and three times during the teams six-game win streak two of those three have been on together for an even-strength tally.
The whole process has been me trying to prove to myself that I can do it and not doubting myself and not letting anything around me get to me, Zibanejad said. Ive got to keep doing that. But I cant do this by myself. The linemates, the d-pairs, especially now when we start clicking, its so much easier. It reflects well on them as well.
Zibanejad is seeing a few more defensive-zone starts this season, sometimes tagging in for an extra faceoff on the penalty kill or in the third period. He is thriving but also isnt satisfied, which is something Alain Vigneault has noticed.
You can really sense that he wants to become the best that he can be, Vigneault said.
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He also received high praise from Henrik Lundqvist, who called Zibanejad one of the smartest players on the team at both ends of the rink.
Its also important that he accepted his role. We needed that, Lundqvist said. Hes that good of a player and hes been one of our best players I think so far this year. Its been great to watch.