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Zibanejad jumps at opportunity to be Rangers’ No. 1 center

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It’s reasonable to assume that the New York Rangers were comfortable trading Derek Stepan in part because they believed Mika Zibanejad could step into the No. 1 center role.

That puts a lot of pressure on Zibanejad, who’s never been the top pivot on an NHL team before. If that wasn’t enough, now he’ll need to justify the first big contract of his career (seeing his cap hit rise from $2.625 million to $5.35 million).

MORE: Rangers lock up Zibanejad for five years

At least he isn’t oblivious to this challenge, and as the Rangers website notes, he’s actually super happy* to raise the stakes.

“I think even before signing, seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role,” Zibanejad said. “As a player, you always want more responsibility and a bigger role. It’s something that I’m working really hard to make sure that I’m … taking advantage of the chance I’m getting.”

Stepan drew criticism – arguably unfair criticism – from Rangers fans for not being quite the No. 1 center many of them wanted, so it will be interesting to see how Zibanejad handles the challenge/burden.

If you were to grade his first season with the Rangers, you might be tempted to hand him an “Incomplete.”

Injuries really limited him for much of 2016-17, but when he played, he was solid, scoring 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games. Zibanejad had a flair for the dramatic, too.

Still, in full seasons, Zibanejad’s produced nice-but-unspectacular numbers. Two straight 20+ goal seasons to finish his Senators days were helpful, but many of his stats more or less fell in line with Stepan’s production.

Now, at 24, it’s reasonable to believe that Zibanejad’s best days are in front of him. It’s also true that, while he’s received nice opportunities to succeed, he wasn’t quite getting those top-line reps that Stepan received.

In all likelihood, it will come down to expectations. If Rangers fans want Zibanejad to produce at a level far exceeding Stepan, they might be disappointed; the bar for a successful season by most forwards’ standards has changed in the NHL, and Stepan’s mostly made the grade. On the other hand, if expectations are kept in check, Zibanejad could be a very nice fit for the Rangers.

Though he might miss the Derick Brassard comparisons now that the measuring stick changed to Derek Stepan.

* – Seriously, the guy said “super happy” a lot.

Rangers lock up Zibanejad for next five years

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The New York Rangers have locked up a key piece of their future, signing center Mika Zibanejad to a five-year deal with a cap hit of $5.35 million.

Zibanejad had an arbitration hearing scheduled for today, but that won’t be required anymore.

The 24-year-old had 14 goals and 23 assists in 56 games last season. It was his first year in New York after getting traded from Ottawa for Derick Brassard.

With Derek Stepan in Arizona now, Zibanejad is arguably the Rangers’ No. 1 center. Kevin Hayes is in that conversation as well, and perhaps Lias Andersson will be soon.

But getting Zibanejad signed long term was a top priority for GM Jeff Gorton this offseason. Hayes can become a restricted free agent next summer, but that’s a bridge to cross at a later date.

Related: Andersson to get ‘every opportunity’ to make Rangers next season

Report: John MacLean could join Tocchet’s coaching staff in Arizona

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The Arizona Coyotes have a new head coach, but Rick Tocchet still has to fill out the rest of his staff.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the ‘Yotes might be looking to add John MacLean to their coaching staff.

MacLean, 52, spent six years as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils (2002-2009) before becoming the head coach of their AHL affiliate. After one year of coaching in the minors, MacLean was promoted to head coach of the Devils. His tenure didn’t last very long, as he was fired after just 33 games (they were 9-22-2 under his watch).

He spent the following three seasons as an assistant in Carolina, but he was let go after the 2014 season.

MacLean hasn’t been back behind an NHL bench since being let go by the ‘Canes. Instead, he’s served as a hockey analyst on various television networks.

Related:

Tocchet wants Coyotes’ young players to be ‘creative’ and ‘calculated’

Tocchet brings lessons from past mistakes (and successes) to Coyotes

Sabres re-sign Robin Lehner to one-year, $4 million deal

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The Buffalo Sabres avoided salary arbitration with goalie Robin Lehner, as they inked him to a one-year, $4 million contract on Tuesday morning.

Lehner and the Sabres were scheduled to have their hearing on July 27, but that obviously won’t be necessary anymore.

The 26-year-old played a career-high 59 games in 2016-17. He finished the year with a 23-26-8 record, a 2.68 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage.

There’s no doubt that he’s a talented netminder, but he’s had his share of struggles when it comes to staying healthy and being consistent. Of course, the team in front of him hasn’t been very good either.

Both of Buffalo’s goalies (Lehner and Chad Johnson) will have something to prove this season because they’re both on one-year contracts. When their deals expire next summer, Lehner will be a restricted free agent again, while Johnson will be free to test the market on July 1st.

The Sabres now have just over $10.9 million in cap space with RFAs Zemgus Girgensons, Nathan Beaulieu and Evan Rodrigues still needing new contracts.

A huge extension for Jack Eichel is also on the horizon, but his new salary won’t count on the cap until 2018-19.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice