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.