By Sean Hartnett
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Among topics discussed by Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault on the first day of training camp was the potential impact of offseason splash Mika Zibanejad.
Acquired on July 18 in exchange for popular center Derick Brassard, the 23-year-old is considered a high-ceiling talent by key decision-makers across the Rangers’ organization.
“He’s a young player that our scouting staff and our management all felt was on the upswing,” Vigneault said on Thursday. “He’s been in Ottawa for a few years. He’s been able to play power play, penalty killing, five-on-five. The speed is there, the skill is there, the youth is there.”
Zibanejad collected 51 points (21 goals, 31 assists) in 81 games last season. With each passing season, the Swede has increased his point production and matured into an intelligent two-way center. Since being eliminated by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of last seasons’ playoffs, the Rangers’ mission has been to get faster and younger.
Zibanejad certainly fills those needs as he is already an accomplished young forward that appears to be on the verge of taking his game to the next level. Though the clutch Brassard was undoubtedly valuable, Zibanejad is a faster skater, more active in the defensive end and a slightly larger body at 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds.
The Rangers aren’t just getting a highly skilled center who could soon surpass Brassard’s production of 58 points last season and offer immediate help on the defensive side of the puck, they are getting a moldable project.
“We believe he’s not fully developed yet,” Vigneault said of Zibanejad. “With the right environment teammate-wise and coaching-wise, we can get more from Mika. We think we have a good young player we can work with for some time.”
As the Penguins showed on their way to defeating the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final, speed and youth wins championships these days. Uptempo hockey has always been AV’s style and Zibanejad fits in nicely with the coach’s demands of being quick out of the defensive end and creative in the offensive zone.
“We still believe that we’re a very strong hockey team,” Vigneault said. “We’ve got some very good experience, some guys that have played big games, important games, big minutes. We’ve got some younger guys who are developing, who are improving. I see good speed, which is something I like. I like to play a fast, high-tempo game. We’d like to continue that.”
Zibanejad has come into his surroundings motivated to take the next leap in his progression. He heard for years in Ottawa about his breakout potential. The Rangers offer him a fresh start, new teammates like Derek Stepan and Rick Nash whose veteran brains he can pick and model his work ethic after, and a coaching staff that believes he can develop into an integral part of the Blueshirts’ success.
“As far as where I’m at in my stage in my career, the level I’m at right now, I want to take the next step,” Zibanejad said during a July 19 conference call. “I want that to be a big jump. I’m trying to take it step-by-step all the time, but I think I’m waiting, and people are waiting, for my breakout year. That’s what I’m hoping for, that’s what I’m working towards, to have it. I feel like in this stage in my career, I’m ready for that.
“All my energy goes to proving Ottawa wrong, but at the same time I want to prove the Rangers right, that they chose the right guy. That’s how I see it,” he added.
Once preseason games get underway, the Rangers are going to like what they see in Zibanejad. He is super-motivated to be a success in his new surroundings and has the talent to blossom into a high-performing center on both ends of the ice.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey