By Sean Hartnett
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There has been a great debate of late over whether enigmatic Rangers center Mika Zibanejad will reach his full potential. The 24-year-old carries himself with a shy, soft-spoken demeanor and sometimes his game gets a little too passive.
If playing in Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system is akin to performing in a thrash metal band, Zibanejad sometimes shreds like a lead guitarist and other times he struggles to keep up while trying to play the right chords.
Back in February, while Zibanejad was midst of a 12-game goal drought, I asked him what he needed to do to return to top form. He said his problems start with overthinking.
“Sometimes I focus on too many things and try to be everywhere,” Zibanejad told WFAN.com at the time. “Then, some games I’m not doing anything. I feel like I’m overthinking and then I stop skating. My game is more impulsive. I just play and really go on my instinct. That’s not what I’m doing right now. So, that’s something I’ve got to go back to. I know I have it. It’s just getting a couple good games in and building off of that.”
The cold streak continued for three more games before Zibanejad showed off his flair for performing in the clutch, scoring the overtime winner against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 25.
Prior to the second round of the playoffs, Vigneault was asked about Zibanejad’s mentality. Part of the Rangers’ hope of channeling the best out of Zibanejad is sending him to sessions with a sports psychologist.
“Sometimes, players want to put a little bit too much pressure on themselves,” Vigneault said. “He’s in a good spot. He’s in a good place. He’s got to go out there and do what he did in the last four games against Montreal — just play. Make the plays, skate with the puck, have fun with it. If he does, he’s going to be fine.”
So far during the second-round series against the Ottawa Senators, the Rangers have seen the A-version of Zibanejad’s game. The 6-foot-2 center has recorded three assists. Through nine games this postseason, he has chipped in a goal and six helpers.
Zibanejad was a creative force during Game 3 on Tuesday, striking up flashy passing sequences with linemates Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider. Zibanejad registered an assist, took a game-high six shots, managed 10 shot attempts and recorded three hits in the Blueshirts’ 4-1 win. Most importantly, he kept his legs moving and he was mentally dialed-in.
“When I play on my instincts more than try to think out there (it) works better for me,” Zibanejad said. “I’m not as passive — something that has been brought up before. I think the battle level was good. I think I’m skating a lot more. That’s what I’m trying to (do) with my game there — and it seems to be working.”
The Rangers knew what they had in former center Derick Brassard when they sent him and a 2018 seventh-round draft pick to Ottawa for Zibanejad and a 2018 second-round pick on July 18, 2016. They knew that Brassard’s work habits were excellent and that he was addicted to studying game tape. They knew of his pedigree as a go-to playoff scorer, but they also knew that at age 29, his game had already peaked.
Brassard has continued the torrid playoff success that made him a fan favorite in New York, recording a two goals and six assists in nine games. But at the time of the trade the Rangers desired a more youthful center with the potential to be stronger, faster and more effective in the defensive end.
“The ability to get a younger player, to get a guy that’s fast, big, plays real well in his own zone, can do a lot of things for us, that’s the exciting piece,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said after completing the trade. “I think the potential is there for more upside. (Zibanejad) is just scratching the surface at age 23. There’s not a lot of guys that have done what he’s done as far as score 20 before that age. You look at the way the game’s played. You look at some of the things — he kills penalties, he’s really emerged on the draws. I think since he’s come in he’s gotten better every year.”
Ultimately, the success of the trade will depend on how well Zibanejad applies himself. The potential is there for him to surpass what Brassard offered during his three-and-a-half seasons in New York. Zibanejad can be tough to move off the puck, he’s got a powerful one-timer, possesses the creative spark to be a 40-assist man, and can be highly effective on both ends of the ice.
“We’re going to be sitting here in a couple of years probably saying, ‘He was a real good player’ or we’re going to say, ‘He never quite figured it out,’” Vigneault said of Zibanejad on Wednesday. “That’s part of him working at his game, working at his mental game, working with our sports psychologist trying to put it all together.
“There are a lot of players that have a tremendous amount of skill, but you always have to combine that with work ethic, the right attitude, and develop those skills,” he continued. “Often, it’s the off-ice skills that separate the good players from the really good players. I think Mika is starting to grasp that and, obviously, right now, there’s a lot of pressure. In the last little while, he has managed it well and he’s getting better.”
It’s all about the mental game and how well Zibanejad manages it. If he can focus on keeping the game simple and his legs moving, it should all click into place.
The Rangers might then have themselves a franchise center.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey