Rangers' Talented Young Center Has Not Been The Same Player Since Returning From Injury, And He Knows It

By Sean Hartnett
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Mika Zibanejad was acquired by the Rangers in the offseason to provide an offensive lift and because of the high energy he offers at both ends of the rink. The 23-year-old has all the mental and physical tools to become a dominant center in this league.

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Consistency is the only thing missing from his repertoire. Once Zibanejad gets a handle on how to maximize his impressive skill set, he’s going to be awfully difficult to contain. The 6-foot-2 Swede possesses silky hands, outstanding vision, a terrific combination of size and athleticism, a nose for scoring goals around the crease, a powerful one-timer and the intellect to be a difference-maker across 200 feet of ice.

Lately, however, things haven’t been coming naturally for Zibanejad. He has gone 12 games without a goal and has recorded six points in 13 games since returning following a 25-game layoff due to a broken left fibula. Zibanejad has to get back to playing on pure instinct. There’s a bit of hesitation that’s crept into his game.

“Sometimes I focus on too many things and try to be everywhere,” Zibanejad told WFAN.com. “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.”

Prior to the injury, Zibanejad’s craft and heavy shot from the off wing helped propel the Rangers’ power play to seventh overall in the NHL. He has yet to record a power play point in 13 games since returning. Including Thursday’s 4-2 defeat to the rival Islanders at Barclays Center, the Blueshirts have gone just 1-for-14 on the man advantage over the past five games.

“Obviously, you want to be able to score goals,” Zibanejad said. “That’s something I’m trying to work on, but not think about. It’s easy to be frustrated every shift, every game that goes. Right now, I’m not feeling my game is really where I want it to be. That’s different elements of my game, but also mentally, too.

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“Coming back from injury, being up-and-down, I’m trying to find my ways again like I had before I got injured,” he added. “I haven’t really got to that level yet, but I’m working towards it. I’ve just got to be patient, work and go from there.”

Through 32 games this season, Zibanejad has collected 21 points, including 14 assists. His 0.66 points per game is a shade higher than the 0.63 he posted last season for Ottawa. But there was a time when Zibanejad was really cooking, as he generated 15 points in his first 19 games with the Blueshirts.

His line, which also features Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, had an off night against the Isles. The trio couldn’t get much going despite spending a lot of time in the offensive zone.

“Right now, I don’t have a good answer for you on why it’s happening like this,” Zibanejad said. “It’s something I’m trying to work through. You want to be an offensive guy and help offensively with goals as well. That helps your confidence and do the plays that you’re supposed to. Right now, I don’t seem to make enough plays that I should.”

If Zibanejad can simplify his game and cut out the hesitation, the goals and assists will come. Dry spells are part of almost every talented young player’s progression toward greatness. Zibanejad has what it takes to be a real difference-maker for the Rangers if he lets his natural game take over.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey