Mika Zibanejad has become a superstar player for the Rangers

Part 21 in a series analyzing the Rangers.

It was Oct. 13, 2016, the Rangers were at the Garden for the season-opener against the Islanders, and Mika Zibanejad was making his debut as a Blueshirt.

He’d been obtained that summer from Ottawa in exchange for Derick Brassard, the center who had been such an important part of Rangers teams that took it as far as they could, but had begun to fray. Big Game Brass went and Zibanejad, nearly six years younger, bigger and faster, came in his place.

Zibanejad, who had been considered an underachiever through four seasons with the Senators following his sixth-overall selection in 2011, was the first piece of what then was known as a retool-on-the-fly. Or maybe the retool expression was used the next season to explain the deal in which Derek Stepan was sent away for futures. I can’t remember. All I know is that no one in 2016 was talking about rebuilding.

So it was New York-New York that autumn night in 2016. The Rangers sent out the Kevin Hayes line to start, with J.T. Miller and Rick Nash on the wings. Stepan came next, staking between Jimmy Vesey and Mats Zuccarello.

And then, 1:32 into what became a 5-3 victory, there came Zibanejad — with Chris Kreider on his left and Pavel Buchnevich (making his NHL debut) on his right.

A line was born.

It took somewhat longer to recognize that a star was born that night, too.

It wasn’t overnight and no one should pretend that it was. It has been — what’s that word, again? — oh, right, a process that included false starts, injuries and setbacks. But the trajectory has unerringly pointed skyward. From 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games his first season as a Ranger, to 27 goals and 47 points the next, to 30 goals and 74 points the year after that, to … well …

To this explosion of noise, skill and production in which Zibanejad recorded 41 goals and 75 points in 57 games before the music stopped and pandemic put this season on hold and put an end to the questions of whether the Rangers had a legitimate elite first-line center capable of tangling night in and night out with the league’s big boys.

(The music, of course, not only did not literally stop, but the multifaceted and multitalented Zibanejad just a few days ago released his latest single, “By My Side.” Oddly, it does not appear to be an ode to Kreider and Buchnevich.)

If recency bias exists in this world, then Zibanejad went into this enforced hiatus as the world’s greatest hockey player. Maybe you don’t remember, but by the end, No. 93 was scoring goals when he wasn’t even trying to shoot. He’d scored 11 goals in the final six games, getting at least one in all them. He’d scored 17 goals in the final 13 games, getting at least one in 12. He’d scored 23 goals in 22 games following the bye and All-Star break. With 12 games to go on the schedule, he was taking aim at 50.

Zibanejad was both the NHL’s leading goal-scorer and leading point-producer beginning Jan. 31. He recorded 23 goals, Leon Draisaitl was next with 16, followed by Kevin Fiala and Sebastian Aho with 14. Zibanejad registered 36 points, Draisaitl was next with 33, followed by Nikita Kucherov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Artemi Panarin with 27.

It’s not only the goals or the points — it never is with a great player — but those traditional stats are never beside the point, either. You can tell me all about xGF as a tool for predicting the future, and I will conceptually accept that though I’m skeptical of the way in which it is measured, but when playing in the present, someone does need to score or set up the GD goals.

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Zibanejad’s 15 power-play goals were third in the NHL behind David Pastrnak (20) and Draisaitl (16), and he achieved that number while moving to various positions on the man-advantage after essentially ceding his previous off-wing, one-time spot at the left circle to Panarin. It was like giving up the corner office and getting a promotion.

He was on the power play, he was on the penalty kill, and he got 21:38 of ice time per, the most of any Rangers center since at least 1997-98, when the NHL began recording the stat. The last New York, N.Y., pivot to average at least 20:00? Wayne Gretzky, with 21:25 in 1997-98.

Seven centers have produced eight 40-goal seasons throughout franchise history, with Jean Ratelle the only one to do it twice, 46 in 1971-72 followed by 41 a year later. Mark Messier was the most recent, recording 47 goals in 1995-96.

Beyond that, only four other Blueshirts centers had ever repeated back-to-back 30 goal seasons, as has Zibanejad. They are, Phil Esposito, who did it four straight seasons beginning with 1976-77; Ratelle, who did it three straight seasons beginning with 1967-68 and then back-to-back as referenced above; Mark Messier in 1995-96 and 1996-97; and, Walt Poddubny, who did it in 1986-87 and 1987-88.

That is history. So was March 5 against the Capitals. Five goals. Five. Goals. If the final game of 1969-70 is the most memorable and greatest regular-season game in Rangers history, Zibanejad on March 5 produced arguably the most memorable and greatest individual regular-season performance in franchise history.

Five. Goals.

He came as the first piece of the retooling, did this eclectic, caring Swede. Four years later, he has emerged as the centerpiece of the surge back to playoff contention. Four years later, he has emerged as one of the NHL’s elite.

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