There’s been no question how much Mika Zibanejad’s all-around play and leadership have meant to the Rangers over the last three seasons. But while the 27-year-old Swede struggles to put points on the board early in this season, have things gotten so bad that coach David Quinn would actually consider dropping his No. 1 center in the lineup?
In a word, yes.
"That's something we would do, and he and I talked about that yesterday,’’ Quinn said before the Rangers hosted the East Division-leading Boston Bruins on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. "I mean, he certainly has given himself an opportunity to play through some stretches of -- that maybe he's not on the top of his game. But at some point in time, those opportunities, and that credit's going to run out.’’
Quinn has been careful to highlight all the good things Zibanejad has done and continues to do for the Rangers. Even on Wednesday morning, the coach said the concern over Zibanejad’s scoring drought has been somewhat "overblown.’’ Ultimately, Zibanejad will revert to being the player he is, he said.
"I do think he, without question, will get to where we’re all accustomed to seeing him play,’’ Quinn said.
Part of the concern stems from how high Zibanejad has raised expectations for himself over the last two years.
"He's become one of the top players in this league,’’ Quinn said. "He's a true number one centerman. And I think when people watch him, they always compare him to that. And, you know, he and I talked about that yesterday. That's just the reality of the situation.’’
Quinn pointed out that Zibanejad had COVID-19 and missed just about all of training camp, and said every game there are more and more signs that he is playing better and about to come out of his funk. It’s just a matter of time until he does, the coach said.
But the numbers are what they are. Zibanejad, who scored 41 goals in 57 games last season, entered Wednesday with one in 11 games this season, and two assists. His only point in the last eight games was an assist on Pavel Buchnevich’s empty net goal last Thursday in the 4-2 win over Washington.
After Monday’s 2-0 loss to the Islanders, Quinn said Zibanejad’s frustration was evident. Zibanejad himself admitted he was having a hard time.
"It's frustrating, but I’m just trying to work through it,’’ he said. "It's not going to be perfect for a whole season for your whole career. So, this is just another challenge, another tough situation. You have to overcome it. You do that by working hard.’’
Clearly, Zibanejad does so much more than score goals and create goals for others – he is the No. 1 penalty-killing forward (usually pairing with Buchnevich), and on Monday he won 11 of 13 faceoffs against the Islanders.
But dropping him to the second line – and elevating the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Kaapo Kakko unit to the first line – may make some sense if it can get Zibanejad and his linemates, Buchnevich and Chris Kreider, away from other teams’ No. 1 defense pairs.
Quinn was asked Wednesday about the possibility of putting Zibanejad on a line with Panarin, who leads the team in scoring, with five goals and 10 assists (15 points). It’s something the coach sometimes does in late-game situations when the Rangers are down a goal and desperate to generate offense.
"Before [Monday] we got seven out of eight points and things were going pretty well, so you don't overreact to one loss,’’ he said. "That's certainly something we've done throughout the games, from time to time and that's something that's always on the table and always an option for us.’’