TORONTO — When the Rangers traded Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad last summer, it was clearly an investment in the future of the 23-year-old center.
The deal paid off early in the season when Zibanejad was clicking on a line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, but things went south on Nov. 20 when he crashed legs first into the end boards against Florida, fracturing his left fibula. The injury sidelined him for 25 games, and since his return, Zibanejad has yet to find that early form.
To be sure, the Rangers need a rebound from Zibanejad, who scored twice in his return against Dallas on Jan. 17th; he had just five assists in the next 14 games.
“The last couple of games have been a little bit better, there’s been a little bit more confidence, in maybe his health,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “That’s a serious injury he was coming back from; you can work out all you want but you’ve got to get back in the groove and get feeling good about yourself. In the last little while here, he’s taken a step in the right direction, he’s competing harder on loose pucks, hanging on to the puck a little more and making better plays.”
In nine games in October, the former first-round draft pick in 2011 scored twice and added six assists, and it appeared that he was on pace to generate the numbers he had for the Senators in 2015-16: 21 goals and 51 points in 81 games. Not anymore. He as seven goals and 22 points with 22 games left, starting with Thursday’s matchup with the Maple Leafs.
Zibanejad won’t use the injury as an excuse, but admits he remains just a bit hesitant on passes and shots. The 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, he said, “was a good stepping stone, we went through some video from the games I played before I got hurt, to kind of see what I did well and see if I can get back to that.”
Against the Capitals on Sunday, Zibanejad’s faceoff win set up Mats Zuccarello’s winning goal, and he scored a power-play goal that was overturned on an offside challenge.
Nonetheless, the struggling power play, which is 1-for-18 in the last seven games, needs an infusion, perhaps from Michael Grabner, but Vigneault doesn’t like to use penalty killers on the power play, although Derek Stepan and Rick Nash are exceptions. Or give Brandon Pirri, a healthy scratch for nine games, another look.
In the 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens on Tuesday, Zibanejad had one shot in 17:41, including 4:32 with the man-advantage, and was stopped by Carey Price on his shootout attempt.
The hope is that Zibanejad, a restricted free agent in June, will rediscover his game soon. In the playoffs, he’ll be needed: He had a goal and three assists in six games for the Senators, who lost to the Canadiens in the first round of the 2015 postseason.