NEWARK — Doubt. It can creep in like a vine and tangle the minds of the best of players.
With expectations high this season, Mika Zibanejad admits he has to shear those vines of doubt, learn about bouncing back from struggles, more so mentally than physically. Getting to that mind-set, to a good place, is as important to the 24-year-old center as it is to the Rangers.
Acquired last summer when Derick Brassard was sent to Ottawa, Zibanejad, 24, avoided arbitration in July, agreeing to an 11th-hour, five-year, $26.75-million contract, with an annual salary cap charge of $5.35 million.
With the new deal — and the assignment to fill the skates of Derek Stepan (traded to Arizona) on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations — the bar is high. In his last season in Ottawa, he scored 21 goals and 51 points, numbers very similar to Stepan, who averaged 54 points in his last three seasons with the Blueshirts. His first season with the Rangers imploded, courtesy of a broken leg.
“He understands the pressure and the accountability that comes with that,” coach Alain Vig neault said. “We expect a lot from him, no doubt. The organization went out and gave that young man a five-year deal, so we’re showing him confidence; in return, we expect performance and results from his end.”
Zibanejad, who sat out the first three preseason games with a flu, expected to be a little rusty as he made his preseason debut Saturday night against the Devils. At one point in the 2-1 loss, Zibanejad, held without a point, slammed his stick on the bench door after an ugly power play.
The struggle for the Swedish-born Zibanejad, a thoughtful player who also spent three years as a second-line center in Ottawa, is being unable to quickly forget a setback, like a scoring slump. It’s a situation to which he readily admits, and has been working to correct.
Last season, all the arrows were pointing up for Zibanejad, with 10 points in 19 games, until Nov. 20. Just 41 seconds into overtime against the Florida Panthers at the Garden, he slid and broke his leg crashing into the end boards. He was sidelined almost two months. He returned Jan. 17, and the doubt returned, too.
“I think it took longer than I expected it would take [to forget about the injury],” he said. “They kind of warned me about that, it’s going to kind of linger around.”
Zibanejad scored just nine goals and 13 points in the next 37 games, but had a team-leading nine in the playoffs. Although the Blueshirts were eliminated by the Sens, he had rebounded.
But Zibanejad knew that he had to confront his issues during the summer. He spent time with a sports psychologist whom he called “a shrink guy” and spoke with teammates, including Zuccarello. “I know what the problem is . . . it’s just a mind-set and having a little bit of discussion with the people close to me,” he said. “I think it’s just — not a confidence thing — but if something doesn’t go my way right away that I just keep sticking to it.”