New York Rangers: Pressure mounts on Mika Zibanejad with Artemi Panarin out

Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /
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Mika Zibanejad is going to have to step up with Artemi Panarin out for the New York Rangers.

Although it feels like a distant memory, it was just one year ago when Mika Zibanejad was torching opposing defenses, scoring 41 times in 57 games. He led the NHL in goals per game with 0.72, finishing in front of goal-scoring machine Alexander Ovechkin. The Swedish center seemingly scored at will during the 2019-20 campaign, a trend that all would believe would carry over to this COVID-shortened year.

But here we are, 16 games into the New York Rangers season, and Zibanejad has two goals and two assists, for a meager four points in 2020-21. He has looked sluggish at best, failing to capitalize on his sporadic chances, looking like a shell of himself. In the Rangers’ last outing, a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals, Zibanejad finally got the monkey off his back with a game-sealing empty-net goal.

Both himself and Alexis Lafreniere ended long goal-droughts after getting bumped up to a line with Artemi Panarin, the Rangers’ best forward and player since his arrival to Broadway. As has been a pattern all year for the Blueshirts, once things seem to be trending in the right direction, something unforeseen happens and puts this team in a state of turmoil yet again.

Now the Rangers face their biggest hurdle of the season. Their superstar forward has taken a leave of absence from the team after a Russian media outlet reported allegations that he was involved in a Latvian incident in 2011 where he physically assaulted an 18-year-old girl. The source, Andrei Nazarov, is Panarin’s former KHL coach and a supporter of Putin, someone who the Russian-winger has outspokenly opposed.

That whole story has been widely reported and seems to be fictitious, but the bigger problem remains the safety of Panarin and his family who reside in Russia, thus provoking a leave. My colleague Andrew Steele-Davis has the full Panarin story here:

Artemi Panarin Taking Leave of Absence. light. Related Story

On the ice, the Rangers now have the task of filling the void left by their leading scorer in all major offensive categories. Finding a replacement for Panarin’s 18-points is a seemingly impossible challenge, especially when you look at the struggles that the Rangers endured during a two-game stint without the Hart Trophy finalist just a few days ago.

Mika Zibanejad (93)
Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Mika Zibanejad Shoulders The Burden in Artemi Panarin’s absence

The one man who the burden of this offensive responsibility falls on is undoubtedly Zibanejad. There was thought that his empty-net goal might spark something, especially if Head Coach David Quinn kept the trio of Panarin-Zibanejad-Lafreniere together. Now the question transitions from, “Will Panarin boost Zibanejad?” to “Will Zibanejad be able to fill Panarin’s shoes?”

In the midst of the worst slump of his Rangers’ tenure, Zibanejad will have to muster the confidence to break out massively during Panarin’s absence. When hot, Zibanejad has the ability to be a top-10 center in this league, a status the Rangers would be thrilled to have him reach again. Watching him last season was magical, and if there were a time this season for him to turn his stick into a magic wand again, now would be it.

If there is one thing that has kept the Rangers outside of the top four in the Mass Mutual East Division, it has been the non-existence of production from Zibanejad. Had he scored at his usual rate, the Blueshirts would not have lost the number of one-goal games that they have at this point in the season, giving them a similar record to the teams in front of them.

But now, Mika Zibanejad has the opportunity to right the ship and prove once again that he has what it takes to be the Rangers’ number one center of the future. Just a smidge of his absurd pace from 2019-20 would catapult this offense which has been lackluster this year. And with how David Quinn’s lines look without Panarin, a hot Zibanejad would jump-start Lafreniere, creating a much-needed trickle-down effect on the offense.

This is certainly a difficult position for Zibanejad to be placed in, especially in the midst of an epic struggle. With Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil out as well, the 6-foot-2 center will be forced to face top-pair defensemen, all without his typical supporting cast.

What Has To Change?

Mika Zibanejad has struggled to catch passes this year, bobbling pucks that he normally corrals in stride. He has been unable to create chances off the rush at the same clip as last season, primarily because he rarely enters the zone with the puck clean on his tape. To start scoring consistently, he will have to start catching passes cleanly and playing a lot more on the puck instead of off of it.

But perhaps the biggest thing that is going to have to change is Zibanejad’s luck factor. In 2019-20, he shot an absurd 19.7% en-route to 41 goals and had a career shooting percentage of 12.6%. Thus far in 2020-21, Zinanejad is shooting an abysmal 4.3%, well below both last season’s and his career totals.

Per Natural Stat Trick, Zibanejad leads the Rangers with an Individual Expected Goals of 5.53, yet he has only managed two on the season. His 47 shots are also a team-high, so saying he is snakebitten is statistically an understatement. I’m aware that many people are tired of the phrase, “He is due,” and would rather see him start to cash in right now.

dark. Next. Henrik Lundqvist back on the ice

But he is due, and for the New York Rangers to maintain some level of success while Artemi Panarin remains on leave, Mika Zibanejad will have to break out in a huge way and that starts this week against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday.