For Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, the 2016-2017 season did not go according to plan.
Zibanejad missed 25 games with a broken fibula suffered on November 20th and Buchnevich was removed from the lineup to undergo a midseason strengthening plan devised by the Rangers coaching staff.
But despite their lengthy absences, both players exhibited early signs of what they can bring to the table. Zibanejad was New York’s most dominant forward in the preseason other than Chris Kreider and quickly demonstrated the creativity and two-way play that attracted the Rangers to him this summer.
Buchnevich took a bit longer to flash as he adapted to the North American game, but he racked up goals in four straight games before going on the shelf.
Since their returns in January, Zibanejad and Buchnevich have had mixed results. Zibanejad has assimilated back into the lineup more easily and has really been coming on of late, but he’s disappeared for long stretches. Meanwhile, Buchnevich has been in and out of the lineup – at times benched in favor of Tanner Glass and Matt Puempel.
And yet, despite what’s been something of a lost year for both, Zibanejad and Buchnevich have cemented their status as Blueshirts building blocks.
The acquisition of Zibanejad and a second-round pick for Derick Brassard looks like more of a coup with each passing week. Even despite the missed time, Zibanejad has just four fewer points than Brassard.
Being five-and-a-half years Brassard’s junior is the icing on the cake. Now the challenge for the Rangers is to ink Zibanejad to a long-term contract as a restricted free agent this summer when his value isn’t quite as high as expected – and reap the rewards later.
For Buchnevich, the learning curve is clearly going to be steeper. Judging by the paths of similar young projects in the past like Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes, it might not even be next season that Buchnevich really breaks out.
But his supreme skill and playmaking ability has been awe-inspiring even with so much development still to come. A top-six role in the future seems assured, with the potential for much more.
Along with Kreider, Hayes and Miller, these two will be the foundation for the future in New York. With Rick Nash set to be a free agent after next season, expansion looming in June and the potential to shed Derek Stepan’s salary, these five players will carry the torch forward in the immediate future.
So though neither player had the season that the Rangers hoped for, they’ve still been bright spots in the big picture.