Mika Zibanejad’s struggles are quickly becoming a big problem

To say Mika Zibanejad has had struggles this season would be an understatement. Coming off a pair of 70-point seasons, with last year being the best of his career, big things were expected from Zibanejad. It was unrealistic to expect him to repeat last year’s performance, but coming close to his 2018-2019 season wasn’t an unreasonable ask. As the Rangers 1C, his production and play drives the team. It hasn’t been there, and the Rangers are struggling.

It’s not just Zibanejad’s lack of production, it’s his entire game. He’s an absolute train wreck at even strength. He’s had flashes of what he’s been, but the overall game is just bad. Zibanejad has one game in the last eight where he was over a 50% expected-goals share. We can reason away the production, but the lack of an actual game is a problem.

Lingering COVID effects

The consensus is that Zibanejad is still having lingering effects of COVID-19, which held him out of training camp. It’s widely known that COVID doesn’t just go away in some people. It has lingering, long-term effects that may be impacting Zibanejad to this day.

The reason why we all hope it’s lingering –and hopefully not permanent– COVID effects is that Zibanejad legitimately fell off a cliff. He went from one of the top centers in the game with a lethal powerplay presence to…Brett Howden? How does that happen overnight?

We all look at Zibanejad’s flashes and hope he’s turning the corner. The assist and forecheck on Tuesday are two prime examples. But then, just like those flashes, Zibanejad disappears and looks lost.

But…What if it’s not?

This is by far the worst case scenario for the Rangers. What if Zibanejad isn’t just experiencing some lingering COVID effects? What if he really does just fall off a cliff and not recover?

The Rangers are banking, at least for now, on Zibanejad being the 1C of the present and the future. Continued struggles, both this season and next, put the Rangers in a precarious position. They have no center depth at all. And unfortunately for the Rangers, the best chance to address this is this offseason. Be it with a potential Jack Eichel trade or signing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Mika Zibanejad’s struggles are hopefully just a blip, but for a guy slated to get $9+ million on his next deal, this is a pretty big blip. This is also not something the Rangers expected to happen. They already had a difficult decision with his next contract, when Zibanejad will already be 29 and looking for a long term deal. Now with his struggles, it makes the decision that much more difficult.

Or does it make the decision that much easier?

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  • After this disastrous year, you just cannot sign him to a long term deal. Who knows if he will ever recover. While we are short on centers, I would not be opposed to shopping him at the deadline.

    • Nobody is taking on that salary unless they’re about to burn the team down and start from scratch.

  • Small sample size (20 games), no training camp, Covid (which appears to have been symptomatic) — he didn’t just fall off a cliff skill-wise in the last 10 months, not at his age. You don’t go from being a Top 5 Center in the NHL to a bottom 5 center unless some extraneous factor is involved. I watched him closely the other night, he couldn’t quite separate himself on his breakaway – very unlike Mika. Everything he does is slightly off, slightly slower. He has a hard time corralling pucks and his timing is just off.

    That said his play of late is improving, albeit slowly. I don’t think you pass judgment on him until the year is over. Is there a reason for concern? Yes. Passing judgment? No.

  • That’s the big question. He’s not an UFA until after next season so I think both sides will probably wait until next season to discuss contract. It would be a HUGE gamble for both player and team to sign a multi year deal based on this current season. If you’re the Rangers do you make a low ball offer-hoping you don’t insult him? If you’re Zibby do you take pennies on the dollar based on a poor year? Probably not. I don’t think you trade him, especially this year. What are you gonna get back? A bag of pucks? He loves NYR and NYR love Zibby. I think both sides wait it out and negotiate during next season. Not ideal, but it is what it is.

  • In some cases the Covid-19 virus has been shown to do lasting damage to the neurological system. Whether this is temporary, permanent or perhaps not a factor in Zibanejad remains a big question but right now what do the Rangers do?

  • I’ll state the obvious. Nobody is paying him 9m if he continues to play like this. That conversation is a long ways off. That said, even though we made it to bubble, it was short lived. 2weeks of skating wasn’t much. Funny how nobody is talking about Eichel having only 2 goals but everyone is willing to give up the farm and take on his 10m contract (me included) There’s a bunch of stars around the league struggling. It’s been an unusual year. Let’s see how it plays out over the next season.

    • Everything you said is on the money. It has been an unusual year, but if the big names do not start earning their contracts soon, there will be a lot of big names offered around this summer.

  • Had septic pneumonia a few years back. Not the same, but life threating as well. It took months before I was myself, and it’s not like one day you wake up one day and you are your self again. You know something is different. It kind of slowly wears off. Don’t believe anyone can help someone get out of the effect, it is a matter of time. Zibanejad is young, and he is in good shape otherwise, he should be more like himself in time. Wish him the best of luck.

  • I for one and getting tired of making excuses for Zibanejad. It is time for him to step up, or move him down to 3C where maybe he can generate some offense with Gauthier and Phil DG. Move Chytil into the 1C role and see how he performs. We need to know if he is ready, and there is no time like the present. LaFren is starting to learn the NHL game and Buch is showing his value – only Zibby is pulling down that first line. Time for a change!

    • No stamina eh? It’s still an excuse, or to put it another way it’s a circumstance … and in this case it’s a tangible reason for his performance, not some trumped up bullcrap we tell ourselves to feel better.

  • His game will improve whether it’s his health or the shape he’s in. He is slowly rounding into form. He’ll be a force over the last 20 games and we will get into the playoffs… and we will be the surprise of the league. No lottery pick this year.

  • Does anyone know if he has had sophisticated medical workups to understand the possible role of Covid?

    • As a hospital worker, I can tell you that covid is still a very mysterious virus that works in a million ways…very scary stuff. You have like 30 million infections in this country with possibly millions of different side effects….I will give you one example. My co-worker was infected last June……2020…Today still experiencing muscle aches and fatigue…….My advice to all here that post is to get the vaccine when available because the benefits outweigh the risks……I have been very fortunate not to contract the virus and now I am 6 weeks into my second shot………

    • I love her but I would NEVER trust her … oh wait, that’s literally what I would say about any character in Billions.

    • He’s still signed for next year. so unless he ends up having two very poor seasons that won’t happen.

  • Stats certainly are not there but after watching the games Ive never come away thinking he was doggin it or anything. He has had his chances thru his effort and skill they just have not gone his way. His first few games were ugly, especially on the powerplay where he was taking crazy bad angle shots and you could really see how off his timing was.
    I don’t know… me if he got a few lucky bounces and the opposing goalie did not make a great save or two the Zib dialogue is much different, but i guess you can say that about several people.
    IMO Buch, Zib, and Fox have been by far the best players on the team. Reluctantly I guess Kreider gets a mention but he is a ghost for to many games where even if he is not scoring at least he could dictate a game physically but disappears.

  • This is not normal at all with what’s going on with him. You don’t have 2 rock solid years as a top center and then just forget how to play hockey. I really think they should consider putting on COVID protocol and giving him some rest. He’s obviously trying to play through something and it’s not working. I think it’s 100% COVID related.

    You can see it when he plays. He’s whiffing on one-timers, he almost fell down on one the other day before it was even passed to him. Skating is slower. Missing breakaways. Everything with him just seems to have lost its zip. For all the fancy stats on here, has any player of his caliber completely fallen off the map like this before?

    I worry that with Chytil going down early, he felt pressure to play when he really needed more recovery time. I also worry the Dr’s cleared him to play though some lingering effects. We have to remember these NYR doctors cleared Henrik to play with a heart condition for years. Not that it was mistake necessarily, but for one set of dr’s to clear him and another set to recommend surgery is a pretty drastic difference of opinion…

    • “We have to remember these NYR doctors cleared Henrik to play with a heart condition for years.”

      As I recall that came from a statement made by the Caps’ GM, I’ve heard nothing else about it.

      Re: Mika specifically, the Doctors cleared him to play because he was over Covid, technically — they don’t make medical judgments on whether a player is out of condition, feeling a little lethargic, not thinking fast enough, has his timing off, etc. Those are calls that a coach and training staff need to make. I’m sure they realized he could be suffering from post-Covid affects and they’ll clear when they’ll clear. I guess the question was whether he needed to rest and shut everything down or get in shape/condition.

  • It is a possibility that Zib may never come back to the same level pre-covid. His best days may be behind him.

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