The Rangers have a Mika Zibanejad problem right now. His overtime winner last night hopefully opens the flood gates, but until we see it happen, we have to go on his body of worth this season. Suffice it to say, the Zibanejad problem has been there all year in different forms and with different linemates. Luckily there are easy fixes that a simple confidence boost should right the ship.
Perhaps the biggest concern with Zibanejad right now is that, aside from the lack of 5v5 production, the line simply isn’t generating any sustained offense. The Rangers have seen these issues before, mostly with the Ryan Strome/Artemi Panarin connection, where a top scoring line becomes one-and-done in the offensive zone. All due respect to Zibanejad, he’s not on a Panarin level, and that creates more visible issues this season.
To first fix the Zibanejad problem, we must identify what the actual issue is. Laziness/Effort isn’t the issue, and it appears neither is injury. So we can pivot to on-ice play. It’s tough to isolate Zibanejad on his own, so we look at the whole team while Zibanejad is on the ice. While there’s some educated guesswork in drawing conclusions, the one thing we can plainly see is far fewer changes in high danger areas.
Looking at the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 seasons, the Rangers generated far more chances in front and in the home plate area than they are this year with Zibanejad on the ice. That may be the whole Zibanejad problem, is the line not creating enough chances in front.
Without definitive player/puck tracking data, it’s almost impossible to determine why this is happening. It could be being too cute and not shooting from in front. It could be better defensive game planning from the opposition. But it could also be Zibanejad simply relying too much on that one-timer, making him easy to defend. Predictable in the NHL is easy to defend unless your prime Alex Ovechkin.
Is there an easy fix to the Zibanejad problem?
With social media and the unfortunate desire for instant solutions and black/white reasoning, people want to find that one definitive answer to the Zibanejad problem. Unfortunately one does not exist. It’s far more complicated.
First and foremost, some video review showing where his shots normally come from versus what he’s doing this year is critical. It’s safe to assume this is already happening, at least for this season. If it’s not being done already, then showing video from the last few seasons may help set his mind right.
The second is less on Chris Kreider and more on finding the right 1RW to play with them. If we are using just the current roster, it appears to be a choice between Blake Wheeler and Kaapo Kakko. We’ve covered this many times. While the offensive numbers aren’t what you’d expect from a top line, the Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko line was a significant net-positive that has the added benefit of sheltering Wheeler on the third line.
To put it another way: Blake Wheeler is not the answer. They may generate slightly more offense with Wheeler, but the defensive loss makes them a severe net negative on the ice. If Kakko underwhelms you, that’s fine and fair. Ideally the Zibanejad problem is solved with more offense without a significant sacrifice on defense.
A trade appears to be the only route
It does look like Peter Laviolette wants to keep Kakko with Will Cuylle and, for now, Jonny Brodzinski. So the Zibanejad problem isn’t going to get fixed with Kakko, even if all the numbers point to that line being better with Kakko. That’s fine, as the middle six is performing just fine and perhaps it’s best to let them cook and build more chemistry.
This leads us to the trade route to solve the Zibanejad problem. It’s where the Rangers are most likely headed. We can toss as many names as we want out there, and it’s all personal preference. If the Rangers want a two-way 1RW that is good in all three zones and can put up offensive numbers, Jordan Eberle is my preference.
What about Brett Berard?
I posed this solution on Twitter, where perhaps there is an in-house solution to the Zibanejad problem. It won’t be what many consider a sexy move, as it involves moving Kakko to that 1RW spot, even if the offensive results are less than ideal.
Wheeler on the third line could be fine, but given how slow Wheeler has looked, perhaps there is an opportunity for Brett Berard in Hartford. Berard leads the Wolf Pack in 5v5 points, plays a gritty style game, and is an on-ice pest. These are all things the Rangers need right now.
In this scenario, Berard would slot in at 3RW and Wheeler, who looks like he needs a rest, gets a few games off. With the Rangers in desperate need of a lot of Berard’s skill set on the ice, it can’t hurt to try. After all, why spend assets if there may be an internal solution to the Zibanejad problem, or at least to the first line problem.
It may not work. And that’s fine. The point of the games right now is to experiment, see what works, and see where some of the true roster holes may need to be addressed from outside the organization.
This is unlikely to happen, but it’s at least some outside the box thinking. But if you were looking for a one-shot answer to the Zibanejad problem, I’m sorry to disappoint. It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. For now, we need patience.