What Mika Zibanejad's Return Means for the Rangers

Getting the center back in the lineup before the roster freeze is huge for the Rangers, who sorely missed Zibanejad during his nine-game absence.

During his time on Broadway, Derick Brassard was everything a New York Rangers fan could have asked for. He played a reliable two-way game, was on ice for the important minutes, and most memorably, had a knack for scoring key goals in the playoffs.

Given that performance record, it was understandable that some fans were uneasy about trading him to the Ottawa Senators for Mika Zibanejad.

But ever since that trade, Zibanejad has proved himself to the Blueshirt faithful. And, even if some fans didn’t properly appreciate him, his nine-game absence with a concussion has shown his true worth.

Prior to his injury, the center was skating with on the first line with Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider; he was also a right-handed shot on the first power-play unit, a role in which he notched 11 of his 22 points this season. He’s already resumed those roles in his first games back, as confirmed by ShiftChart.

During his absence, that center role was primarily filled by David Desharnais. With no disrespect to the veteran Canadian, he’s not your ideal first-line center. While their even-strength Corsi numbers are similar over the last five seasons, the difference emerges in their offensive numbers; while a two-way game is valuable, a top line’s pivot should be driving the bus offensively more than anything else.

Since 2013-14, Zibinejad has taken 817 individual five-on-five shots, compared to Desharnais’ 485, according to Corsica. The difference also manifests itself in Expected Goals, where the Swede is ahead by a margin of 0.72 per 60 minutes and 0.47 per 60 minutes at five-on-five.

Hockey isn’t played in a vacuum, though; you can see the offensive drag that a less skilled center took on the Kreider and Buchnevich. While there’s always the issue of sample size, Larry Brooks had the first line with Zibanejad posting a 55.7 Corsi For in 171:31 minutes; the first line with Desharnais came in at 41.4 Corsi For in 88:10 minutes.

Given the fragility of the Rangers -- they’re still floating near the playoff bubble and will likely remain there for the rest of the year -- it’s essential to keep their top guns firing on all cylinders.

Coach Alain Vigneault finally trusted Buchnevich with first-line minutes and has been rewarded; the young Russian has 1.85 primary points, 17.13 Individual Corsi For, and 0.88 Individual Expected Goals For per 60 minutes at five-on-five this season. Kreider’s numbers are a bit less clear -- his possession and point rates have dropped off this year, while his shots and Expected Goals have remained consistent -- but his size and speed undeniably helped Zibanejad and Buchnevich earlier in the season.

There will also be a similar ripple effect down the lineup; recent NHL seasons have shown how important a productive bottom six can be, and players like Desharnais can be perfectly reliable in that capacity.

Both on paper and on the ice, the Rangers continue to be a strange team to figure out. Their roster has plenty of skilled players, but they always seems to have a few inclusions that make you scratch your head. Henrik Lundqvist can look like his old self one night, only to get torched (often through no fault of his own) the next. Vigneault continues to move up the all-time wins list, but he keeps trotting out suboptimal defense pairs.

But, despite all that, they’re a wild card team in the East with only two points less than the third-place Columbus Blue Jackets. On their night, the Rangers can still play with just about anyone, and having Mika Zibanejad back on the ice will help make sure it’s their night more often.