Rangers: Why this aging star player’s performance is crucial to the 2023-24 season

New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) skates against the San Jose Sharks during the second period at Madison Square Garden
Oct 20, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) skates against the San Jose Sharks during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers are a skilled team that believes they have the ability to make a strong push for the Stanley Cup. It’s been proven over the last few seasons that the Rangers do have the potential to make deep postseason runs, but there are certain players who must elevate their game in order to assist the team in this endeavor.

Mika Zibanejad has been one of the most productive forwards on the Rangers in recent years, but his performance will be more important than ever heading into the 2023-24 season.

A new face on the Rangers’ first line will need help breaking out

Many fans and analysts expect that Kaapo Kakko will be joining Zibanejad and Chris Kreider as the third member of the Rangers’ first line. Kakko has shown the most potential out of all the young stars on the Blueshirts, so this will give him an opportunity to break out and develop. Although his career has been somewhat underwhelming thus far, scoring only 98 points in 239 games, playing alongside Zibanejad in particular will be a big help in boosting his point totals.

Kakko’s strongest characteristic is his puck control abilities, continuously working his way around defenders and into the zone to gain offensive possession. His large size and strong stick movement is a rare trait on the Rangers, and Kakko has had very few chances to put his skills to use.

How Zibanejad will propel a Kakko breakout

Zibanejad has arguably the best shooting ability on the Blueshirts, finding open ice to score from without fail. A combination of Kakko entering the zone and feeding the puck to Zibanejad for the goal would be almost unstoppable.

Zibanejad’s ability to score will be essential for assisting Kakko in his breakout campaign. Kakko already looks like a fully developed NHL player, he just needs the points to prove it. A successful year from Zibanejad will likely boost Kakko’s totals as well, and critical fans may finally be shown that Kakko is indeed not a bust.

“Even since being traded to the Rangers, he has never played with as talented of a lineup as he will be during this upcoming campaign. Slotted on the first line between scoring phenom Kreider and budding talent Kaapo Kakko, Zibanejad’s support system is sure to feed him that powerful left-circle one-timer which has been compared to that of the great Alexander Ovechkin.”

via The Hockey Writers

The Rangers’ even-strength play needs as much help as it can get

Although the Rangers finished high in the league standings at the conclusion of the 2022-23 season, they managed to do it without scoring too many even-strength goals. This issue truly became apparent in the first round of the playoffs, where the Blueshirts struggled immensely to get anything past the New Jersey Devils. Heading into 2023-24, this problem must be eliminated as quickly as possible.

Zibanejad’s goal-scoring ability must begin to shine through during even-strength play. Last year he managed to find the back of the net 39 times, but only 19 of them came at 5v5. Having Zibanejad excel on the power play is excellent, but he must also expand his contributions to the main area of play.

With the Rangers losing both Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane to start the season, an abundance of the Rangers’ offensive scoring will fall on the shoulders of Zibanejad. An aging top six will soon begin to decrease in abilities, so the Rangers’ top center must do everything in his power to keep them on the score sheet.

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